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The Lives Erased by Gentrification

When I moved to Franklinton, I told myself I wasn’t displacing anyone

Rachel Toliver
Aug 27, 2018 · 13 min read
Photo: Paul Sableman/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Here’s a sentence for you:They’re building the luxury apartments, called River & Rich, on a former public housing site.”

It reads like an excerpt of a novel — one that’s not especially good, but very moral and sincere. It would be a novel on the subject of development, which is called “displacement” and “erasure” by others.

But just to be clear, this isn’t a heavy-handed parable. This is what has come to pass, in the year 2018, in a midsize middle American city.

“River & Rich. Alliterative and painfully literal. It’s ambiguous, in a particularly dull way, and this is what makes it so effective, branding-wise. Because yes, these high-end apartments are actually located on Rich Street, in a neighborhood called Franklinton, in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a place where geography conflates, sometimes unbelievably, with metaphor. River & Rich is also near the Scioto River. When you hear “river,” you think sapphire and luxury, sliding glass doors, cups of coffee sipped on balconies. When you hear “rich,” you think granite countertops and elevators, bamboo flooring, sleek white shelving units. Everything in monochrome and stainless steel.

According to Apartments.com, River & Rich is all of those things. It’s exactly what you’d expect, made tangible, now pre-leasing, opening fall 2018! “You deserve an experience, not just another apartment,” the ad reads. Of course it’s what they call “mixed-income”: You can get a 501-square-foot one-bedroom for $959, but for the top-end two-bedroom, two-bath — and river view, perhaps — it’s $2,349.

I’d like to learn more about Riverside-Bradley, the public housing projects that were replaced by River & Rich. So I bike to the main branch of the Columbus Metro Library, up on South Grant Avenue, where they keep the city stuff on the third floor.

“I’m researching the housing projects that used to be in Franklinton,” I tell the city-stuff librarian, who’s sitting there with his salt-and-pepper librarian beard.

“There were projects in Franklinton?” he asks. It’s like he’s a character in that symbolic novel, reading his line of dialogue. It feels significant: Even this expert, this archivist, doesn’t know that people used to live there. Although really he’s just one guy, working on one particular day, not a symbol of the entire city. Maybe all the other city-stuff librarians recall Riverside-Bradley, down there by the river, at a site that’s now called a “prime location.”

“Yes,” I say, “where those new developments are going in.” Because, in my mind, River & Rich is bound to Riverside-Bradley. Because it feels impossible to think of one without the other.

This library is beautiful, and extra beautiful in Ohio snow. When I first moved to Columbus it was being renovated. Now the granite façade of the old library is encased in a modernist nexus of glass and metal. It’s huge and a little cowing — all hushed cavern, endless windows.

The librarian gets me a pile of city area plans. “Here you go,” he says. They’re slim little books, spiral-bound.

“There were projects in Franklinton?” he asks.

Mostly I dig up what I already know about Franklinton, what I learned from living over there for a few years. That it had suffered two great floods, in 1913 and 1959. That in 1983 FEMA labeled it a floodplain and ruled that the city council prohibited building there. That much of the neighborhood’s population is originally from Appalachia — Ohio, West Virginia — and was drawn to Franklinton by railroad work. That the Franklinton Floodwall was completed in 2004, and that the mayor once declared, “Franklinton has the potential to be the hottest area of the city in years to come.”

Despite this newly proclaimed future, in some areas of Franklinton nearly 70 percent live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. In the poorest parts, more than 40 percent lack a high school diploma.

I want to be clear: This isn’t a novel, and this also isn’t an article — it’s an essay, a thing made of rhetoric, and I’m the one who’s writing it. In writing this, I am making my own erasures. In fact, this essay is a revision of another version of this essay. Covering it over. Building on its ground.

I didn’t live in Franklinton during the days of early “settlement” — the word that’s actually been used to describe artists moving into the neighborhood, into abandoned warehouses and Land Bank homes. I lived partway across the country, in West Philadelphia. Although I have family in Columbus, I couldn’t have imagined that one day I’d move there.

I didn’t live in Franklinton during the days of early “settlement”— the word that’s actually been used to describe artists moving into the neighborhood.

