Gentrification, Responsibility, and a New Look at Urban Improvement

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

It’s not uncommon for me to be the only white passenger when I board my 7:24 a.m. bus. As I ride further downtown, and eventually transfer to a second bus that will take me to my workplace on Capitol Hill, the bus slowly diversifies - until it becomes overwhelmingly full of people like me. In the span of little over an hour and just few miles, I watch one culture rapidly diffuse into another.

Washington, D.C. is gentrifying, and doing so at a rapid pace. Gentrification is a process in which wealthier residents begin to move into a neighborhood, often alongside an influx of new businesses and ideas for development. These neighborhoods quickly begin experiencing rising property values, which new residents may be able to afford, but which push past residents out of their homes. In the midst gentrification, the cost of living dramatically increases, and long-standing communities, as a result, are often dislodged. After residents relocate, sometimes many miles away or across state lines, the places in which they once lived can soon become culturally unrecognizable.

I am a young, Caucasian woman living in a predominately African American neighborhood, which in many ways, feels like it's next in line to gentrify. Given this awareness, how do I grapple with my role and responsibilities as a Christian who wishes the best for her neighbors? I realize that there are no simple answers to this question, but I believe that there are some things to take into consideration when thinking about the hurt gentrification often brings.

One key principle is to look at the way we view the relationship between urban development and economic development. An article featured in New York magazine earlier this year, “Is Gentrification All Bad?”, stated, “As the cost of basic city life keeps rising, it’s more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right.”

Urban improvement can all too often be defined as white improvement. We ought not to judge a neighborhood’s success by the new, big chain coffee shop that moved in down the street, or the construction of a mega retail clothing store. Rather, we should judge urban improvement by the success of the long standing business on the corner, accessibility to pharmacies, and well-maintained public spaces. The things that make everyday life just a little bit easier for everyday people always need to be evaluated before any attempt at restructuring economic norms.

 The H Street Festival, Washington, DC.

The H Street Festival, Washington, DC.

This is not to say that economic development does not have a place – it most certainly does, and there is often a clear need for improvement in many places struggling with gentrification. This is largely because consumers have what I believe is the option of "buying out". Buying out is the ability to actively make a choice to not spend one’s dollar in the local community when cheaper products, or even better products, can be purchased just miles away. This area is a place where neighbors have a lot of power to make positive change. By agreeing to invest in a community’s small businesses and services, more money will  circulate a lot closer to home. At the same time, gently encouraging restaurants and stores to be more competitive can hold great benefits for their long term success. Committing to a neighbors’ endeavors, and holding faith that they know their communities’ needs  better than anyone, gives me faith in the integrity of many of the places I pass by every day.

Additionally, we need to take responsibility for the common good when it comes to top down decision making.  I can easily think of town or city wide improvements that I have enjoyed in the past, and that I have championed and received gleefully. However, this has come at the cost of not considering how the improvement for me may have hurt someone else. For example, if a city is using X amount of dollars to improve public transportation, and it chooses to funnel that into building a new metro line, that may be an improvement for some, but one that is narrowly felt. Riding the Metro in DC is by far more expensive than riding the bus. Metro lines hardly reach less prosperous communities and make taking the bus, at least some distance, a necessity. Perhaps the best thing to advocate for in this case would be more buses, more stops, or simply more coverings for those waiting for the bus (which I will tell you, is perhaps my biggest frustration on rainy days).  The same principles can be said on behalf of affordable housing, community services, and many other areas.

The searing need for economic development should not have to destroy generations of community culture and family history. If anything, it should empower individuals so that they might live with a sustainable income and be able to carry on traditions without the burdens that come hand in hand with living with a system that does not work in their favor. Justice is working towards a more inclusive future where we can both strive and rest in our own skin. I need to ask hard questions about gentrification on a daily basis because I deem it a responsibility. I encourage you to do the same.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.