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Can Cities Curb Gentrification?

Cities have historically been the hub of the poor-they lived where the jobs were abundant.  Old pictures of New York City, Chicago, Detroit and even beautiful Los Angeles show more slums than evergreen areas.  Ordinances throughout the 21st Century helped to create cleaner living areas and housing regulations.  As the 1950’s approached “White Flight” occurred with cities becoming majority-minority overnight.  As the white people and affluent ran to the suburbs and exurbs, the neighborhoods surrounding factories and Downtown areas became the new slums (or so many writers have said).  Even living close to Downtown doesn’t guarantee a good job as the Grassroots Collaborative has presented.

The past twenty years we have seen manufacturing leave for the suburbs as cities are being reinvented with boutique dining and shopping, expanded gardens and 24-hour entertainment. At the same time, it’s become extremely expensive to live in the city to enjoy many of the new amenities.   A simple subway or “L” ride through any of these cities and it’s clear-white, middle and upper-middle-class people, workers and business owners have returned.  The minority neighborhoods are quickly gentrified into mini-cities such as the reshaping of Venice Beach, Bucktown in Chicago or the sprawl of Manhattan.

The game changers or gentrifiers as they are called are not all to blame.  The migration of the entire nation back into the cities doesn’t equate mass gentrification, it’s called demographic inversion.  It’s not just minority neighborhoods that are witnessing skyrocketing taxes and home values.  Entire sections of cities that were once home to lower to middle-class whites are now filled with doctors, lawyers, and upper-class immigrants.  The original occupants, many of them there for generations, are fleeing due to high taxes.  Everyone knows that once the neighborhood gets “better”, expect to be outpriced.

Demographic inversion is an interesting phenomenon as it will affect many generations to come with cleaner cities, increasing tech hubs and turnarounds in cities failing school systems.  As Chicago lost it’s manufacturing it has gained the title of “Midwest tech hub”.  In the city of Big Shoulders workers now need a strong knowledge of computer programming.

The greatest struggle is for businesses that want to either continue manufacturing in cities or open new manufacturing.  The affluent residents refuse manufacturing while their minority neighbors need the jobs.  What can a community do when demographic inversion chases residents and jobs away?  Does your development board have a Ferguson problem? Residents must have development councils that are not filled by people making more than the average person in the neighborhood.  A development board must be balanced with an equal amount of minority residents, generations old residents, lower class, middle class, affluent and the poor.  Too many times, a “rich board” has taken advantage to move on excluding development that would help their neighbors.  A board should reflect the neighborhood and it’s needs, not what an “investment” neighbor is looking to gain.  Get on your board to make local jobs a priority, not a minority.

Communities across the nation’s cities are struggling to maintain minority populations.  In Pilsen, a small neighborhood in Chicago once home to Eastern Europeans, Latino organizations are fighting affluent developments.  The new Paseo would connect Pilsen with other neighborhoods but residents fear it will increase taxes and rent.  But where can the residents find jobs in the local economy if businesses don’t open?  Even if rents increase, so will jobs.  The City of Chicago City Council has increased minimum wage, increased local school funding and are working on decreasing crime specifically in that area.  It will be a safer, economically abundant and amenity-rich neighborhood.  The minority population will finally have better schools as most gentrified areas receive, higher wages and less crime.  There are trade-offs that people must accept.  The trade-offs will engender their next generation to receive the means to the ends of middle-class life.

The Atlantic presented great evidence of demographic inversions ability to support generations old residential communities. But that doesn’t always work.  What has worked is New York City’s rent control policies.  If minorities want to stay in their communities, they must advocate for rent control ordinances.  These ordinances have helped New York maintain it’s eclectic group of residents from starving artists to millionaires like our present-day president.  Residents must stop fighting the people that are moving in and insist through legislation that every new development have 20% low-income residency requirements.  Legislation must not allow developers to dismiss this requirement with a fee which happens in Chicago.  Residents must use their voting power to advocate for change on the local and national level.  That begins in the voting booth.  Latinos have the lowest voting percentage across elections in America.  Make your voices heard at the polls to get politicians to take your demands seriously.  It’s a little different for African-Americans.  Their neighborhoods such as Bronzeville in Chicago and Harlem in New York have seen a resurgence of African-American neighbors and developments.  But these new neighbors have come back to the old hood rich and raising taxes.  The color of your neighbor is not as important as their wallet.  Not every rich person moving to the neighborhood is white.  Asian Americans have expanded far beyond any “Chinatown” in any American city.  They are quickly becoming the highest paid workers.  If they move in next door, you can bet the property value will spike. If minorities want to fight gentrification it must be in controlling rents and home values, not the ethnicity of the neighbors.

The demographic inversion of America will not cease but it can be less painful for minority and lower-income residents.  The residents will be the new game changers by insisting on representation on development boards, communicating with local political leaders and fighting for legislation.  It’s in their hands.


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