Urban Spaces and Open Places

Gentrification in the City and Our Role Within It

Last week I found myself having coffee at a vegan cafe in downtown Kansas City, discussing gentrification with an elderly local muralist from Bogota named Javier.

Gentrification in the most basic terms is when wealthy people move into an urban and generally impoverished space, changing the city culture around them with their move. In particular, gentrification raises rent and property prices so that the original community members are unable to continue to pay rent and are forced to leave their original community. For most of the 20th century, people with enough money to leave the inner city moved to the suburbs. Around the 1970s though, city living was reclaimed by artists and the highly educated, creating waves of gentrification rippling throughout the cities of America.

Gentrification is generally acknowledged as a bad thing, yet we can’t seem to figure out how to stop doing it. Or, we can’t find a good enough reason why we should stop doing it. You would think that the displacement of whole communities in the city would be reason for real estate and corporations to be more thoughtful, but as we all know the focus is rarely on the people affected, and almost always on the money to be made.

And for the people who are able to continue paying rent in the gentrified area, things aren’t so bad. There is generally less crime (because there is less poverty) and there is more job access (because more corporations move in) and more investment in community buildings (because wealthy people live there now, so this part of the city is worth caring about again). However nice this new part of the city is, it’s not nice because you helped eliminate poverty — you just helped move poverty to another area so you don’t have to look at it.

How do you stop gentrification? Javier says you have to begin investing in the communities that are already there, instead of pushing them out. And if those communities are successful, they have to want to stay in the area instead continuing to associate moving to the suburbs as a marker of “success.”

Javier explains how gentrification has affected Kansas City (Kansas) over the years. Back in the 19th century, Slavic immigrants moved into the inner city and claimed it as their own. Then, when the inner city began thriving, the families who had made money with the city moved out. The inner city was dead for many years after that exodus, but now it is beginning to move and shake again as Latinx immigrants are claiming the inner city. Unfortunately, as they succeed with businesses and make money, they are beginning to move out to the suburbs as well.

Why do people leave the communities that they help build? Our American ideal of the suburban life is pervasive: big front lawns, shopping malls, better schools, “safer” neighborhoods. Until Americans stop placing isolated suburban sprawl as the goal, this cycle of gentrification will continue.

The people who should really be held accountable for this are the landlords who buy up houses in poor areas, and let the houses sit empty until the neighborhood values go up. This is not helping the community to thrive, it is only helping the landlord. And it is playing a part in paving the way for gentrification.

Do I have a role in this gentrification process, as a college educated white person living in poor neighborhoods because of the cheap rent? Am I the face of gentrification? Am I only helping this cycle to continue as I move around from neighborhood to neighborhood in cities?

I ask Javier. He doesn’t answer me directly — maybe he doesn’t have an answer. Or maybe he is leaving it up to me to do the work and figure it out for myself.

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