Not Just Spike Lee's Brooklyn: Gentrification Spurs Tensions Nationwide

By: Andres Gonzalez, CNN
By: Andres Gonzalez, CNN
Spike Lee

MGN Online

(CNN) -- A walk along the streets of Columbia Heights in northern Washington is a trip down memory lane for Franklin Garcia, 44.

Near 16th Street, there's the Shrine of the Sacred Heart church, where Garcia had his first Communion. Nearby on Columbia Road, there's the red brick building where he grew up. At family friends' apartments, he used to eat mangu, a Dominican dish made out of green plantains, then dance bachata and chat with neighbors and friends.

This, Garcia said, is where he was "fitting right in" after emigrating from the Dominican Republic in 1980, when the white population in Washington had fallen to 26.9% from 64% in 1950.

Then 11, Garcia's first impression of the United States was influenced by the realities of U.S. cities in the 1980s experiencing the last waves of white flight, a demographic trend that began after World War II, when home loans, cheap gas and booming construction in city outskirts led many returning soldiers' families, often white, to the suburbs.

While Spike Lee's expletive-laden rant this week during an African-American History Month lecture has shone a light on gentrification in Lee's Brooklyn, metropolises across the nation are grappling with the tensions that new faces often bring to historically minority neighborhoods.

Garcia's memories of Columbia Heights mirror those of minorities who once populated low-income communities such as Chicago's Lower West Side, Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, Denver's Highland and Los Angeles' Lincoln Heights -- tightly knit, geographically enclosed enclaves united by connections and commercial infrastructures that catered to local cultural niches.

Housing affordability, a key factor that lured people to these areas, decreased significantly during the boom of the late 1990s, when interest rates for home loans were low and more housing options emerged.

Home prices rose at more than twice the rate of inflation, while rent increases exceeded inflation between 1997 and 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Black and Latino residents, whose annual median income from 1960 to 2011 hovered about $20,000 below that of white families, were disproportionately affected, according to the Pew Research Center.

Thus, between 2000 and 2010, the demographic trend reversed: Minority residents in search of cheaper housing moved to the suburbs, as white families began returning to the cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

'This was home'

His family priced out of their one-bedroom apartment, Garcia lived through these changes. He wanted to return to Columbia Heights as an adult but couldn't afford it, so he moved to Petworth, two miles north.

About six years later, redevelopment returned to Garcia's doorstep, bringing retail and residential units near the Georgia Avenue rail station. Garcia packed his bags and headed north again to Woodridge, along the Maryland-Washington border.

All along, he yearned for Columbia Heights.

"It's always hard to come by and know ... that the community changed so much," Garcia said. "This was home for me at one time."

Like Garcia, many displaced minority residents in U.S. cities blame demographic shifts on gentrification efforts led by city governments who ignore the consequences of residents being "driven away from their traditions and communities."

But the causes and consequences of urban redevelopment are more complex. Each city's history, political leadership and community involvement have played unique roles in reshaping the locales.

In Charleston, South Carolina, initiatives taken to attract commercial activity have played the transformative role.

Its historic downtown, where Allison Lirish Dean, a communications associate with the research and policy institute, Policy Link, grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, has changed considerably from what she remembers.

Charleston's tradition as a trade hub and, more recently, its military presence, helped shape the city's appeal. A city-led initiative to capitalize on tourism -- one of Charleston's strongest economic forces -- also spurred significant urban reshaping.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the city designed urban plans to improve density, traffic flow and appearance of the downtown business district, with the aim of drawing consumers back from the suburbs. In the 1980s and 1990s, federal funding and tax breaks helped renovate the business infrastructure.

Charleston's population grew, home values rose, the wealthy acquired property and whites moved to the city, pushing some long-entrenched families out. Mainstream chain stores and high-end boutiques have now replaced the black-owned stores that laid their roots along Upper King Street, which thanks to historic preservation, still bears the facades of late 19th and early 20th centuries' architecture.

Urban renewal

The Garden Theatre, a 1920s vaudeville-house-turned-cinema, was one of Dean's "favorite places" in the city. It's now an Urban Outfitters, and many of the once-nearby pawn shops and black fashion stores are gone. Boasting everything from Gap to Coach, Upper King Street is now known for fine dining and high-end shopping.

"I can go to a Urban Outfitters in Portland, in New York, anywhere pretty much in the country," Dean said. "But I can't necessarily in any city go to the Garden Theatre and see a performance of something local or have that experience."

A chunk of Charleston's unique character is lost, Dean said.

Beyond changing the face of commerce, urban redevelopment is often credited with prompting major demographic changes in urban cores.

Whether urban transformation is 100% responsible for the shifting demographic is debatable, but a correlation exists.

Atlanta, long considered a black mecca and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, has witnessed a demographic change often attributed to the city's reshaping in the 1990s and 2000s.

The 1996 Olympics brought sports venues, parks, hotels and restaurants, while kicking off the razing of many housing projects plagued by blight and crime. The demolitions peaked in 2009, as the Atlanta Housing Authority replaced some housing projects with mix-used housing partially funded with Section 8 vouchers.

