How Gentrification is Changing What it Means to Live in the City

I have grown up in the inner city my entire life, and I cannot imagine myself adjusting to a life in small-town America. Being raised in the city has shaped my views, my values, and my character. But I am a white woman of privilege, despite my sense of “home” and “belonging” in a predominantly poor area. Without purposefully changing my neighborhood, my presence and the increasing presence of those who look like me is contributing to the physical changes and inaccessibility of the surrounding area.

I come from the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It houses predominantly white and African American residents, along with many Hmong and east African residents. It sits between the busy Snelling and University Avenues, with Interstate 94 to the south and the rail tracks adjacent to Pierce Butler to the north. On Snelling Avenue you can eat Ethiopian, Somali, Korean, and Turkish cuisines. You can have coffee and ice cream and play checkers at Ginkgo Coffeehouse. On the adjacent University Avenue, one can bowl at the 60-year old Midway Pro Bowl, ride the light rail to downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis, or eat an authentic Thai dish made by 85-year old Thai immigrant On. But the neighborhood is changing significantly.

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Gentrification is now becoming a part of the Midway neighborhood. As a product of the neoliberal system we are currently living in, it works to “whiten” historically impoverished, urban communities of color. This is a complex issue, with positive and negative impacts. The positive impacts benefit people who look like me, and the city government. The negative impacts hurt low-wealth, longtime residents of color.

For example, let’s look at the light rail on University Avenue. The light rail serves as a tool to encourage people to drive less, which in turn helps to create less road congestion, and thus ultimately reduces carbon emissions. On the other hand, the light rail attracts foreign real estate corporations, causing property taxes to increase, which then causes rents to increase, and thus results in a barely affordable city for middle and lower class renters. Now, a new soccer stadium is replacing Rainbow, Midway Pro Bowl, Peking Garden Chinese restaurant, and other businesses. The stadium will further increase property taxes in the surrounding neighborhoods, and will attract many new businesses in the area that can afford to move and/or expand. My question is: who will ultimately be able to enjoy the stadium and afford to regularly attend soccer games in their free times, and who will be pushed out of the way?

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This is a problem that is physically changing the urban landscape across the world, and is making the Twin Cities less accessible for anyone that is not a part of the global elite. In contrast to our history of suburbs in the United States, many middle-lower-class families are now moving to the suburbs from the cities, while the affluent are moving to the cities to make it their own.

How can diversity exist in cities under these policies that are propelling gentrification forward? When city governments fund themselves primarily from property taxes, how can we expect our elected officials to help combat this issue? How can white people of privilege enjoy living in urban settings, without phsically changing them and displacing people in the process? Affordable housing investments are a step in the right direction, but are more of a Band-Aid-solution to the problem rather than an actual change. Rent caps, housing vouchers, and other policies that are designed to help lower-income and middle-class renters and homeowners afford to live are essential. The problem will only continue to grow and push long-time residents of urban communities out to the periphery unless this issue is discussed, debated, and addressed further. Cities are diverse, vibrant, and cherished spaces of coexistence and community, not landscapes for the wealthy to change to fit their lifestyles and make urban living less accessible. It is time to fight to get them back — and it is time for white people to start holding ourselves accountable.

This piece is part of a series written by college undergraduates enrolled in off-campus study programs through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA). HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. Every student post on the HECUA Medium page considers a theory or reading that intersects with that student’s lived experience. For more information about HECUA programs, click here.