City Desk

Gentrification By Another Name

Though I don't have an answer to the question Elahe Izadi poses in her DCentric post about whether gentrification by non-whites should have a different name, I do think it's worth connecting with a story the Post ran today about their black women in America poll. Elahe writes:

What’s your take: what does gentrification by non-whites look like? Is gentrification all the same, no matter the race of the gentrifier?

Almost a year ago, I argued in an essay for City Paper that being a black gentrifier is a complicated thing. One point I tried to get at in the story is that for middle class black folks, there tend to be much, much stronger connections to working class and poor extended family members than there are for middle class whites. To that end, I'd argue that in the case of gentrification, class is complicated significantly by race. Nonwhite people with the means to move into a "neighborhood in transition" are, yes, more likely to want the same things as white newcomers—coffee shops, bars, etc—but they are also more likely to identify (to some extent) with the folks who have been living there.

Back to the Post story. In it, examples abound of middle class black women who have put their own needs aside in order to help family members:

Several women interviewed said they put their own plans on hold so they could help others. The Post-Kaiser poll found that 60 percent of black women have loaned money to friends or family, with the rate rising to 73 percent among those who earn $65,000 or more. Margaret Wilson, 49, from Little Rock, said that she used some of her retirement savings to help her sister and brother-in-law stave off foreclosure.

“She’s always been my baby sister, and I feel that responsibility,” she said. “It’s really as simple as that.”

Kathy James, 41, a married social worker from outside St. Louis, said her sister, Janice Francis, came to her for financial help after both she and her husband lost their jobs over the course of 18 months in 2008 and 2009. James said Francis, 47, and her husband saw their $125,000 annual household income slashed by 75 percent and were close to losing their home.

James offered to loan them six months of mortgage payments and other living costs while the couple got back on their feet — even though she had been saving the money to return to school for her master’s degree. The couple hasn’t been able to start repaying her yet, but James said she won’t charge her sister interest.

“It’s what you do as family, really, so I didn’t really think too much of it,” James said in an interview.

She said Francis was like a surrogate parent to her after their mother died when they were children. So, she said, she sees any help she offers her big sister and her family as part of the responsibility the sisters have to take care of each other, which they have been doing for nearly 40 years.

“My family is my community,” she said. “Of course I have to think about my family’s future and how we need to ensure we are okay . . . If I was faced with the decision 10 times again, I’d make the same decision again 10 times over.”

Obviously these trends are not limited to black women, but they're more prevalent in this group. And for that reason, I'd say that there may be a different, or at least more empathetic, result when degreed, middle-class people of color buy a house on a gentrifying block. Is it still displacement? In the time since that story ran, I've been gently scolded for calling myself a gentrifier by longtime black residents who say that I'm still "part of the family" by virtue of my race. Apparently that means I'm not displacing anyone, even though I grew up 2,700 miles away and have a dog and a bike.

I don't know how true that is, but one thing I do know: The conversation around gentrification is so fraught (and reductive!) that complicating it a bit, the way Izadi is trying to, may be the more useful exercise.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

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  • Asafo Yerodin

    You know why the concept of black gentrification doesn't make sense? Because black people don't move from the hood to move into another hood... They move from the hood into a better neighborhood... If they stay in the hood it is to make their community better. And if anybody says different they are trying to divide our community with useless talk.

  • Mrs. D

    I dunno about the full analysis here.

    (1) Maybe non-white middle-class folks are *more likely* to know people who live in or slide into poverty, but I don't buy the whites who don't know any of these folks moving into truly "transitioning" neighborhoods. My friends who don't know anyone living in or near poverty are afraid of their own shadow. It takes a certain level of exposure to poverty to be comfortable living in/near it. They either refuse to move into the city (or walk to my house alone, even in broad daylight) or will only move into a neighborhood once it's been fully Disneyfied.

    (2) Okay, so non-whites know more poor people and feel for them...what exactly does "feeling for them" accomplish? You admit that they're still demanding the same types of businesses and, presumably, engaging in the same process of buying a flipped home or renovating a home themselves, driving up property values. So how is this different? They help the folks leaving the neighborhood load the truck? They donate some more to charity, time or money? I don't buy that helping their family counts, with the stories recounted here. All those stories say is that family members helped other family members *stay in the middle class.* But having 2 current mortgages from middle-class folks in a transitioning neighborhood just keeps the cycle of higher prices going, where a foreclosure would make the neighborhood more affordable (not saying that foreclosures are good, but there is a relatively simple relationship going on here). Are these folks out there paying the increased property taxes of their neighbors, in order to keep them in their homes? The article doesn't seem to imply that.

    In short, it's like we're trying to sell non-white gentrification here as a "kinder, gentler" gentrification, when it's the same thing with more mixed emotions surrounding it.

  • Shani Hilton

    @ Mrs. D. Yeah, you're saying pretty much what I was trying to say but far more eloquently. I'll clarify and add that nonwhite gentrification has the 'potential' to be different because there's more empathy, but then again, empathy only goes so far.

  • Kitty Bizzle

    I don't understand the importance of race in terms gentrification (or in terms of anything really). Why continue to focus on our difference, aren't we all human-beings? To associate race with a general socio-economic background is to pigeonhole a group of people into a peg they don't all fit into. Things have changed, those are old chains.

    Focusing on differences, be it in the name of academic endeavor for greater understanding, or not, still promotes hate in the most subtle of way. It prolongs the division people feel towards one another; it keeps the feeling of separateness alive in mind (in the conscious atmosphere).

    Non-white gentrification, sounds like... gentrification.

    All these people who study urban economics and equate economic ability to climb the latter with race, need to step back, and look at rural America. White trash isn't just something to be joked about. I guess it's just "lucky" for white folks that they haven't all been pegged as without opportunity because of their race. [Rural areas have much less opportunity for the poor (regardless of ethnicity) than do urban dwellers- just saying...

    let's get a new perspective. stop creating race issues, we are all one.

  • cb

    "For middle class black folks, there tend to be much, much stronger connections to working class and poor extended family members than there are for middle class whites"

    Really? So white people have no ties to poor or working class family members? Anyone from a poor or working class background, black or white, is going to have connections to their family members. The ones who don't are not the ones moving into transitional neighborhoods.

    Gentrification has some cultural effects but it's an economic phenomenon at its core: More people want to live in the city even if they can't afford the "classy" part, and improving schools and crime rates in marginal neighborhoods allow them to do that without sacrificing quality of life. If you have to leave a neighborhood because you can no longer afford it, it doesn't soften the blow if the person moving into your house is black.

    That said, I think you're on to something when you say that middle class people from a working class background are more equipped to "feel for" their neighbors. We could use some more empathy in this city, especially on Capitol Hill. But one race is not any more empathetic than another.

  • Mrs. D

    In fairness, I know you didn't start this discussion, and it's mostly an academic exercise, anyway. Not trying to be snarky, just pointing out that the end results are the same unless there's some truly different activity going on, like increased activism in projects that help with increasing property tax bills (lobbying for new laws/programs, donating to charities that prioritize this need, etc.). Also, the "help" these women are providing may destabilize their life down the line. IF my brother made $125K a year and I laid 6 months of mortgage payments *commensurate with that income* on him, I would be hurting if I got into trouble down the line. And while being aware of the fragility of new-found middle-classdom *also* probably doesn't change the end result for truly poor people, it might mean things like slower property value growth in neighborhoods largely gentrified by non-whites, unless their generosity is well-reciprocated by the family members *they* helped (more foreclosures, periods where residents have lower levels of disposable income to support new stores, etc.).