The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Managing Gentrification: Regarding Power and Interests

I know it’s a cliche anti-gentrification photo, but hey, it makes the point.  Source:
I first developed the notion that perhaps the process of gentrification could somehow be managed a few years ago, before I started writing this blog.  I started to develop the idea more seriously about 6-9 months ago, doing some research on communities that tried to tackle not just gentrification, but more broadly the notion of community transition.  I settled on Oak Park, IL as a possible template because few places nationwide have tried to address the issues Oak Park did (Shaker Heights, OH comes to mind, as does maybe Silver Spring and Columbia in Maryland outside Washington, DC.  Also, Oak Park’s Chicago metro doppleganger of Evanston, IL has probably done similar things).  In general, however, I held off on writing about this because I really wondered where the impetus and the resources for moving a gentrification management agenda forward would come from.

So a couple weeks ago I elected to go ahead with the idea.  I thought, hey, let’s put it out there and see how it flies.  It turns out the response was that, while well-intentioned and even feasible in principle, the money and power dynamic of this type of community transition makes management nearly impossible.

And those on that side of the issue would be right.

Daniel Kay Hertz had perhaps the most well thought out dissent I saw, and I can’t say I disagree.  From his piece:

“The white middle-class and affluent residents of Oak Park had much more power over their situation than the lower- and working-class, generally non-white residents of gentrifying neighborhoods do today. More to the point, Oak Parkers had more power than the people who wanted to move into Oak Park, which is the opposite of the dynamic in gentrifying areas. To start with the obvious, Oak Parkers had more money, which is useful if you’re going to launch a campaign that will require many, many person-hours of work. The fact that Oak Parkers had money also meant they weren’t in danger of being priced out of their neighborhood; the challenge, rather, was to keep their neighborhoods the kind of places they would choose to live, so as to avoid voluntary mass exodus.

Second, Oak Parkers had the kind of social capital that allowed them to do things like set up equity insurance programs to protect homeowners from potentially falling real estate prices during integration. The social power that came with their racial background also allowed them to get away with “encouraging African American dispersion” throughout Oak Park to avoid ghettoization. Imagine the response of middle-class whites being told by some Pilsen neighborhood council that they would be instructed as to which apartments they were allowed to rent so as to avoid too much white clustering: it would not be pretty.”

It’s true that Oak Parkers were motivated by a sense of maintaining their financial and social status, and that they had financial and social advantage over those who wanted to move into their community.  In that sense Oak Parkers were able to dictate terms of engagement.  Low-income or working-class communities don’t enjoy the same kind of financial or social capital advantage over well-to-do newcomers.

Then Daniel’s third and fourth points drive it home:

Third, Oak Parkers had the advantage of their own government. Unlike, say, Logan Square, which is governed by a city whose constituents include both longtime Logan Square residents and many of the wealthier potential gentrifiers, Oak Park’s municipal government was responsive only to the interests of a small, relatively homogenous group of educated, liberal whites with, apparently, broad agreement about what the future of their suburb should look like.

Finally, Oak Parkers had the benefit of policy levers that could accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Without downplaying the real risks they took, and the real novelty of a white neighborhood successfully implementing planned integration in the mid 20th century, by that time American cities had been managing the residential movement of black people, and lower-income people, for many generations. If part of Oak Park’s goal involved making sure the inflow of black families wasn’t too fast, and that it didn’t create new segregated clusters, they had reason to believe that was, if not exactly a slam dunk, definitely achievable. On the flip side, there are no policy levers I’m aware of that can keep relatively wealthier people out of a low-priced neighborhood that don’t also have serious negative consequences for the existing residents of that neighborhood.

Oak Park did indeed have the advantage of a small and flexible local government willing to take on the challenge of integration.  Within a larger city like Chicago, the 50,000+ residents of a suburb like Oak Park are just another neighborhood out of scores of neighborhoods, and would likely never be able to conjure up the citywide political support to do what they did on their own.  Even with the broad latitude that Chicago’s aldermen have over their wards, it’s inconceivable that an aldermen would be able to implement such drastic policy changes just in one area without consideration of its citywide impact.  And I’m quite sure mid-century Chicago was not thinking of integration in the same way that Oak Park was.

Daniel’s last point is key.  To the extent that there has been “social engineering” in the makeup of our cities, it has usually happened with the where, when and how minority communities would interact with white communities, and not the other way around.  Also, while my proposed program was not intended to focus on keeping wealthy residents out of lower-priced areas, we certainly don’t have the vocabulary for doing so.

Bottom line, I spent the last few days thinking my proposed program was at best a quixotic attempt to navigate the changes impacting cities nationwide.  If any of you read The Chicago Magazine piece entitled Jose Lopez’s Last Stand, which seemed to emphasize the futility of Lopez’s efforts, then you might understand how I felt.

Like I said earlier, I first got the idea that this might even be possible several years ago.  I was working on a neighborhood quality of life plan for the Near West Side of Chicago in 2006-07, and the project was a muted battle fought by three and sometimes four groups — 1) longtime homeowners; 2) longtime renters; 3) affluent gentrifiers; and 4) public housing residents.  Alliances frequently shifted during the planning process, but our work at getting planning process participants to agree to some broad community principles could be hailed as a success.  It might be more useful to use that effort as a template and to investigate any successes or failures since the plan was completed.

I’ll keep trying to find a new way.

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