Diane Wright, 68, lived in Northwest Atlanta's Hollywood Court, a housing project demolished in the 2000s. Wright had to leave behind a "sense of community" cemented by a neighborhood association through which she and others assisted the building's elderly.

"It was a big sense of loss for them because many had to move without a support system," Wright said of the displaced elderly residents.

She now lives in a downtown apartment complex where she pays more and lacks the community connections she longs for.

Between 2000 and 2010, Atlanta's black population decreased by 7.4%, while the white population increased by 5.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A legacy of black mayors, which have stood at the city's helm since 1974, was endangered in 2009 when Mayor Kasim Reed edged out Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is white, by only 715 votes.

Many saw the race as a sign of decline for the city's black power base, as more white candidates seek to influence politics on behalf of the emerging constituency in the city core, said Deidre Oakley, an associate sociology professor at Georgia State University.

An eye on Detroit

The economic crisis in 2008 reignited interest in urban planning, especially as Detroit exemplified the consequences of leaving a city with few economic options to sustain itself.

Known for manufacturing automobiles and music legends, Detroit and its economy took a major hit when General Motors and Chrysler Group filed for bankruptcy, sending unemployment to a staggering 27.8% in 2009.

The city's bankruptcy would follow four years later. Observers blamed the nation's largest public sector bankruptcy on poorly managed public funds that saw the city spending massive swaths of its budget on pensions, while juggling billions in debt.

Craig Wilder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor -- and native and resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, gentrification's poster child -- said urban redevelopment could save Detroit, which has around 78,000 abandoned or ruined buildings. Detroit could use the new and revamped sources of income enjoyed by the nation's newly-redeveloped cities, he said.

Expanding and strengthening a city's revenues is inevitable and necessary, Wilder said, but what isn't inevitable is how to implement change -- and it doesn't help when politicians find it "seductive to take shortcuts in the democratic process," forgoing community input into the decision-making process, he said.

Creating communities that reflect and respond to the needs and character of long-time residents is often a stated goal of urban plans, but in communities with high concentrations of minorities and foreign-born residents, such as Langley Park, Maryland, language and cultural barriers often result in breakdowns in government-community communication.

Eight miles outside of Washington, Langley Park had a 77 percent Latino population in 2010. Up to two-thirds spoke a language other than English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

La Union Mall, named after a district of El Salvador, marks residents' attempt to re-create a sense of community thousands of miles away from their natives countries.

Perhaps it's the salsa music that fills the air as you walk in, or the aroma of freshly baked pasteles, or the TV sportscaster screaming, "Goooooollllll!" that makes La Union a place for residents to seek what they left behind.

This could change as a land-use plan aims to revamp the neighborhood in anticipation of an initiative to construct a transit center and two stops on a proposed train line.

Lines of communication

Jorge Sactic-Espana and his wife Dora, who own La Chapina, a Guatemalan pastry bakery, say the county has not solicited enough input from minority business owners.

County officials say they held around 50 public meetings -- some with interpreters -- but Sactic-Espana, who is La Union's unofficial "mayor" and spokesperson, said he was aware of only five.

Most local business owners aren't aware of the plan, he said, not only because of language barriers, but because many work such long hours it's difficult to attend public meetings. Regardless, he believes the plan is a "done deal. It's just a matter of when they are going to start," he said.

Added Dora, "We are trying to open another business elsewhere. ... So in case this one closes, we have the other one."

Despite robust debate on city transformations, urban planners insist redevelopment is inevitable. Harriet Tregoning, director of Washington's Office of Planning, said the "story of cities is in constant change, not just U.S. cities, but cities around the globe."

For Tregoning, redevelopment is a healthy response to communities that struggle with crime, falling property values, lost wealth, dwindling job opportunities and heightened health problems.

But while cities strive to create communities that are diverse or affordable, Kathryn B. Yatrakis, an urban studies professor at Columbia College in New York, warns that such terms are subjective: "What 'affordable' is to you might not be affordable to someone else."

Governments, policy institutes and community leaders all play roles in shaping cities, she said, but in the absence of strong leadership, the sheer force of the real estate market will define affordability, diversity and character, Yatrakis said.

It's the argument over these terms that often creates animosity between long-time residents and newcomers, but lost in these debates are those who seek to build bridges.

Both sides of coin

Kelly Anderson, a white professor at Hunter College in New York, moved from New Hampshire to Brooklyn in the late 1980s. She considers herself both gentrifier and gentrified. She first settled in Park Slope, a community transitioning from its historically Puerto Rican, African-American and Italian roots.

Over the past two decades, Anderson has been priced out of Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Park Slope and Fort Greene.

Newcomers should be cognizant of their impact in their communities, she said, and work with the locals to protect neighborhood "stability" rather than "celebrate that rise of real estate values because you made some money out of good investment."

"People move to a place because there's a certain amount of diversity and you want your children to grow around different kinds of people," Anderson said. "The very thing that attracts people to a place like Brooklyn, ends up displacing all those people of color."

Posted by Greg Palmer


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