Who is the Community?

There are more than two sides when it comes to the argument for or against gentrification. First off there are the firm believers in gentrification. These are the people that look at new and upcoming neighborhoods as great investments with lower crime rates and better schools. They do not look very intently at what actually occurs as a result of gentrification. They do not see that the displacement of the people who first lived in a neighborhood as a problem because “they can just live somewhere else.”

On the other end of the spectrum there are those that are blatantly against gentrification, and for good reason. They see past what the quickly gazing eye might miss. They see that gentrification is not only an socio-economic issue, but one that has deeply imbedded roots of racism. They see that the landlords that create new spaces for people to move into aren’t using clean methods to revamp their buildings (which often involves kicking out old residents illegally — not paying them anything).

However, it’s not just the pro-gentrifiers that are a threat to low-income communities, it’s the people who also act as if they are doing things to help build community when they are in fact hurting them. Sure, gentrification can build new communities and create more jobs, but who reaps the benefits? The answer is, not the community that existed before. Gentrification is often paired with the word revitalizing.

“Our new restaurant only uses locally grown food, so we are revitalizing a local economy for new growth.”

I’m sorry to say, no your restaurant in not revitalizing anything. It is replacing a local economy. It is replacing any previous community building efforts with new communities. Using local goods means nothing when your price point is ridiculously high. If you are not catering to the needs of an already existent community you are either destroying the community for capital gain or replacing the community with people of a higher socio-economic class and often race privileges.

People like Alistair Crane, a 28 year-old millionaire who moved to the Mission District of San Francisco have this mindset. The article “To whom does San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood belong” mentions that Crane:

“wants to create a nonprofit to help low-income young people learn tech skills”

When anyone hears this it sounds quite tame. It sounds like a good thing, and in fact it might be. But this is not the issue. The issue that I take with this is it is an idea of Crane’s that is not informed by the public’s needs. Crane is not letting the community speak for itself. This is the same idea as the new trendy restaurants that bombard up-and-coming gentrification hubs: sure some of their policies are great and could help build communities, but that is something for the existing community itself to decide. There are so many more important places that Crane could put his money. If he wants to create opportunity he needs to fund public schools. Children can get better educations and decide for themselves what they want to do. In other words they aren’t forced into the tech world — but they can choose it if they want to because their education gave them that option.

Using Crane’s model, he is really only supplying the youth with tech opportunities. He is not supplying funds for guidance counseling, or expanding art and science programs, or revitalizing math and reading. He is simply recreating and reshaping the community into incredibly narrow boundaries of exclusivity. Crane states, “Keeping people out of your community doesn’t work; it doesn’t engender positive growth.” I agree with him to an extent. Change is necessary. You can’t just cater to newcomers but to people that already live in these communities. You cannot create a non-profit because it is “what a community needs” because you are not yet the community, you don’t know what it needs. You need to let the community speak about its own concerns for itself.