An Accidental Lesson On Gentrification While House Hunting
By Allison Walther
I once thought I was ready to buy a house. I met with a realtor and we began to discuss what I did and did not want in a home. I am not wealthy, so I knew I would need something that would be within my price range, and I knew that would possibly mean being a participant in gentrification. The definition of gentrification according to the English Oxford dictionary is “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste, and the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite.”
During my meeting with my realtor I led an impassioned discussion on not wanting to contribute to the negative aspects of what gentrification entails; namely the intentional driving out of persons who have ‘less than’ simply for the profit of the company and for the consumer, myself, a cis gender white female. I know that there are practices of driving persons in poverty, and predominantly areas of persons of color out of their neighborhoods, and I wanted no part in that. I explained this bluntly and in no uncertain terms. He was flummoxed and worked to convince me that sometimes, especially within the price range in which I was searching, that is the best option. I disagreed.
I was a victim to the process of gentrification when I lived in Howe Garden Apartments, which has since been renamed to provoke a sense of class even within the title. I felt many different things regarding this process. The apartment was my one opportunity I have had thus far to live by myself, which is my goal at this point in my life, and I was able to do so for two years before another company bought the complex out in an attempt to gentrify the neighborhood. There were many different nationalities and ethnicities represented in the complex, and a number of Caucasian persons who were in the service industry or in a creative profession. We had a communal paper you could collect at the main office when I was living there, think pieces and words of advice and on entertainment from its residents. One person wrote about the gentrification of the complex from the perspective of a white female creative, and wrote about the complexities of this being a complex full of different backgrounds, but acknowledgment of her white privilege and how there were many of us who were social workers, teachers, police officers, and others in blue collar jobs who would also have to move out in droves because we could no longer afford the housing.
This gave me conflicting emotions and revealed something dark and sinister inside of me that I did not know was there. I do not like to think of myself as a racist personality, but it made me understand that I have racial undertones that are pervasive in my perception of reality at times.
Gentrification as a concept has always been one that infuriated me on many levels, but something that I discovered I had categorized unfairly. In my mind, gentrification was almost solely targeting persons of color for the benefit of their white, privileged counterparts, and it had not occurred to me until this incident in totality that it incompasses all that are financially strapped. It does, of course, unfairly target areas of persons of color, but in my ignorance and unexplored bias, I also discovered that it could just as easily affect me. And it was.
The definition says to conform to “middle class” which knows no color and yet my brain had allowed me to be convinced that this still meant persons of color.
Where is the line of understanding that persons of color are certainly affected by movements of positive change more than persons of privilege while understanding that poverty affects all races, albeit unequally? Where is the line of being hurt and frustrated that I am a victim of the act of gentrification, while understanding that I still have the benefit of finding alternative housing as a white female that my fellow African American sister may not enjoy?
The apartment complex was rough in many ways, but really lovely in others. There was a need for improvement that was legitimate, however, to make those improvements, it cost the persons who lived there to an extent that drove them out. Almost everyone who was currently living in Howe had to move before it became Eastwood Greene.
We simply couldn’t afford it.
The article I mentioned above, written from the perspective of its white female author, also expressed that when creatives and those in the helping professions are forced out of neighborhoods that are disadvantaged (this unfortunately and because of red lining and zoning clauses steeped in racist undertones from long before, do include a high population of persons of color) is creating a problem that is unique. She stated that persons in helping professions, such as social workers and teachers and other union workers, are often more likely to spend their time working with organizations that are actively fighting to better improve the opportunity for the disenfranchised to reach an elevated sense of financial wealth and respect. She ascertained that if these helping professions are driven out of these neighborhoods, where they are actively working to be active members in the community and working on improving equality for the area they are living in, this would stop with its new, wealthier, and possibly less inclined towards those with less advantages, residents. Then these new wealthier residents, who are commonly not in helping professions, are being pre-maturely moved into areas that are not yet fully “gentrified” and may therefore be more high crime, or home to persons who do not look like the new residents. This brings up another issue regarding the white savior, and also shows the opposite effect of white flight.
Which demarks another line; how is my thinking unjust in assuming that residents who can afford the new housing do not care about the disenfranchised? How is my thinking unjust in assuming it is a travesty that white people who actually care about persons of color and are trying to work as allies is still rooted in an unjust bias of a white savior mentality? Can the two be distinguished or separate?
Can we know the answer fully? Are we able, as we are, to navigate what is true and right within the context that we will always be operating within the disadvantage of biased perspective?
A perspective I realize, frequently, that forces me to check my privilege and confront my own unfair biases I have, even if subconscious? I am not sure, but I know that I was a victim of gentrification, and I know that even in that fact, I am one of the lucky ones. Not because of anything I can control, but because my experience is and always will be one of advantage.