Friday, January 4, 2013

When the TL's cross: Wrestling with Black Gentrification Part 2

I wrote earlier this week in response to a piece in Atlantic Cities on the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago and perceptions of "non-white gentrifying neighborhood". Check that post for the background of the case as I'm going to in a different direction here, but know that the idea was precipitated by that piece and by some timely retweets from @metroadlib and @tnopper (both essential follows), and a challenging post from Kenyon Farrow (@kenyonfarrow).

The post I'm referring to (found here) in response to a Washington City Paper article by a woman reflecting on being a "Black gentrifier". Farrow passionately (and correctly) attacks the notion of gentrification being primarily a notion of "privilege", a term he describes as obscuring or denying issues of underlying racial and economic injustice. But I think his call for a more historical framing of the Black middle and upper classes and their roles as primarily victims of violent displacement and continued racial discrimination (as reflected in household wealth and the fact that Blacks are still unwelcome in many mixed neighborhoods) mean that Blacks cannot be gentrifiers.

It is here where I respectfully disagree, but only to a matter of degree. Citing my earlier definition of gentrification from Neil Smith it is clear the gentrification is intimately tied to displacement and dramatic neighborhood character change. In the case of the fearful "Black gentrifier" in the City Paper column such a concern over displacement and social domination is legitimate. In that particular area, gentrification is a project primarily lead by Back people-- IF there is displacement. As I said in my earlier post, simply bringing new people in or having some neighborhood development redevelopment does not equate to gentrification. I think that if we are to challenge the idea of "Black gentrification" it is not to say that due to historical and current racial discrimination that middle class and upper class Blacks cannot be gentrifiers, but to actually see as to whether we're seeing the kind of wholesale displacement and social domination that accompanies what we commonly understand to be gentrification. I would charge that in the vast majority of situations given the precariousness of the Black middle class and the decimation of household wealth in the past recession that areas of so-called "Black Gentrification" are not gentrifying at all if we are to compare income, household wealth, and displacement risk factors. But that does not mean that Blacks cannot be gentrifiers just that given current socioeconomic contexts there is simply not enough pressure to warrant the label.

Farrow does point to a larger issue of the label and what he calls obsession with the "Black gentrifier" is used as a term that deliberately distracts middle and upper class blacks from the violence visited upon their communities by attempting to shift blame. It's a provocative thought and one that holds a bit of weight. My only counter would be that this is not unique to Black folks but it is a large undercurrent of progressive critique of gentrification and many urban development issues. Gentrification is often separated from larger development decisions and the vagaries of the market and politics of urban development. Gentrification is often referred to or situated as a natural, but unfortunate situation in which the participants have little power. It's grossest form, as cited by Farrow and Tamara Nopper (@tnopper, if you didn't guess), is in the self-serving question of,"where can white people go in the city?" deflecting attention from greater forces that encourage disinvestment then reinvestment and expulsion of blacks and poor people into a framing where gentrifiers can throw up their arms and say it's not their fault. My point is that such narratives are not unique in being leveled at Black people but it has multiple incarnations throughout our cities. Blacks may be more sensitive to such charges and there may be a disproportionate attention paid to it, but that also follows larger media narratives that highlight Blacks' negative issues and portray them as dominant.

In other words, stronger critiques of gentrification are needed, in general, and these narratives are not only leveled at Black people. Although, we make more entertaining targets because the idea of class differentiation within the black community is still wild to many white people. So, I wrote all of this to say that I believe that Black people can indeed be gentrifiers, but that the evidence right now does not point to some new wave of "Black on Black gentrification". But Farrow, Nopper, and other critical race and urbanist scholars are ENTIRELY correct when they note that the way we discuss gentrification and other urban development issues obscures the greater economic and political mechanisms that encourage gentrification, in the first place. These range from disinvestment and abandonment of neighborhoods by city government, intense and concentrated poverty, massive unemployment, large-scale redevelopment dependent upon resident expulsion, and "economic development" strategies built around real-estate development and the expansion of unequal, bifurcated labor markets that turn the poor into the servant class of the preferred "creative" resident.


Carlton said...

I am looking forward to the book :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Surly, I think you, Ms. Knopper and Mr. Farrow all address who's city for whom? Regarding the many ways of looking at gentrification, your article put me in mind of a few Philadelphia areas where communities are or are not in the throes of resident expulsion and redevelopment and the whys that is. And it leads back to the real estate market. Germantown is a mixed-race, mixed-income area of the city that continues to attract new investment. Downriver, Conshohocken is booming and new white residents are vibrantly asserting themselves as older white residents are forced out. Many are moving just a few miles away to Norristown, which is a mixed-race, mixed income area that is not experiencing a rash of new investment or affluent residents, but has a consistent population of estb. and new black, white and recent immigrant residents, but is viewed as undesirable compared to more traditional (single home) suburban markets. Both Conshohocken and Norristown are outside of the city, but are not suburban architecturally or culturally (rowhomes, commercial cornerstores). So why one and not the other? Whose terms define why Bronzeville is or is not a rebounding neighborhood, or not rebounding enough to attract outside (white, mainstream)investment? The RE mkt. Your piece points to the "greater economic and politcal mechanisms" that illustrate the need for more accurate definitions of the different types of gentrification, and those mechanisms that turn away from true benefits for established communities in areas where real estate gains are or are not anticipated.

Anonymous said...

What a ramble, pardon. Also to be considered is the housing market's reclamation and rebranding of the term gentrification as a positive selling point, which adds gentrifiers and the godawful urban pioneers to the mix.-cph

Surly Urbanist said...

The real-estate market is important but the importance of branding here is the interesting story. You point towards rebranding gentrification as a positive good and how certain neighborhoods that are stable, good neighborhoods get ignored. These dynamics are what I find to be incredibly fascinating and to try and deconstruct some of the branding language that funnels people and investment to certain areas.