Why the Changes in Your Neighborhood Matter

I remember exactly where I was sitting and what I was doing when I was introduced to the word “gentrification.” As a recent seminary graduate, I was reading A View from the Urban Loft by Sean Benesh. He mentioned it in a way that indicated that every urban student should know exactly what it was and what it meant. I didn’t! So I noted the word and decided I needed to study the topic more.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my city of New Orleans, particularly my beloved Uptown neighborhood has been gentrifying at a rapid pace since Hurricane Katrina. Richard Campanella discusses this as “The White Teapot.” As I slowly tiptoed into this topic, I began to see all the signs of gentrification. For example, Wisner Park across from my apartment transformed from the center for drug deals for the West Riverside area to the city’s first official dog park. In addition, the playground was renovated and the basketball court was revamped. This transformation was completed in just a short 4 years. Property values in this area have also increased 18% in the past 2 years. Another sign I have noticed was the plethora of coffee shops I saw in a 2 mile radius. Then there are the various new burger, yogurt, hotdog, and trendy-specialty donut restaurants that have opened in Uptown, each another product in the increasingly gentrifying New Orleans.

Last year, when Sarah and I purchased our home in a different Uptown neighborhood only a mile away I began to notice that gentrification has different stages. In New Orleans, the Bywater and sections of Uptown are in the later stages, indicated by the rapid increase in property values (home prices and rental rates), as well as the explosion of specialized retail services, such as the yogurt, burger and donut shops mentioned above. Other neighborhoods, including Freret and Mid City, are earlier in the cycle. Freret, for example, is a hot bed for new restaurants and housing redevelopment. Similarly Mid-City has seen Whole Foods, Winn-Dixie, Five Guys, and Panera recently open, while Rouse’s expanded it’s Mid-City location, all in preparation for the new hospital that is being built. Central City is at an even earlier stage, with only a few businesses, including Velvet Espresso, which is pioneering gentrification there. There are even other neighborhoods which have only begun to see the glimmers of gentrification, such as Hollygrove and the Lower Ninth Ward. This is evident by the presence of only a few newcomers to the area, who are primarily interested in purchasing and renovating property for their personal use, which does little to affect the property values; additionally, government interest and support is minimal in these areas.

This renaissance happening throughout New Orleans isn’t a special case. In fact, the majority of American cities are experiencing the same changes. You probably know about the changes and have even enjoyed some of the benefits; maybe you just haven’t been accurately using the term. Gentrification involves the redevelopment of neighborhoods previously neglected or blighted, particularly in an urban context. This process has both positive and negative outcomes. Some of the positives include: improved quality of life, increase in the city’s tax base, poverty dilution, a new energy and vibrancy. Negative outcomes, however, are also numerous and will be addressed in another blog entirely. The rediscovery of our cities, their history and value, which was lost in American cities for much of the twentieth century, are all a part of the great appeal of these shifts currently happening, known as gentrification.    

This blog formed as I read and processed Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting edited by Sean Benesh. This book examines Gentrification biblically and theologically and then discusses the Christians’ response.