Gentrification Makes Us Unfree.
Gentrification has erupted as a measure of progress in today’s era of modernization — but is the aim of progression ultimately a step in the opposite direction?
For all of my young life, I have resided in the forward city of San Francisco, CA — and sadly, within the short span of my 19-year existence, I’ve come to recognize the damaging processes of displacement as a modern-day norm.
I’ve seen this exemplified most explicitly through the ever-increasing value of my own home, which — in the past 30 years — has inflated about 233%. What began as a $300,000 single-family house in 1987, now labels itself a million-dollar property. And as a first-hand witness and longtime resident of the home, I can tell you this: it’s worth is nowhere near $1,000,000.
Most traumatizing to me, however, were the constant goodbyes accompanying each of my friends’ families’ decisions to move halfway across the country in the midst of financial hardship. Undoubtedly, I have gentrification to thank for all the gloomful separation it’s caused.
What is Gentrification?
The first part of gentrification’s definition — or rather its root word — reads: “ to attempt or accomplish the gentrification of <gentrified a run-down section of the city>,” which, on the surface, is minimally alarming.
The definition of gentrification in its entirety, though, brings to light its propensities: ones which ultimately reflect colonial tendencies that have only subtly changed in form.
“…the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
Note the terms: “rebuilding,” “affluent,” “deteriorating areas,” and “displaces poorer residents” — which come close to the ideals and deeds of early tyrannical colonialists.
We’ve seen articles that touch upon gentrification’s relation to colonialism, but few identify the unfreedom that comes along with it.
What is Freedom?
Firstly, an excerpt from Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom gives us an idea as to what freedom is not:
“…poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states.”
Across the board, in areas targeted for gentrification and development, we see continual deprivation of economic opportunity, systematic social deprivation, poverty, and inability to voice those concerns politically.
Freedom, in the name of development, should include development (AKA gentrification) that equally reaches all.
Unfreedom stems from a sort of choice limitation faced by the poor; under subjugation, the impoverished are forced to make choices that continuously put them in danger — essentially categorizing them as “unfree.”
And like how those affected by gentrification become unfree, so were the native peoples colonized by western powers during colonial periods: enslaved and stripped of their cultures.
Gentrification as Colonization
Most importantly, gentrification displaces and removes long-time residents of cities like San Francisco (gentrification’s poster child) for the purpose of “revitalizing” particular parts of the city. San Francisco’s annual rent hikes following neighborhood revitalizations (the Mission District, for example) frequently push out those of poorer backgrounds, leaving them with no choice but relocation — either to the suburbs, or across the country.
Another interesting representation caught on camera is an incident which took place in 2014 at one of San Francisco’s public soccer fields. A dispute between local teenagers and wealthy AirBnb/Dropbox employees arose after the workers had begun taking the area from the kids over two times a week. Using their privilege, they were able to contract out with the city, essentially privatizing and commodifying the public space. The result was a local movement titled, “Mission Playground is Not For Sale” which featured the effects of the tech industry on the community, oftentimes displacing its less powerful community members.
This familiar act of “pushing out” is almost indistinguishable to its colonialist counterpart, whose constituents acted upon supremacism. Native Americans were forced out of their territories and stripped of their land as a result of underhanded and broken treaties.
2. Cultural Alterations
“Sometimes there is a racial or ethnic overtone in gentrification, but always a change in the average income level and lifestyle.”
Gentrification serves the cultural desires of developers as deemed appropriate in economic terms — and almost always, they depict a culture idolized by white, privileged groups.
San Francisco’s Fillmore District is one example of a cultural makeover in action. What once flourished in the 70's as a predominantly African-American neighborhood, prided in its contemporary rap music/Black culture, now flaunts a “bougie” row of urbanized boutiques directed at fulfilling affluent needs.
What we stumble upon here is an obvious shift from a traditional, untouched culture to one tainted by cultural visions — of course — shaped by well-to-do developers.
In the same way, Native inhabitants were forced into assimilation during periods of westernization. Many were subjected to involuntary enrollment in American Indian Boarding Schools — which is not to mention the White, Christian practices enforced on the natives, and the disassembling of their spiritual beliefs as a whole.
3. Inadequate Political Leverage of the Oppressed
Time and time again, we observe that money talks in this capitalistic society that we call home. And while that in itself isn’t so inherently wrong, its social effects may be drastic — especially in times of greed.
Gentrification oftentimes leaves its victims politically powerless, as the oppressed lack the resources to effectively express opposition. With no one in authority backing their interests, and no political knowledge of their rights, the impoverished [and their properties] are periodically left prey to hungry gentrifiers out for land.
And so, the cycle remains: local governments looking to accrue financial gain from gentrification’s “gold,” continue to trump the well-beings of lesser-privileged homeowners.
4. Terra Nullius & Pursuance of Manifest Destiny
Terra Nullius, which translates to “land belonging to nobody” in Latin, transformed from its original meaning to one of more expansive prospect: “land devoid of civilized society.”
During colonial times, it was this idea of land as a blank slate that ultimately justified the takeover of indigenous nations — who were regarded as barbarically uncivilized groups. Westerners utilized the notion of Terra Nullius to fuel the inevitableness of Manifest Destiny, the “divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of their noble republic to the Pacific Ocean.”
“Folks in the streets of Boyle Heights have lived there forever [but] developers are coming in. They look at it as a blank canvas.” — Skid Row community organizer General Jeff
Present-day community organizers of Los Angeles’ Skid Row affirm their feelings of “unhappiness” as gentrification “eats up functional communities already there.” Largely, they are displeased with projects that seek to satisfy the ever-changing, lavish lifestyles of the upscale — which in its elitist processes, boot out the poor.
Again, this indisputable parallel between modern-day gentrification and colonialism highlights undemocratic trends which have failed to die out. The neverending covetedness involved with land attainment has become an undertaking hidden beneath the lustrous terms of “revitalization” and “development,” and only carries on the goals of Manifest Destiny.
How Gentrification Strips Away Freedom:
Gentrification as modern-day development of the Global North merely accentuates ethnocentric beliefs that benefit the wealthy, and proves the existence of olden-day habituations which cease to dissipate.
In the eyes of the oppressor, development in underserved areas may represent a gift of “freedom” to the said area, as it provides a premade template to be implemented upon the oppressed — one that “saves” its people from destitution.
But — like the Natives were subjected to sufferings of displacement, cultural riddance, and political hindrances, so are today’s targets of gentrification — who are bound to its lashing repercussions. The lesser-privileged, in this sense, are its targets — and freedom: nonexistent.
With reference to Amartya Sen once more, freedom in terms of development “has far-reaching implications not only for the ultimate objectives [of development], but also for processes and procedures that have to be respected.” Freedom is based upon its accessibility to political resources, public amenities, social systems, and liveable income obtainability. What we see take place in recurrence is the takeover of public facilities by wealthy, “yuppie” businesspeople, displacement, unheard voices, and poverty [amongst the displaced].
Eventually these patterns of colonialism work to revert the message of maintaining a sustainable community — one that hopes to serve the economic, infrastructural, political, environmental, and social needs of mankind.
In the meantime, San Francisco, my beloved hometown, continues to exhibit the dangers of gentrification as a city with one of lowest affordability rates in the world. I can only pray that my family hangs tight as the storm of gentrification — rooted in colonialism — relentlessly hits hard.