I’m not making any claims about what Riverside-Bradley was actually like, and in that omission it’s possible that I’m also discounting the people who once lived there. That I’m setting up those housing projects as a symbol, an edifice, and not as a real place, where people lived out lives so very different from my own. (One former resident said it was a blessing to live there; she read her Bible down by the river. Another had her apartment robbed four times in two years. “This is a horrible neighborhood,” she said.)

I have a single thesis, and that single thesis is a single image, and that single image is a plot of earth. For many years there were housing projects on that plot of earth. According to a 2011 Columbus Dispatch article, “Franklinton takes bold strokes to renew neighborhood,” the demolition of Riverside-Bradley “removed a barrier that was hurting redevelopment efforts.” I keep thinking of that plot of earth, how before it was a barrier it was certainly someone’s home. And how developers came in and looked at that plot of earth and reimagined it as a different thing: River & Rich, an upflow and shimmer, panoramic gorgeous views.

How easy it is once something is deemed a barrier, to knock that barrier down.

When River & Rich was under construction, its ground-gash and rebar was sheathed in a scrim. That scrim was decorated with screen-printed graffiti, which was not actually graffiti, but a kind of graffiti-facsimile.

Urban Style Living,” read the words printed on the scrim. Every time I biked past it, over the bridge, I shook my head and sort of chuckled.

The other day I biked past, and the sign just said “Urban Living.”

From The Franklinton Plan: A Community Vision for the Future (2003):

ISSUE Low-income households occupy a disproportionate amount of existing housing stock.

POLICY Provide housing opportunities that will attract a more diverse mix of income levels, providing a more stable and economically viable community without forcing the removal of existing residents.

ISSUE Lack of good quality housing for the very low-income population.

POLICY Upgrade public housing facilities.

Riverside-Bradley is never mentioned by name. And then, eight years later, it’s entirely gone.

In 2014, the Atlantic produces a video called “Gentrification ‘Without the Negative’ in Columbus, Ohio.”

Jim Sweeney, director of Franklinton Development Association, is taking the cameraman on a driving tour of Franklinton. They drive through vacant lots of khaki-colored weeds, past boarded-up red brick buildings that are waiting to be some other thing:

So we’re looking at the opportunity to kind of do what people would call gentrification, only without the negative component of it, which would be displacement of the existing population, because the existing population is gone already. They went decades ago when the floods came through and pretty much wiped out all the housing.

The video mentions the creative class inhabiting old factory buildings — leatherworkers and aerial artists and drag queens and a pop-up coffee shop. A woodworker who only uses hand tools. It never once names Riverside-Bradley, which had been demolished three years before.

Just about three miles due East from Franklinton there’s a house for sale — a condo actually — in historically black Olde Towne East. This is the description: “Property is located on a quiet, quaint street in Olde Town East, an upcoming neighborhood that is nearing complete gentrification. It’s chilling: the word “complete,” paired with the word “gentrification.”

I’m listening to an NPR program while I fold the laundry. Terry Gross is interviewing Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. I learn that urban renewal was sometimes called “negro removal.

An upcoming neighborhood that is nearing complete gentrification. It runs on a loop in my mind.

An upcoming neighborhood that is nearing complete displacement.

That is nearing complete deletion.

That is nearing complete replacement.

That is nearing complete erasure.

The house in Olde Towne East is listed for $349,000. The tax abatement application has been submitted and is pending final approval. The photos are the usual muted photos, with the usual filter. A vague white sheen issues from the crown molding, from the wind-blown curtains, from the tiled kitchen island.

When I look for the listing again, the realtor has rewritten the description, perhaps in response to complaints. Now, the listing reads: “Property is located in Olde Town East.” The offensive phrase is technically erased, but its imprint remains: In every other listing that calls a neighborhood “improving,” or “revitalized,” or “up and coming.”

Here’s something else about the Atlantic’s “Gentrification ‘Without the Negative’” video. I first watched that video sitting on my futon with my husband when I still lived in Philadelphia. I’d just been accepted to graduate school at Ohio State. My husband’s research had uncovered Franklinton, and “gentrification without the negative” sounded pretty good to us.

