Confessions of a Serial Gentrifier
The rent is too damn high, but I pay it
Hello. My name is Lindsay, and I’m a serial gentrifier.
For me, it all began (perhaps appropriately) in New York City just a few short years ago. I was a graduate student studying journalism at Columbia University, and university housing was most affordable for me, although hardly affordable for someone on a student’s income without the help of school loans. My super small studio apartment had all the comforts of a size 10 shoebox and cost me just upwards of $1,000 a month. I hated the restrictions of the space, but I loved the location: off Broadway, just a heartbeat from Harlem’s famous 125th Street. The subway let out just above my building. I very quickly became aware of Columbia’s tense relationship with the predominately black and brown communities of Harlem. Gentrification wars had been raging for years before I arrived, and the school was still in the process of buying up properties and renovating them for higher rents. Many longtime Harlem residents fled higher and higher Uptown, to more inexpensive parts of the city, or left New York all together.
After grad school, I landed a great job in Durham, North Carolina. I found a spacious, one-bedroom loft in a former tobacco warehouse downtown, and paid an exorbitant $891 in rent — high for most Durhamites, but a financial relief after my stint in NYC. At first, it didn’t feel like I was a gentrifier, but after a couple of years, I observed a transformation in Durham. The small city once mostly known for being home to Duke University and for its proximity to Raleigh became a creative class destination with foodie write-ups in the New York Times.
The potholes that made it tough for me to walk to work without twisting an ankle were suddenly paved, and Main Street got a glossy coat of polish in the form of new coffee shops, restaurants and retailers. The interesting thing about how that neighborhood changed was that Durham’s developers could have easily courted big franchises to come in and generate revenue. When I arrived, most of the buildings were boarded up and the shops closed. Instead of building, say, an Applebee’s or some other sure-fire profitable American chain, opportunities and pots of money were offered to small business owners who helped seed visible change in the community one storefront at a time. My rent in Durham did increase in small increments over the course of seven years, but I never crossed the $1,000 line. I hear now my same apartment is going for about $1,400…which is slightly less than I currently pay for rent.
Now I live in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood that has seen massive revitalization in recent years. L.A. natives love to tell me how “no one used to ever go downtown.” Such is no longer the case. Bars, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries draw folks from all over the city to a neighborhood that was once primarily inhabited by Los Angeles‘s homeless population. The “cool factor” of the new downtown has fueled rapid change. I can hardly walk to work and back without noticing some new business “coming soon” or some old business announcing the end of its run.
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It’s great; I have all the amenities within a two-mile radius. But stores like H&M and The Gap and more predictable chains are flipping the neighborhood into something a little less gritty and a little more plastic, although downtown has grit to spare. The homeless still walk the streets, but their presence seems to be waning as they are pushed farther away from the fancier areas of the neighborhood by law enforcement and the rolling up of the proverbial welcome mat.
When I take a step back and think about my role beyond finding places to live where I feel comfortable and can afford to pay the bills, I recognize that I am a part of the change, for better or worse. If people like me weren’t willing and able to pay higher rent,and if our incomes didn’t attract higher end retailers, these neighborhoods I’ve called home would stay more or less as they were. Housing and affordability are such big issues, though, that this cycle seems never-ending in so many of America’s cities.
Just a few miles from downtown, in Highland Park, residents who have lived in the area for just a short time have shared their feelings about being gentrifiers. That is, the ones who accept the label. Many don’t. Some have told us that they aren’t wealthy enough to be gentrifiers, or that they come from communities much like Highland Park and so they don’t feel like cultural outsiders who are hoping the neighborhood will change drastically. Others expressed guilt over coming to a neighborhood where they know residents and small business owners are being displaced. They enjoy the amenities of living in a place that’s heavily invested in, but they are aware that their presence offers them a privilege not afforded to those who came before them.
In my neighborhood, the gentrification has intensified to such a degree that even I feel the financial squeeze. Rent hasn’t increased (yet), but my parking rates have gone up 25 percent in less than two years, and the local stores that used to offer great bargains have bumped up prices to cater to and profit from residents much wealthier than I. No, it’s not the same as having to change communities because I can no longer afford it, but one day soon I could be priced out, too. The three places I’ve lived over the last 10 years have all gentrified in such different ways, but the end result is the same. I have to live with that.