Gentrification – a dynamic that emerges in poor urban areas when residential shifts, urban planning, and other phenomena affect the composition of a neighborhood. Urban gentrification often involves population migration as poor residents of a neighborhood are displaced. In a community undergoing gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases. This generally results in the displacement of the poorer, pre-gentrification residents, who are unable to pay increased rents, and property taxes, or afford real estate (Wikipedia).
Gentrification is one of those topics that gets thrown around a lot here in DC. It’s current, wide-spread, and extremely controversial. But, most significantly, it’s personal. Gentrification is a process that is actively affecting DC residents — in either a beneficial or harmful way — every single day.
Above, I inserted Wikipedia’s description of gentrification purely for practicality’s sake. However, defining gentrification is tricky business as it certainly isn’t a term that holds a static definition. The method of enforcement, and the implications that result, vary immensely from situation to situation, thus making it all the more contentious and difficult to treat.
Last week, I went to a presentation on the history of gentrification in Southwest — an area of the city that is infamous for having undergone a most blatant and grueling form of gentrification in which thousands of residents (all poor, and a majority African American) were displaced and forced to watch as their homes were replaced with federal buildings or luxury apartments that they could not afford.
During the presentation, a short documentary called Southwest Remembered was shown, and then a discussion was meant to follow. I’d originally heard about the presentation via Facebook, and was keen to attend. I wanted to learn more about the issue and get a better grasp of the history of Southwest.
Upon arrival, I was struck by who was in attendance. I’d say 75% of the audience was under 35, a majority of whom were white. There was also a prominent number of older African Americans, most of whom (as I would later learn) live in Southwest. The presentation was headed by this twenty-something white chick (who, from this point forth, I will refer to as Daisy), and who was quick to explain that she wasn’t an expert on Southwest, but rather was interested in examining the issue of gentrification in different cities across the country.
Daisy immediately irked me. She um’d a lot and seemed rather nervous speaking in front of a large group, especially on topics as touchy as race and class. However, I have a tendency to be overly opinionated and quick to dismiss people, so I tried to just cruise and give her the benefit of the doubt. I know what it’s like to have to stand up and speak in front of a large crowd. As a tour guide, I do it for a living. Sometimes I get anxious or stumble over words or develop an involuntary stuttering problem, so I decided to try and let it go.
The film was shown and it was very informative, providing excellent background and raising a lot of questions about the ethics of gentrification. I was glad I came.
Then the presentation was paused for a few minutes before the discussion started. The room, which had been packed to capacity, suddenly opened up as half of the white people left. Hmm. Okay.
The discussion started.
And here comes Daisy again. She reminds everyone that she won’t be contributing to the conversation, per se, but that she is there to mediate discussion. Because God forbid people get heated in a conversation about gentrification.
She calls on a few different folks to speak. The first two have each lived in Southwest for 30+ years and are active members of the community. They offer insight into how their lives have been affected by gentrification. They are clearly passionate about the issue, but are more or less agreeable in their commentary.
Then Daisy makes a mistake. She calls on a genteman who is not just passionate. He’s pissed off. He’s angry about the displacement that he and his family has experienced, he’s angry that gentrification isn’t more widely recognized as a form of systemic racism (the sort of racism that punishes young black boys for wearing a hoodie in the rain), and he’s angry that Daisy is here to “aid” in a situation that she knows nothing about. However, he doesn’t say that directly. He’s much more eloquent in his accusation. Rather, he simply asks her one question.
“What do you hope to get out of this?”
Everyone pauses. All eyes on Daisy.
She looks like she wants to crawl in a hole. Like she’s never regretted anything more than electing to come here and do this presentation. I almost feel bad for her.
She starts muttering about how today’s film is one of 4 that will be shown this summer. Each film shows how gentrification has affected different areas of the country. The last film centers on gentrification in San Francisco and is a really excellent depiction of…
Wait, what? Really? Really?
This bitch is not only unable to answer the most important question of the program, but now she is evading the question by advertising for a future presentation?
The conversation continued on as Daisy called on a new person to speak, but I’d lost interest. She eventually reigned in the discussion to remind everyone that the purpose of the program was to generate awareness about what was happening in Southwest, but it didn’t matter because at that point, I’d also lost respect.
There are a lot of problems going on here. Obviously, the issue of gentrification in and of itself. But more so, the question of altruism and how it functions as an enabler in gentrification. I have no doubts that Daisy thought she was doing good by putting on this program. At it’s best, the presentation will spark a greater interest in the effects of gentrification (though I have minimal expectations in what sort of action will result in this heightened interest). However, at its worst, the presentation has the potential to provide a false sense of self-righteousness and accomplishment in both the attendees and hosts. It could very easily encourage people to remain complacent in their idleness, rather than take action, by leading participants into believing that they have actually done something progressive simply by attending.
Real talk: You didn’t do anything. But you probably feel a little better about yourself now, right? Kind of like when you wear Toms instead of Nikes?
But so what? If the biggest problem in all of this is that it promotes further inaction, then what difference does it really make in whether or not programs like these are featured, especially if there’s a chance that it will inspire at least one person to take action.
Well, my deepest issue isn’t with Daisy or the program in itself (though it may appear that way). My problem lies in the fact that this sort of event, one put on by a well-intentioned girl whose only motivation is to “raise awareness,” could potentially be defined as altruistic. As selfless, helpful, even magnanimous. That can’t happen. We need be more careful in what we label as philanthropic. In both our personal lives and in society.
On a superficial level, gentrification means renovating historic buildings, lowering crime rates, and razing dilapidated homes. All positives right? But for whom? I’m (finally) reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and in it he references the “casualties of progress” or the “victims of that progress which benefits a privileged minority in the world.” There are many benefits to gentrification, but those benefits are limited to a certain demographic.
So what’s the solution? And where do I stand in all of this?
Fuck if I know.
I threw around the words “you” and “they” a lot as if I am somehow not participating in all of this. We are all participants. However, it’s easy to make these observations and accusations as the voyeur who sits quietly in the corner, and uses my qualms with altruism as an excuse for inactivity.
Thus making me the biggest twat of all. Which is why I seriously debated posting this. I don’t have answers, just a lot of questions. Though I figured in writing this, maybe I could get some of those questions answered.
PS. Daisy, I’m sorry I called you a bitch. But really?