I like to think of myself as resistant to branding, jaded, wary of revisionist rhetoric. And yet I imagined this place, this Franklinton. I was going to school for creative writing. My husband, instead of going to college, had traveled the country working at Renaissance fairs, learning how to cast metal, telling dragon stories. We could be considered the creative class, and the sunset gilded those industrial buildings in such a promising way.

It was easy to not think about the people who still lived in the neighborhood. It was easy to think of Franklinton as a blank space.

A caption in the video says that 25 percent of the houses in Franklinton —probably in West Franklinton, the residential area — are sitting vacant. Because of the floods, Jim Sweeney says. I started to think about buying a house in Franklinton, started nosing around realtor.com. Twenty-five percent vacant! My presence in that neighborhood wouldn’t have any effect, wouldn’t harm people! I could move there and not displace anyone! I could see myself there: shuffling past paintings on open studio night, drinking a beer at a rustic outpost bar, writing on the edge of all that emptiness.

It was easy to not think about the 75 percent — the people who still lived in the neighborhood. It was easy to think of Franklinton as a blank space. I didn’t know much about the place, and so it was easy to believe that these things just happened: floods and foreclosures, slumlords and abandoned industry, buildings flattened, residents moved on to wherever they might end up, who knows where it was, because I would never see them.

In the 2011 Columbus Alive article, “Franklinton on the Verge,” Chris Sherman, who owns and manages properties on the neighborhood, says: “In East Franklinton, there’s an opportunity for a clean-slate type thing to happen.”

The article says Franklinton is currently “disguised as a blighted industrial district.” As if poverty in Franklinton were a scrim — a semi-opaque shroud that, once dropped, reveals beer gardens and high-end apartment buildings. And there’s a lot of discussion about seeing it, about who can see it — “it” being the eventual gentrification of Franklinton:

Artisans working in rehabbed manufacturing buildings can see it. A handful of developers, acres of land in hand, can see it. Even longtime residents, who braved decay and demise for years, can see it.

Can you?

Of course, it must’ve been easy to see it. You just had to close your eyes and erase what was already there. You’d envision Riverside-Bradley crashing to the ground: a fast-forward film, those housing projects imploding, small pulse of dust. Then in the next frame it’s a vacant lot. And that’s what people start calling it: a vacant lot. Because the existing population is gone already. And that prime real estate, right by the river? It’s nothing more than a passive empty place. A space to be filled in.

Back in Franklinton — west of River & Rich, on the residential streets — a realtor is thumbing a lock box. A young couple is appraising a flipped house. When I say a young couple I mean a young white couple from the Columbus suburbs, from Dublin or Powel or Upper Arlington. The man’s wearing an OSU baseball cap; the woman’s French tipped nails have just been done. I realize this is terrible writing, that they’re stock characters, that I’m denying them their full humanity. It’s not fair to them and I’m sorry, I really am.

But the couple: They’re into the deck, and the deck is stained to look like redwood, and they’re into the house’s charming original details. They’re into the 15-year tax abatement.

The realtor says, ‘It’s not going to be like that for long.’ She means, ‘These people won’t be here for long,’ but she doesn’t say that.

But you know what they’re not into? They’re not into the guy with a cardboard sign: the bum who’d scared the wife. Who had looked at the couple through the driver-side window, as they were waiting for the light to change, right where you turn from 315 and onto Broad.

The realtor says, “It’s not going to be like that for long.” She means, “These people won’t be here for long,” but she doesn’t say that. She doesn’t say it because she doesn’t have to, and anyway the house is outfitted with a high-end alarm system, plus cameras. If anything happens the police will be there in seconds. Although she guarantees the couple, in five years this will be a good place to raise kids; in five years they will be the envy of their friends, because look — they can walk to BrewDog, they can walk to Strongwater and Land Grant. In five years, she promises them, they’re not even going to recognize this street.

My husband, who still works in Franklinton even though we don’t live there anymore, took a picture of a yard sign stuck in the ground.

“Franklinton Living Reimagined,” it says. “River & Rich,” it says, in faux-graffiti bubble letters that remind me of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

On the homepage for Casto, one of the developers responsible for River & Rich, there’s a chart: “Demographics, 5-Mile Trade Area.”

