In 2007, I moved into the uptown area of Harrisburg, our capitol city. My friend had just bought a house, and 4 of us in our early 20s, somewhat naïve and starry-eyed, had the idea of becoming a part of a diverse, somewhat “inner-city” neighborhood. At that point, Midtown and Uptown Harrisburg was full of derelict houses, their demise dating back to Hurricane Agnes of 1972. Several local, ambitious companies were just beginning to buy these abandoned houses and rehabilitate them. Young, somewhat adventurous twenty-somethings like ourselves were the ones making the purchases. We had high hopes of contributing to the neighborhood, helping it become a better place for all to live. To an extent, we saw ourselves as brave trailblazers making a difference in Harrisburg, in the world.
When we first moved in, I remember drug deals on the corner being a common occurrence. The police were regular visitors to the area. In fact, they were visitors to our door one night, surprising my one roommate who was accused of some crime in which he had absolutely no involvement. There were times when the hollering and sounds of fighting outside our door prompted us to call the police.
There were positives too. We played with the neighborhood kids and helped some of them with their homework. We invited neighbors over to get to know them. We had house meetings to talk about ways we could help in the community.
Little by little, though, there were more young professionals, couples, and families striding through the streets. There were markedly less drug deals. The neighborhood began to look nicer: less trash, more décor, yards and porches that were intentionally arranged with hanging plants and herbs. The average socio-economic status increased quite quickly and obviously in the neighborhood. Gentrification was happening swiftly before our eyes.
A short four years later, the area has changed drastically. The shady corner store with bulletproof glass is now a posh, expensive coffee shop that former neighbors would have little interest in (and which I admit to frequenting – the coffee is amazing). Most of my friends and acquaintances live within a 4-block radius, which is quite convenient. There are more art events, parties, and fun things to do in the area on the weekends. I benefit from all these changes.
From an outsider’s perspective, our goals were reached. The neighborhood was (and is) a better place to live: prettier, safer, nicer, less crime. But I have to wonder, who benefits from these changes? What were the costs to the improvements, and who actually paid those costs?
I remember watching our neighbors move out, one by one, many of them having lived 20 years or more in the neighborhood. Most of them were older, minorities, and from a lower socioeconomic status. When asked why they were leaving, the typical answers were, “We couldn’t afford to live here,” or “Our rent was hiked up.” The neighborhood became too expensive for them. When property values go up, those who can’t afford it have to move out.
My story is not unique – it’s the story of cities all over America. I have to wonder, though, is there a way to bridge the gaps so that urban neighborhoods can be improved without displacing the people who lived there? In 2006, after watching the effects of gentrification in his own city, the former Mayor of Seattle, Norm Rice, said, “I am concerned and I am frustrated because I don’t know what the alternatives to gentrification are. The process clearly isn’t racist: it’s economic. The real question you have to ask yourself is: is it good or bad?”
Martin Luther King’s assertion that “no one is free until everyone is free” plays a part in this discussion. We, as middle class America, can afford to look the other way while our former neighbors must move out. And sure, we benefit from gentrification in many cases, but does it benefit the whole of our society?
Maybe there are alternatives to the gentrification I have witnessed, of which I have been a part. In West Oakland, California, a group called Seminary of the Street gathers residents for a 32-hour series over several weeks that engages them in the conversation of what is occurring in their changing neighborhoods. Instead of the process just happening, neighbors are asking sometimes difficult and painful questions about their role in gentrification and what steps can be taken to help one another.
I think that Seminary of the Street is on the right track. Although I don’t think the question is as clear-cut as Mr. Rice put it (good vs. bad), I think he has taken an important step by asking such a question. Maybe we need to start by talking about gentrification, asking ourselves and our neighbors what we can do to support one another. We must find a way to minimize the costs of gentrification, while keeping the positives that make neighborhoods better places to live.
Photo by Pierre LaScott
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