Monday, June 9, 2008

The ills of gentrification

There are social experiments taking place all around us. My recent trip of Long Beach simply made the pervasiveness of gentrification salient in my mind once more.

Truth be told, it was more than just the influx of trendy social spots and the presence of extensive construction/remodeling. It was also the heightened awareness of my favorite Asian buddy, who spent at least half of his first trip to the greater Los Angeles area yelling out "gentrification" as we walked up and down the trendy city blocks of Downtown Long Beach.

Yet, despite his keen observation, it was quite clear that process experiment was far from complete. In fact, nothing other than a pair of loud talking, cigarette smoking crackheads walking behind us on one of the city blocks commenting on the way my ass moved could have made that more clear. The omnipresence of police officers eating dinner at local establishments, talking to groups of knuckleheads, transporting around of those foolish segway things or simply patrolling the blocks in their vehicles drove that point home. Nevertheless, the city is surely working on cleaning up the riff raff.

Some would argue that this "riff raff" that I speak of is synonymous with "minorities." In other words, cleaning up the riff raff means getting rid of the minorities. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that those arguing this point are correct.

Urban centers were once cultural strongholds. Local officials in these urban centers welcomed the troves of people living in or frequenting their areas. This would drive up the revenue base and allow these high traffic areas to be able to meet growing service demands. Yet, as our nation moved away from industry and more toward service, the affluent decided to jump ship and head for the quiet comfort of their suburban estates. And so began the deterioration of the traditional urban city.

Now these avenues towards urban renewal are all the rave. And admittedly, I love to see projects that give rise to culture and that make city life easily accessible and conducive to entertaining the masses. Yet, above and beyond this simple notion of gentrification as an avenue used by Whites to reclaim the cities, it is important to view this process through a class-based lens as well. Race and class are all at once, inextricably entangled and distinctly separate. The complexity of race and class make it difficult to discuss one dimension without making a substantive reference to the other.

However, the continuing challenge for city planners seeking to reinvigorate their city centers will be to balance the incorporation of people residing at all points along both dimensions. Efficient, affordable and easily accessible public transportation will help. Inclusion of elements that reflect cultural diversity are key and trendy. A mix of affordable high-end and low-income housing is mandatory. And a firm commitment to ensuring that the so-called gentrification of areas is not primarily motivated by, or fully seeking to, displace entire population segments. Even if certain populations are relocated or ushered off to the fringes. Cities have no right to strip an area of its lifeblood. Poor minorities have just as much right to city sectors as do affluent majorities. Increased property value is desirable, but not at the expense of those that call an area home and take pride in the place that they live.

So long as cleaning up the "riff raff" isn't code language for something else, gentrification is fine by me. It's even fine by me if it means that I will be objected to further sexual harassment from less fortunate members of our society watching my ass as I walk to dinner. Sadly, I suspect that many of these aforementioned experiments are imbalanced beyond repair and are deeply damaging the historical foundations of urban centers across the state and across the nation. We must always be mindful of the costs associated with gentrification and ensure that this growing trends does not revisit historical trends of ghettoizing in American history.

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