7 Tips for Gentrifying

After ten years of living and working in East Austin, the seismic shift resulting from gentrification is unmistakable. With new homes and businesses, gentrification changed the cultural landscape of East Austin for the foreseeable future. Gentrification is a highly controversially phenomenon affecting many urban (i.e., Black and Latin@) communities throughout the country. Economic and societal forces push out working class families and communities in favor of middle and higher income people.

With everything that I knew about the ills of gentrification, I relocated to East Austin, a collection of neighborhoods historically relegated to African and Latino American people. Primarily, I wanted to be around a culturally and linguistically diverse community with the food, sounds, flavors, and traditions that I had become accustomed to enjoying. As a new resident to Austin, I also had to admit that I gained from gentrification despite my high-minded considerations.

Gentrification is a force to be reckoned with if the community is to thrive and foster the kind of mutual respect and dignity necessary for the community to succeed. To reconcile conflicting values related to gentrification, it has been important to accept that I contributed to it whether I liked it or not. Additionally, my privileges could benefit long-time and new residents. Since relocating, some benefits included my kids attending neighborhood schools, volunteering at community activities, supporting neighborhood small businesses, engaging my neighbors, and building relationships across race and class.

Here are a few of the problems legacy and new residents complained about regularly: a) late night (12 to 4 AM) parties (i.e., the infamous Barfhaus), b) disinterested and rude hipster transients walking from bar to music venues, c) trash from those leaving cans and bottles of empty and half consumed organically brewed beer and kombucha , and d) people who blocked my driveway to pick up pizza or attend a rock band on the corner.

It seems appropriate to offer some suggestions for making your gentrifying experience go more smoothly. It is not an exhaustive list; however, hopefully, it may generate conversations about how to create community and engage in those crucial conversations.

  1. Voluntarily Engage Your Neighbors — Any conversation on this topic usually starts with me complaining about why White people ignore or avoid engaging with me when I’m working in my yard, gardening, or sitting on my porch. White people consistently act and appear disinterested in responding after I greet them with a friendly, “Hello.” It is not necessarily always racism. Cultural difference may provide another perspective on the problem. In many African American communities, an unspoken rule is to speak or greet one another even if they are a stranger. It may benefit many transients and newcomer gentrifying people, alike, to connect with their neighbors by initiating (better option) or responding to people. Neighbors are not just people who share a common comfort zone. They include people throughout the neighborhood where people eat, recreate, and entertain. If a gentrifier, it would benefit the community to initiate the contact, build relationships, and mitigate future conflict.
  2. Announce Parties — People host and attend parties all the time in my neighborhood. The revelry ignites an energy and excitement that brings people together. However, a few former and current neighbors have made it a practice to have parties until the crack of dawn. In every case where a neighbor, business, or family, announced in person or left a note about an upcoming party, it mutually benefited everyone. When and if we experienced a problem, we knew exactly who to deal with for a noise complaint or other problem before calling the police. Although I would be highly agitated dealing with rude and obnoxious transients parading through my neighborhood, I had greater confidence in resolving any conflicts when I already had a relationship or contact to manage the dispute effectively. On more than one occasion, a neighbor or business contact would intervene before serving a bucket full of whoop ass to deal with incredulous people unwilling to remove their car blocking my driveway. Relationships matter. Building on the connections with people in your neighborhood is beneficial if gone about properly.
  3. Network & Get Connected — Many people participate in a neighborhood association, crime watch, and school programs to partner with community members. These communities can be in person or online. Nextdoor is a free, private online social network platform for neighborhood communities. Many announcements, community events, lost pets, problems with crime, and other issues are discussed through these online or in person forums. Some people do not like them. It is important to pick a level of involvement that is comfortable for you.
  4. Manage Your Yard — Please do not mistake this as a ploy for launching a Draconian neighborhood association with club house rental fees, membership dues, and authoritarian rules for keeping your yard properly manicured. Rather, any neighborhood tends to have unspoken rules about keeping a property looking good. Peer pressure can be difficult to manage. So, it should not be your only gauge of the required decorum. Regular upkeep can do wonders by bringing people out into their yards and encourage people to chat when working. The broken windows theory also would posit that maintaining and monitoring your property contributes to lowering crime and vandalism. If you want people to respect your neighborhood, it helps to manage your property and offer help to the elderly and others who may have difficulty with it. Calling the city to board up abandoned homes may be another option to dissuade criminals, drug abusers, and vagrants from setting up shop.
  5. Support Neighborhood Small Businesses — There are a dynamic group of entrepreneurs including family owned and operated businesses in my neighborhood. Sometimes the cost is a bit higher than I would like to pay. However, financial support of small businesses promotes community engagement. In contrast, neighborhoods with a high density of liquor stores generally have more problems with crime, violence, and substance abuse. I spend my money with restaurants and shops because without their presence they would likely be replaced with fast food restaurants, pawn shops, and liquor stores, which are already in abundance. Diversity of businesses are as critical as having a diversity of incomes living side-by-side if we want to enjoy the fruits of our combined efforts to build community.
  6. Be Kid Friendly — From my experience, one of the problems of gentrification is how businesses and high-density residences cater solely to single adults or families without children. Many of the luxury condos erected in my neighborhood are far outside the range of what many middle and working class families can afford. Some restaurants do not respond to the needs of families with children. They do not provide a kids menu or purposely create an atmosphere where parents have difficulty accommodating their children comfortably. To build a vibrant and long lasting community, accommodating families with children benefits all to allow each of us to enjoy food in our neighborhood instead of having to travel miles away to a cookie cutter style fast food pit.
  7. Respect the Elderly — Conflicts around race and class are big issues. Another closely related group involves the elderly. Rich with historical information, many of the elderly in our communities are the ones ignored, pushed out, and abused. It is exciting to invite young(er), talented, and enthusiastic people into a neighborhood to revitalize and invigorate a community. During the elections of President Barack Obama, hardworking people from diverse cultural backgrounds helped spread the word, create networks, and invite people to come out and vote. As an example of what youth and vitality can bring to a community, so can the same energy be brought to how we deal with senior members of our community. For five years, an elderly sister and brother pair lived next to me in an old, dilapidated home built in the 1930s or 1940s. Most mornings, I talked or at least greeted my elderly neighbors. On a few occasions, I cut their lawn to help out. Although their niece cared for most of their needs, they told me stories about the neighborhood’s legacy and provided me with sustenance to better appreciate the changes over a lifetime. Each of us have something to bring to the table. The elderly do not need to invisible for a community to realize their potential. It is actually quite the opposite.

Two or more of the aforementioned would likely help to avoid many of the problems old and new residents experience. People have the right do nothing at all. However, I have learned from Ghandi that we have to be the change we would like to see. For others, they have not heard and see any real problems. Problems with gentrification are real. I would challenge them to talk with their neighbors and learn about what might be the challenges their community is battling.

As another concern, old residents may not be welcoming or may ignore people’s efforts in the ways already described. When one door closes, usually another one opens. If people find their efforts ignored, it is important to move on to the next situation in hopes of gaining leeway with those open to connecting. These other community members may be able to intervene on their behalf to facilitate better communication.

Any other suggestions are welcomed. Let’s see how we might make the best of what we have. Share your ideas below.

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Originally published at jelaniaustin.com on July 7, 2014.

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