Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Obstacles to gentle gentrification

Can the MedQuarter...

...and New Wellington attract needed investment without pricing out current residents?

The week-long series of reports on gentrification by the excellent public radio program "Marketplace" makes at least three things abundantly clear: [a] gentrification is occurring all over the country; [b] gentrification rarely if ever occurs without clear winners and losers, not to mention a lot of bad feelings; and [c] the reputation of gentrification is so broadly negative that the word itself carries a negative connotation. (It's what the rhetoric scholar S.I. Hayakawa called a "snarl word.")

Yet I maintain that the future of America, particularly urban America, requires gentrification. We need a little gentrification, right this very minute. Granted, it must be done right. It must be done gently. But it must be done.

Gentrification means the resettlement of the middle class in urban areas. It means the undoing of two generations of moving to suburbs ever farther away from the city center, leaving urban areas filled with working class and poor people, with fading economic prospects and crumbling infrastructure, and with historic connections slashed apart by interstate highways and commercial "stroads." Gentrification is essential because:
  1. Society cannot afford to maintain urban sprawl. A spread out population requires a lot of roads, pipes and other infrastructure that look great when they're new, but costs more to maintain than most state and local governments can afford. To be fiscally sustainable, metropolitan areas need to contract, an urgency reinforced by the impact of all that driving on the environment, public health and energy supplies.
  2. Urban areas need investment. You can't eat character, and you can't eat history. Middle class people and businesses bring badly-needed investments into communities that have for a long time suffered a lack of jobs, crime and struggling schools.
  3. We must hang together, or we shall hang separately. This quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin during the U.S. War of Independence, applies to the various challenges of the 21st century. America can't face those challenges if Americans are variously huddled in enclaves based on similarity of race and class.
Urban gentrification is particularly urgent in our metropolitan areas that are physically large, like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Phoenix; and those centered on older industrial cities like Cleveland and Detroit. But to some degree it's needed everywhere, even in smaller cities like Cedar Rapids. Just because we're neither as physically large nor as populous as Atlanta doesn't mean we can afford to keep spreading out. The keys to the future of Cedar Rapids lie in our core neighborhoods and our downtown, not with the super-suburb that will supposedly be created by the extension of Highway 100.

Gentle gentrification means infusing urban neighborhoods without pushing out long-time residents. It means adding to the historic character of the neighborhood instead over overturning it. And there are very few examples of gentrification occurring gently--certainly not the Highland Park area of Los Angeles profiled by "Marketplace," or the Mission District of San Francisco, or... you name it. There are a number of reasons why gentrification is so hard to do gently. I hope you will be so impressed by the power of my analysis that you will overlook the fact that I don't have the slightest clue how to address them.
  1. There are no effective mechanisms to bring this about. Gently gentrifying a neighborhood requires a great deal of nuance and balance. Economic markets can be good at nuance, but lately supply seems to work in a binary fashion: high-end goods aimed at the well-off, or cheap goods aimed at the not-well-off. You're either Bloomingdale's or Wal-Mart, but not both. Government tools, whether incentives or regulations, are of necessity based on uniformity and hence are terrible at nuance.
  2. Difference makes us terribly uncomfortable. There are a lot of facets to the recent tragedies involving Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others, but this one theme clearly emerges from the national discussion. Some feel guilty or frustrated with the lingering divisions, a few are proud of being unlike the other. More broadly, people who can afford it are willing to pay a premium to live away from people who can't. A truly diverse neighborhood begins with many points of tension. This is unfortunately exacerbated by...
  3. Lack of confidence in our political and economic institutions. Wage growth has not responded to four years of economic growth. It's about the last indicator to respond anyway, but the future of employment is far from certain, and everyone knows that. Public lack of confidence in our public officials could not have been helped by the disgraceful campaign of 2014. I don't have data on local officials, but my hunch is that they're less exempt from this attitude than in previous years. Bottom line: there's widespread feeling that the economic deck is stacked against "us" (whoever "we" are), and that government is only responsive to a faction that isn't us, either.
Gentle gentrification means neighborhood diversity in every possible respect, instead of the "come heres" outbidding and then pushing out the "been heres." It's a tall order, a very tall order indeed, but maybe possible once more people realize that sprawl and enclaves are unaffordable luxuries. Spread the word.

"Issues of Privilege in Walkable Cities," 23 June 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/06/issues-of-privilege-in-walkable-cities.html
"The Gentrification Conundrum (II)," 21 March 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-gentrification-conundrum-ii.html
"Gentrification in the Mission District," 4 December 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/12/gentrification-in-mission-district.html
"Downtown, Where All the Lights Are Bright?," 10 November 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/11/downtown-where-all-lights-are-bright.html

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