On Gentrification

“What is wrong with gentrification?” A friend of mine asked me this, in all seriousness, as we sat down to coffee in the Bay Area for the first time in half a year. It was not the first time somebody had asked me that question, but I was still struggling to come up with an adequate response.

I understand where the question stems from. It is arises from an amalgamation of following beliefs: 1) the certainty that change is inevitable 2) the resolve that “nicer” businesses = a better society 3) the dog-eat-dog capitalist notion that if you can’t “cut it” in your neighborhood, you need to move somewhere else.

Gentrification means different things to different people. It manifests differently depending on what side of the pond you are on. If you are in a position of privilege, gentrification is good to you. From the perspective of privilege, through the “power of” gentrification a once “blighted” neighborhood can become transformed into a hot spot of prosperity. To defend the economic shift which may have displacement as an unavoidable side-effect, the privileged may point to the fact that the neighborhood is more friendly, more exciting, safer for them and their children. But what happens to all the people who used to live there? What happens to the poor, to the marginalized, to those who have no place to go but from blight to blight, forever running from the re-colonization of their homes and neighborhoods? Gentrification looks much different from the perspective of the oppressed, from those who cannot live in a safe, friendly, clean neighborhood because racism exists. Because sexism, domestic violence and rape culture exist. Because homophobia exists. Because inequality exists and will not stop existing if we continue to insist that marginalized populations must take care of themselves when they are not given the support and resources to do so. Until we stop persecuting the oppressed for their inability to live up to the standards of the privileged.

That is what is wrong with gentrification. It does not affect us all equally. It does not just reflect our disparity, it creates it. It hinders empathy. It promotes fear. And it re-enforces the belief that privileges are due to merit, and not an effect of systematic oppression.