Issue: Gentrification in urban cities.
Why? Communities of color and poor residents displaced, community businesses driven out.
Action: Youth-led coalitions work to protect housing rights and cultural preservation.
When it comes to finding a place to live, many young adults literally can't afford to be choosy. With soaring rental rates, many simply move to the closest neighborhood within their given price range. Or, perhaps, they have labored over the decision and painstakingly selected the perfect neighborhood for them, taking pride in its diversity and "unique character."
Whatever the intention, the results are pretty much the same. By their mere presence, these young adults could unwittingly be contributing to the eventual displacement of many of their new neighbors.
Although the term was coined more than 40 years ago to describe the influx of middle class residents and the accompanying displacement of working class residents in various neighborhoods throughout London, gentrification continues to reach deeper and deeper into the neighborhoods of cities across this country, pushing working class residents further and further from urban centers nationwide.
"Gentrification is not only about race, but it frequently is," explains Michele Thomas, a community organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington State, which is working on an anti-gentrification campaign in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle. "It happens by design. A lot of people think that it's inevitable, but that's really not true."
(below right: library construction in Rainier Valley neighborhood)
After the epic gentrification of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City, the model for gentrification has become relatively formulaic, and its initial symptoms easily recognizable to the trained eye. Its telltale signs include an initial wave of mostly white residents consisting of a combination of low-income artists, queer folks, hippies and hipsters moving into a given neighborhood, where they begin setting up their own businesses and cultural communities.
As a result, the neighborhood develops a reputation for being "hip" and "up and coming," drawing other more financially stable folks who now feel "comfortable" in neighborhoods they would have never considered entering before. The property demand goes up, and rents significantly increase, forcing the neighborhood's long-term and historical residents to find homes elsewhere.
But why should young adults care? Our initial housing situations are, after all, most likely only a stepping stone to other things -- a place to hang our hat until we graduate from college or get that new job or promotion we're working toward -- or perhaps a bold experience of youth to fondly reflect on when we're older and more financially comfortable.
Besides, we didn't create the system, how could we even begin to take responsibility for what we leave in our collective wake?
"It's important for people, especially white folks, to recognize and examine those privileges that they have and hold themselves accountable to the broader community," explains Thomas. "It's good to ask a lot of questions and question your own assumptions about the way things should happen and the way people should act."
When Makis Antzoulatos and his friends in the Bushwick and Williamsburg neighborhoods of Brooklyn started noticing young white adults like themselves getting off the subway train further and further down the line and deeper into historically marginalized communities, they began to ask themselves the same sort of questions. They created a group, Gentrifiers Against Gentrification (GAG), to start looking for some answers.
(below right: lofts in Crown Heights, Brooklyn)
"The idea was that we're in New York because this is where we're going to live, and we live in this neighborhood because we can't afford to live anywhere else. We were clearly not members of the community in any meaningful sense of the word, but we had this idea that, if we started this organization, we could reach out to other organizations and do some meaningful work," says Antzoulatos. "It was essentially for people who were at a loss as to what the next step was and wanted to figure it out together."
Talking to the affected community was the first step. The group surveyed residents regarding a proposal to increase police presence, attended community board meetings and held a benefit party to raise money for a woman in the neighborhood whose son had been shot by police. Individually, members became involved in workers' strikes and took part in running an ESL program at a local community center.
"We had no idea what was going on in our neighborhoods in a lot of ways," says Antzoulatos of the time. "Being a young transient college-age person, you don't interact in a way with your community because you don't have kids, so you don't have to go to school meetings. You don't work with the people you live around, so you don't talk to them there. You don't go to the same bars or, if you do, you sit in a different corner of the bar."
But some students at Columbia University don't think this has to be the case. The Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification (SCEG) has worked with local community organizations such as Coalition to Preserve Community to directly challenge their own institution's plan to "expand" the university into parts of West Harlem. These students believe that as many as 3,293 residents will face displacement as a result of the university's actions by the year 2030 and are working to "counter the university's glossy-photo-filled, politically correct press statements on why their plan is the best thing since sliced bread and educate students on the real effects of the expansion, which includes loss of affordable housing, local businesses and an artist culture."
"We're not just going to be able to get off at three subway stops instead of just one, but there are real people with real stories who are going to be traumatically affected by these events," says Jamie Chen, one of the group's members.
Frustrated by the university's "Manhattanville Open Houses" that they felt were "hopelessly unhelpful in illuminating community needs and concerns," SCEG staged a "West Harlem Open House" outside of campus and invited its own speakers to reflect on the needs and concerns of the community.
"This is an odd place for us, because we stand to benefit from the expansion, and also we ourselves, as eventual university graduates, quite possibly are or will become a force of gentrification," acknowledges Chen.
(below right: historical cultural and ethnic communities are often displaced)
Antzoulatos also acknowledges this tension and encourages students to think critically about their unique position within the system.
"What's difficult to admit is that no matter how broke you are and how well-meaning you are, your presence makes that neighborhood safe for other gentrifiers," says Antzoulatos. "One of the problems is that a lot of young white college students think they're broke, but they don't realize that that's significantly different than being poor -- just because you don't have money in your pocket doesn't mean that you're not wealthy in other ways."
Although GAG disbanded within its first two years, many of its members went on to be actively engaged in the issue as individuals. Antzoulatos (who now lives in Boston) admits that the group itself had some inherent flaws and that his tactics have changed some since then.
"It's hard to practice the dismantling of racism if you're only challenged by people who have the same life experiences as you," he offers in response to the insular nature of the group. Instead, he suggests getting involved with organizations that are led and run by those affected by the issue at hand.
His definition of anti-gentrification work has also expanded to include issues such as predatory lending, police brutality, educational policies and the capitalist system itself. "If you're smart enough to realize that it's a problem, then you have to be responsible enough to do the kind of work that fights those forces."
Chen couldn't agree more.
"Young people have to realize that ours is a flawed inheritance as we set about to build the kind of world we believe is good," she says. "If we expect a beautiful future, we've got to participate in the struggle to bring ourselves there."
For more information:
Policy Link is a national research and action institute focusing on equitable development.
Flag Wars is a documentary on gentrification in Columbus, Ohio.
Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions is an international human rights perspective on housing and displacement (be sure to check out the report on displacement as a result of Olympic Games).
Laura Hadden is a writer, documentary filmmaker and student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Previously, she has edited a quarterly feminist magazine, blogged for Young People For, and coordinated a documentary on the lives of families facing welfare sanctions in Washington state. She is currently working on a video documentary about the struggles for gender equality waged by religious sisters within the Catholic Church. She can be reached at laura.hadden AT gmail DOT com.