Moving against gentrification: Here are your action items

Moving against gentrification: Here are your action items
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You went to the community meeting last week, and a woman there dropped the G-bomb. She walked it back before she said it, qualified it a little. She issued a pre-emptive apology. She twitched, and finally said: “I’m sorry, but what we’re dealing with is” – and then softly, to protect the fragile people in the room – “Gentrification.”  

She tried to be nice, but she spoke the truth. What is happening in west Charlotte is gentrification (which might best called “serial displacement”). Anyone willing to look knows it is going on. The people who are most vulnerable to its deleterious effects are able to see it clearly.

They’ve been denied the political, social, and financial power to change it, but they have a clarity of vision for how that power is being used in inequitable ways. For those folks, gentrification is not an “issue” – it is a matter of survival. Its impact is a well-known and predictable pattern, and it will not go well for some people, many of them in the same families devastated by Urban Renewal in the 1960s.

Here in West Charlotte, we get it. A bunch of y’all are now seeing the advantages of our close-in neighborhoods. Great architecture. Shorter commutes. Walkable destinations. Character. If you are thinking about moving, or you already did, you’ll need to consider a group of folks who already see those advantages: the people who have lived here for years and years.

Many of those folks helped create the character of these spaces. They did so while facing oppressions of economic, political, social, and policy means that made every step forward a challenge. The neighborhood you are considering is full of folks who have been doing exemplary work of building neighborhood and community for decades on end – usually with their own labor and money and without press releases or vision statements.

We can solve the policy and systemic issues that make gentrification possible, but not immediately. In the meantime, systems are inhabited by people, namely all of us, who have the ability to choose how to work within them. Which is to say that you do not always get to choose your neighbors, but you do get to choose what kind of neighbor you will be.

There are practices of neighborliness that can help bridge the racial and economic divides that are probably being revealed on your new block. Here are a few simple moves you can make to help find your way among your new neighbors:

  • Stop worrying about your property values. You’ve been told that owning real estate is your greatest investment. But the idea that land and houses are commodities for trading is part of the root issue that makes gentrification so damaging. So stop believing the lie. Quit worrying about your house’s value, which is largely out of your control anyway. Value the quality of the soil instead. Dig your hands in it. Smell it. Press it to your cheeks and get it under your fingernails. Is it alive? Can it a grow a tomato you won’t be ashamed to share with your neighbor? Call that profit, and build your life around it.
  • Send your kids to nearby public schools. Yes, we know, your kids deserve only the very best. You know who else’s children deserve only the very best? Everybody else’s. Kids are always learning, both in and out of school. Every morning as you drive your children by the kids waiting for the public school bus while taking them elsewhere to get educated, you’ll be reinforcing the divisions that your kids see and are aware of. Teach them to be a part of the solution by using their bodies and their minds. We’re only going to create the places – and the schools – we dream of by working together, and we’ll only work well in places where we are fully invested.

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  • Save 911 calls for actual crises. The following things are not a crisis: your neighbors arguing on their porch; a person sitting in a car; black teens walking down the street; black teens wearing hoodies; black teens walking down the street wearing hoodies; loud music; people congregating on a corner or a stoop. All of those scenarios are proof that you are not revitalizing your neighborhood. There are already real people there, people with healthy vital signs. They are alive and doing the things that people do. And though you may not understand it, the presence of police can have life-altering effects on your neighbors, especially people of color, ranging from humiliation, to needless arrest and the destruction of economic opportunity that accompanies it, to violence or death. If there is a real crisis, by all means call 911. But if you find yourself scared by normal human behavior, then call your therapist, pastor, mom, spouse, or friend to help you deal with your own stuff. Save the calls for backup for when they are really needed.
  • Leave code enforcement out of it. Code enforcement can be helpful for dealing with absentee landlords, especially the ones that deaden blocks by boarding up houses for years on end. It is not for bullying your neighbors into making changes to their houses or trying to force them into a sale. Is your neighbor struggling to keep up with maintenance? Offer a work exchange. You fix her windows and screens, and she teaches you how to can tomatoes. You help him paint his house, and he helps you waterproof your basement. In other words, be a neighbor. 
  • Know the history. What’s the story of your neighborhood? How did it come to be the way it is today? Where did its name come from? Read Tom Hanchett’s excellent book, Sorting Out the New South City. Understand how your new neighborhood became disinvested, and who paid the price for that disinvestment. Study the power systems that allowed those conditions to come about, and consider how those systems are still active today. Sit on the porches of the older neighborhood activists who have been doing the work for decades, and listen to their stories.
  • Don’t take over the neighborhood association. Support your long-time neighbors who are leading. Put their voices at the center. Be sure that renters are fully a part of the group, not just homeowners.
  • Use your front porch. Neighborliness is actually fun, and the porch is where the party starts.
  • Ride the bus. You ain’t too good for the bus. Plus, it will help you learn your community and the characters who occupy it from a new point of view.

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  • Support neighborhood businesses. “You gotta keep the money moving.” Buy from nearby merchants. Pay your neighbor to do your landscaping. Figure out how to barter. Good neighborhood economies help to make connections, and connections make better neighborhoods.

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  • Don’t price your neighbors out. Starting a business? Relocating one? The best way to alienate your new neighbors, especially those who live on the economic margins, is to create spaces that are too expensive for them to be part of. If your brewpub charges $5 and up for every pint, you are reinforcing the chasm that exists in your gentrifying neighborhood, not helping to create connections. The same principle applies for every good and service. We all love a small batch, boutique, hand crafted, artisanal collection of specially curated goods, but those goods come at a high social and cultural cost. Don’t make other people always bear that cost. 
  • Fight for affordable housing. Displacement has a steep price for the poor. Be a good neighbor by fighting in city hall, at the county commission, at the state legislature, in developer’s offices, and at community meetings for more affordability in your neighborhood. Otherwise the economic diversity you cherish in your new neighborhood will last a couple more years, and it will be gone. The character you are moving here for is first about people, not bricks and mortar. Make those people who are most susceptible to displacement a top priority.

These practices of neighborliness will not substitute for just housing policies, but they will help build strong connections in neighborhoods undergoing lots of change. There is room enough for all of us to live in flourishing, robust communities full of good tomatoes, thriving children, and deep connectedness. 

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