Monday, August 10, 2009

Let's Talk About Gentrification


By Greg

One morning in early June, neighbors around 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue awoke to find the Gold Standard Restaurant defaced. Paint-filled balloons had been thrown at the restaurant, and the word “Gentrifier” (or some more vulgar derivation thereof) was sprayed onto the new façade. In early July the anti-gentrification vandals struck again, pasting signs onto the bases of the lamp poles, newly installed by University City District. The vandals’ signs encouraged passersby to deface the banners hanging from the poles. In the coming weeks a number of the banners were, in fact, torn down.

For at least a half century there has been tension between West Philadelphia communities and institutions accused of trying to change the neighborhood. However, gentrification is a complex topic – a set of mysterious forces, often misunderstood. Cedar Park resident Ray Murphy wrote a post pointing out the irony of the Gold Standard vandalism. The restaurant is the latest iteration of a business run by 30-plus-year residents. Similarly, just a week before the vandals posted their signs, dozens of long-time residents and community leaders gathered with Mayor Nutter in Cedar Park to applaud the unveiling of the lamp poles and banners.

In the coming weeks I heard a number of views on the lamps and banners from neighbors. Most people I spoke with felt that they were a positive addition to the community, but some had suspicions about the motives of University City District. In addition, there was plenty of speculation about the profile of the vandals – how long they had been in the neighborhood, and whether they really represented the community’s voice. Their naiveté regarding the Gold Standard’s ownership seemed to indicate that they did not.

Still, in Cedar Park and elsewhere in Philadelphia, I have seen plenty of wariness from older residents about new community investments. Concerns about gentrification are being felt all across the city. As such, it would serve us well to look deeper into what this mysterious force is, and what it really means. Ultimately the underlying concerns have nothing to do with lamp poles and new restaurants; people are afraid of losing control of their communities. They worry that upgrading a community leads to residents being priced out, and cultural shifts that make old timers feel unwelcome in their own neighborhood – legitimate concerns.

However, what has evolved in many communities is a state of affairs where some residents feel the need to choose between improving their neighborhood, and being able to afford their home or feel comfortable in the communities they helped shape. A letter in the University City Review a few years ago voiced this opinion, that the community should say no to the then-proposed new lamp poles, because they would lead to gentrification.

However, it seems to me that this cannot be an either/or equation. It simply does not make good sense that the only way to maintain a community is by halting any new projects. We have to find a way to make it possible to improve our communities while also avoiding the negative impacts of gentrification. Gentrification is a real issue. It has to do with people’s ability to afford to stay in their homes, maintain their businesses, and enjoy the culture of their community. However, often what gentrification foes attack are the cosmetic elements that have nothing to do with these concerns.

The fact is that communities are not powerless. Far from it. There are effective policies, programs, and strategies that can be employed to combat the negative impacts of gentrification, while allowing new investment to improve the quality of life in our communities. However, community members need to know that these policies and programs exist, and they need to push their elected officials to put them into place. I have written extensively about some of these policies. Here are a few:

  • Incentives for developing affordable housing in transitional communities.
  • Linking community-created plans to real implementation tools.
  • A targeted community reinvestment strategy. Here’s another article about this.
  • A tax freeze or deferment for low-income homeowners, to allow residents to stay in their homes when taxes rise. Here’s a blog post on that strategy. And here’s another one.
  • Transition counseling to link communities with knowledge and resources to understand and benefit from new investment.
  • Strategies for making historic preservation a positive tool for low- and moderate-income communities.

There are plenty of other strategies that I have not written about for allowing communities to benefit from redevelopment, and allowing new investment to create jobs, equity, and opportunity for existing residents and business owners. Change can come, but it is critical that residents and business owners feel control over that change, rather than being swept up in it.

Reaching this goal is more challenging than pasting signs to lamp poles. It requires honest dialogue about what various members of the community want to see, followed by a proactive approach to linking those ideas to policy and practice. This means residents, business owners, institutions, and elected officials working together. If we take on gentrification the right way, everyone will win, and it will be worth the effort.


Will said...

It seems strange to write about gentrification in West Philadelphia and not even mention Penn's existence. Penn has been a huge player in the gentrification of its surrounding area. You are absolutely on point in your policy recommendations, but why not go further?
Penn is largely responsible for changes occurring in the neighborhood. These changes are probably good on the whole, but if careful measures aren't taken, this wave of development has the potential to hurt a very large number of current residents. So, Penn has a responsibility to be careful and do as little damage as is possible.
Luckily, Penn has an incredible set of resources that could be used to implement strategies like the ones you propose. If anything, this merely increases the need to call on Penn specifically to take responsibilities for its actions in University City.
Thanks very much for writing this post, its a very important issue that usually just gets glossed. As a Penn student, its also especially frustrating for me to see long-time residents get left behind as Penn and its followers spread out.

Greg Heller said...

Will, good point. In a prior post I discussed Penn's community investments and the "Penntrification" criticism. See this page.

Will said...

Thanks for the response, Greg. I found the prior post to be very good, though I still think Penn should be held to slightly higher standards than you do, it seems. You are absolutely right to say that "City Council has the ability to implement programs that tackle this issue," but I don't think that the burden should fall solely on the City's shoulders. Penn has a responsibility (morally, I believe, but let's leave that out and just say) if it wishes to create lasting revitalization and friendly, collaborative relations between town and gown, it must do all it can to support existing residents.
Policy from city council is necessary, and so city council must act, but Penn could play a central role in ensuring that the right policies are enacted, and soon.
Anyway, thanks for the posts, and thanks for the blog. It's a new find for me and I'm finding it informed and insightful.

Do you see me? said...

Hi Greg,
I live in the U District in Camden. Yes, Camden has a U Dist! One of the issues that can help protect existing residents is that the city explicitly make it a low tax zone as long as home and rent values remain constant. Because Philly has a strong commercial and hi-end residential tax base, the city can afford to do this. Just the opposite here in Camden, where the U Dist. housing prices far, far, far outpace the rest of the city and the city encourages this. Makes sense, but to recoup those investments, there will be pressure to gentrify further - as is happening around Cooper hospital.

Jeff said...

As a member of the zoning committee for Cedar Park Neighbors, I would rather see funds directly distributed to low-income homeowners for weatherization purposes than have taxpayer dollars spent on incentives for developers to construct affordable housing (which would have to be a substantial amount in this city and nearly unworkable on a parcel by parcel basis in my neighborhood). Making homes less wasteful of energy lowers monthly utility bills--an appreciating asset instead of a depreciating subsidy--easing the burden of increasing taxes in a "gentrifying" market. I also think Community Land Trusts show great promise if they can be implemented. My take on the gentrification debate: