Gentrification: When The Reality Sets In

For several years after moving to New Orleans I romanticized the city and urban living, a classification Tim Keller discusses in Center Church. Although I still firmly believe living in an urban area is the best place for my family, over the past year being exposed to some of the negatives effects has changed this romanticism. One of my biggest reality checks came when it occurred to me that I was in fact a “gentrifier.” It was at that point that my theology, philosophy, and view of the city was rocked.

Gentrification involves the redevelopment of neighborhoods previously neglected or blighted, particularly in an urban context. This process brings both good and bad. In “Why the Changes in Your Neighborhood Matter,” I highlighted some of the positive results of gentrification. In this blog I will process some of the negative outcomes.

In the 1950s a large scale migration known as “White Flight” occurred in our American cities. Now another major shift is happening. Called gentrification, this “reverse flight” back into our cities isn’t just a movement of Caucasian people. Instead this is the re-entry of the wealthy, upper-middle class into our city centers. Globally this includes Chinese, Africans, and Hispanics; however, Caucasians are the majority of this group in most American cities.

Robert Lupton has lectured and written on the idea that gentrification is an unstoppable tidal wave washing through our American cities. City mayors love this renaissance. In New Orleans even the federal government has helped fuel this tidal wave with the levee improvements, focused on protecting the Orleans Parish, and programs like Project Home Again, which encourage new home buyers to help redevelop neighborhoods.

Sarah and I moved into a new walkable neighborhood. We live close to public transportation and in walking distance to one of the hippest new streets in New Orleans. Our walks in our neighborhood have introduced us to new neighbors. One of our favorites was Ms. D, an elderly lady who always seemed to be porch-sitting. She was our favorite because she reminded us of our grandmothers. We looked forward to our child(ren) getting to receive hugs, kisses, and king cake from Ms. D. Each time we walked by her house, we stopped to say hello. She often commented on Sarah’s then-growing belly and got to meet our girl after she was born. Suddenly, over the span of a couple of weeks, we noticed that Ms. D seemed to have disappeared. We hadn’t seen her porch-sit in awhile. I remember the gut wrenching feeling I first experienced when I thought that Ms. D might have been victim to the negative side of gentrification: her landlord pushing her out in order to raise rent for a new, wealthier tenant. I was relieved in some ways when another neighbor informed us that Ms. D in fact moved to an assisted living home because of deteriorating health.

But there is a reality that gentrification can bring displacement of the working-class, particularly the elderly on a fixed income or minority residents. This results as property values and rent increase. Landlords raise rents in favor of the additional profit possible from an upper-middle class tenant. The displacement of lower income residents brings up the question of justice. Is it really fair for residents on fixed incomes who have lived in the neighborhood for many years, through seasons of crime, neglect, and blight, before the redevelopment took place, to be forced out of their homes because of the influx of new money? It is important to note, however, that most gentry do not move into a neighborhood to intentionally displace the lower income minorities. Instead, the uprooting of neighborhoods caused by urban hipsters is simply a negative outcome, a side-effect, if you will. Regardless of the intent, the displacement occurs, and is an issue that must be considered.

There is also the tendency in this process for a neighborhood’s identity to completely change with so many new residents. But diversity is a foundational element in a strong community. Every age, every class, every race has value. Therefore balancing this tension means current residents must be included and valued in the process of revitalization. Ultimately the strongest communities will have all types of people: young families, empty-nesters, troubled youth, elderly on fixed income, singles, and disabled. The lower, middle and upper classes will live together, learn together, and care for another.

What I’m learning is that as the gentry I must be cognizant of these negative outcomes so that I do not become a white man colonizing a historic neighborhood, and in the process completely change my neighborhood into everything that I personally think would be best. Instead gentry must enter a neighborhood with a patient mindset to learn, listen, and help where help is needed. 

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.