There, average household income is listed as $89,871. In that five-mile trade area, 38.9 percent of households have an income of more than $50,000.

I get it: They’ve made a very conscious choice, which five miles are included in their trade area. Still, this is a stark contrast with the demographics of Franklinton itself.

In the part of town where River & Rich now stands, the median household income in 2016 was $10,950. Households under the poverty line: 65 percent.

“Now leasing,” the River & Rich sign says.

Call it a “clean slate,” call it a “wasteland.” All those images of emptiness. Just don’t mention that the slate had to be wiped clean — that a hand had, in fact, wiped it. Just don’t mention that wastelands haven’t always been wastelands. Just remember: Craven policies and government neglect can level buildings, much like floods.

The difference is that floods just happen. Clean slates and wastelands? If you look far enough back, you’ll find policy choices, intentional decisions. You’ll find redlining, and city council resolutions against building, and highways bisecting the neighborhood. And make no mistake: When these things happen, they happen through a very specific sort of volition.

In a recent Columbus Dispatch article, John Riat, Casto’s development coordinator, says: “River & Rich is going to revitalize Franklinton. That’s already in progress, but I think for Franklinton, you’re going to see people start moving down here.”

I notice that phrase: “see people start moving down here.” It reminds me of all the times I’ve heard, “Oh, people are beginning to live in Franklinton.” Or, “That was back before people lived in Franklinton.

For two years we rented a little cottage in Franklinton, on the verge of a baffling municipal lot, on the neighborhood’s farthest-out street. Behind the municipal lot there was the highway, an uncertain grey scrim. I bought milk and beer at the Valero gas station, because even though people were moving to Franklinton, the neighborhood still had no supermarket. We were as far west as we could be, removed from the river, from the future site of River & Rich. Our rent was $650 a month.

When we met our landlady to look at the house, the first thing out of her mouth was, “You guys seem too good for this place.” We didn’t tell her about the Atlantic video, about how Franklinton was promising; we didn’t tell her that we saw something she didn’t see. My husband just said, as assurance, “We know where we’re at.”

After we moved out I got a text from my landlady: One of her properties was up for rent, she was asking $950 a month, and did I know anyone who might be interested? My landlady didn’t say what had happened to her last tenants; she didn’t say, “People are moving down here.” But maybe she didn’t have to, because after all, we’d lived there.

All these erasures are embarrassingly literal — so literal they become almost opaque, a figure of speech that melts and hardens till it’s finally just the news. This is the United States of America, 2018, and the things that used to have the decency of being metaphorical are now made terribly manifest.

Sure, it’s banal. But the thing about banality is that we stop noticing it, and then we stop commenting on it, and then it disappears. It’s a scrim with screen-print graffiti that suddenly becomes real graffiti. It’s “Urban-Style Living” morphed into “Urban Living. It’s the neighborhood that is “discovered” — the future you can almost see, if you just stop seeing what’s actually there.

The “blank slate” is so blank even the slate disappears.

“Open floorplans, over-sized windows and modern finishes — picture yourself at River & Rich,” says the ad. And the structure’s almost finished. It has a resort style pool with industrial touches. It has an on-site fitness center featuring a CrossFit infinity rig. It has designer finishes and vinyl plank and subway tile backsplashes. It has easy freeway access.

It’s 2018, and bad writing is writing our reality. The “blank slate” is so blank even the slate disappears. I can only speak in clichés, because those clichés are the prototype for buildings, and neighborhoods, and cities. Because those clichés are being erected around us, and we have made our homes in them.

So picture yourself at River & Rich. Because it’s impossible, looking out at your “spectacular views of the Columbus skyline,” to conceive of Riverside-Bradley. Because, as you’re drinking your BrewDog Punk IPA, looking out at downtown’s midnight spangle, the thought of Riverside-Bradley would be a bummer. Because you’ve been told it wasn’t gentrification — that people never lived here in the first place.


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Rachel Toliver

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Thinking about cities, cats, public and domestic spaces. New Republic/ Brevity/ TriQuarterly/ American Literary Review. https://www.racheltoliver.com

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