Thinking About Gentrification: Perspectives Matter

Michael Bourne has an interesting essay up over at The Millions in which he writes of his discomfort with the blight-embracing aesthetic of New York’s High Line, a park-like repurposing of an abandoned stretch of elevated train line in Far West Chelsea. While fully appreciating the practicality and enjoyability of the space, Bourne laments

the air of self-congratulation…the way the project seems to insist on its own good taste in recognizing the beauty in the things other people wanted to throw away, as if the people who lived and worked there for generations were blind to the value of things they themselves had made.

This essay is interesting to me in that it moves the debate about gentrification beyond the traditional pro/con dynamic. Bourne’s angst is not about whether the influx of a young, educated, largely white population is is displacing long-time residents and businessowners of Far West Chelsea; rather, his concern is with the “dreamscape” that the project attempts to capture. After all, the High Line is not simply the sprucing-up/re-purposing of an abandoned train line.  It is a monument to gentrification itself that celebrates a particular perceived sensibility by celebrating as relics of authenticity those same signposts of disrepair(cracked plaster, overgrown lots) that marked the neighborhood’s decay in the first place.   Bourne’s essay is less about gentrification itself and more about what the perceived meaning of gentrification is within a community.

I wonder if we are ready for that depth of self-examination in Philly, a city that has certainly seen its fair share of gentrification in neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties and Point Breeze. While we may not have a High Line-esque monument to gentrification in Philly (not yet, at least), are we nonetheless in a position to think critically about what we want gentrification to mean in this city?

If we’re not, I think we need to get there soon.

Despite the gradual gentrification of neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the dust has yet to settle on the issue.  And I think much of how that dust ends up settling depends on our communal understanding of what we want our neighborhoods to look like, feel like, and represent. I suspect that understanding (or, lack-thereof) can either inflame or sooth the natural tensions of class and race that oftentimes accompany gentrification in urban America.

It’s safe to assume that no one wants gentrification to mean the displacement of  the residents, heritage, or historical significance of a neighborhood. Yet at the same time, we also don’t want to be reveling in the blight — hanging our hats on the “authenticity” of gritty, urban living. Preserving the grittiness of a gentrified neighborhood is not the same as preserving the colonial vestiges of Old City, or celebrating the Italian influence that shaped South Philly. Reveling in the blight merely adds to the tensions between the new residents doing the reveling and the longtime residents who may have tried to persevere in spite  of that blight.  This is is especially important in largely residential neighborhoods.

Gentrification needs to mean transformation in a real sense. Beyond converting abandoned lots into flower gardens or turning abandoned factory space into loft-style apartments, gentirifcation should mean developing an entire neighborhood by bringing anchors to the community.  Farm to table restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques are nice and all.  However, they don’t do much for the longtime residents from whom buy-in is crucial.  The goal of gentrification should not be making it livable for newly-arrived residents or as a hip Friday-night destination for suburbanites or residents of the more ritzy Philadelphia neighborhoods.  The goal should be about making the neighborhood liveable, safe, clean, and accessible for all residents. Past, present, and future.

The concepts raised in Bourne’s essay are vitally important for anyone involved in or interested in the development American cities, and should cause all of us (as residents, business owners, visitors, or city officials) to question what our intentions are when we are discussing gentrification. Realizing what those intentions are matters. Communicating those intentions to others matters even more. Not just for improving dialogue between new and long-time residents within our gentrifying communities, but in order to frame the issue for the policymakers whose decisions will eventually shape these neighborhoods well into the future.

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One thought on “Thinking About Gentrification: Perspectives Matter

  1. A.B. says:

    Steady Dose-
    I couldn’t agree with you more. We walk a fine line between relishing in the economic disrepair gentrification is intended to alleviate, while at the same time potentially belittling the efforts of the incumbent neighborhood residents. On a greater level, perhaps this aspect of gentrification could be likened to any US occupation in a foreign country. Where do the limits lie with introducing supposed order amongst percieved chaos with a “holier than thou” mindset?

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