Gentrification has Nothing to Do with White Hipsters

by Guest Contributor M. Dot, originally published at Model Minority

Last year, it took me roughly six weeks to earn $5,800. This is significant because during the late eighties and early nineties my mother received public assistance, subsequently she and I lived off of $5,800 for an entire year.

Yes, $5,800 per year.

Given these facts, last year, I thought a lot about the ways in which I could personally serve as a gentrifying factor in my hometown of Oakland, California. Often times, in popular media, there is very little talk of gentrification, or if there is, it is discussed in vague terms, such as”those hipsters are moving in” or “those white people are moving in” or “this area is becoming nicer.”

Gentrification has very little to do with white hipsters moving into the ‘hood and everything to do with process of people who earn higher incomes moving into neighborhoods where folks reside who are earning comparatively lower incomes.

If I am a Black women, in Bed-stuy, East Oakland or the South Side of Chicago, and I earn $60K per year and I am willing to
pay $1000 for an apartment that everyone else, who earns between $10-15K/year, pays $500 per month, then I am
serving as a force of gentrification in this neighborhood. It bears being stated that I in may ways I am a gentrifying force in the same way that a white person earning $60K who moves into the same community.

What becomes pivotal is my willingness to be engaged with the community that I have moved into.

A more sustainable, honest and comprehensive conversation about gentrification would involve a discussion of the income of the gentrifiers and not just the race of the gentrifiers.

Wikipedia defines gentrification as,

…the change in an urban area associated with the movement of more affluent individuals into a lower-class area. The area experiences demographic shifts, including an increase in the median income, a reduction in household size, and often a decline in the proportion of racial minorities (if such minorities are present). More households with higher incomes result in increased real estate values with higher associated rent, home prices, and property taxes. Industrial land use can decline with redevelopment bringing more commercial and residential use. Such changes often result in transformation of the neighborhood’s character and culture.

Most of what I understand about gentrification is derived from brilliant scholar and professor at City University New York,
Neil Smith.

Professor’s Smith scholarship is meaningful because he discusses gentrification not only as it pertains to urban communities but also on a global scale. In an interview with Jens Sambale, Volker Eick of Policing Crowds, Smith writes,

Early examples of gentrification might include the Islington area of London or Greenwich Village in Manhattan but by the 1970s there were many recorded cases of gentrification in Europe, North America and Australia. In Berlin, early examples of gentrification were recorded in Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, among other neighbourhoods, but the fall of the Berlin Wall released a huge stock of housing that had undergone considerable disinvestment, leading to a widespread gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte.

Professor Smith’s general premise is that gentrification is a natural feature of capitalism. If the goal capitalism is both the endless accumulation of capital and the extraction of all possible profit from a piece of property, then it makes sense that once a neighborhood becomes more desirable it will then be sold to the highest bidder.

Smith goes on to explain the nuances of gentrification when he writes,

Gentrification occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates urban neighborhoods that can be profitably redeveloped. In its earliest form, gentrification affected decaying working class neighbourhoods close to urban centers where middle and upper middle class people colonized or re-colonized the area, leading to the displacement and eviction of existing residents. The central mechanism behind gentrification can be thought of as a ‘rent gap’. When neighborhoods experience disinvestment, the ground rent that can be extracted from the area declines meaning lower land prices. As this disinvestment continues, the gap between the actual ground rent in the area and the ground rent that could be extracted were the area to undergo reinvestment becomes wide enough to allow that reinvestment to take place. This rent gap may arise largely through the operation of markets, most notably in the United States, but state policies can also be central in encouraging disinvestment and reinvestment associated with gentrification. But only wealthier people are able to afford the costs of this renewed investment. Integral with these economic shifts are social and cultural shifts that change the kinds of shops, facilities and public spaces in a neighbourhood.

After reading this, I thought word? Gentrification in West Oakland and East Germany? Rent Gaps? All of this brought me back to San Francisco and the film Medicine for Melancholy.

The process of gentrification and the impact that it is having on African Americans is a central aspect of the film Medicine of Melancholy. In some ways, Jo, one of the main character’s in the movie, has a sense of entitlement with regard to living in San Francisco.

San Francisco is the largest urban city with the smallest Black population.

Jo’s rationale is that he shouldn’t have to be middle class to live in San Francisco. There is nothing wrong with a sense of entitlement. Entitlement compels people to act , to change the world. However, given the systematic removal of African Americans from San Francisco, I was curious about the intersection of entitlement and the history of African Americans in this city.

In the book, Black San Francisco, Albert Broussard describes how San Francisco has always resisted the presence of African Americans, how historically San Francisco has upheld racist policies towards African Americans.

By an large, African Americans came to the Bay Area during WWII to work in the shipping yards and other war time jobs, however they found that after the war, the game changed. Broussard writes,

The question of whether blacks were qualified was not an issue, but whether or not private business and industry would break long-standing precedent and integrate their work forces in the absence of statutory pressure or coercion from the local, state, or federal government. Fearing low employee morale and adverse public opinion, many companies were reluctant to integrate. Others were satisfied to hire black workers only for menial labor.

According to Broussard, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors knew that the businesses were practicing open and aggressive employment discrimination. Civil Rights leaders sought to implement a local Fair Employment Practices ordinance in 1950. This ordinance was met with resistance on both the state and the local level from the California State Assembly and the agricultural lobby.

There were an intense effort to ensure that there was legal recourse for African Americans who were discriminated against by employers.

Broussard describes,

…there were attempts in 1945, 1946, 1949 to create a commission whose most controversial feature was its “broad sweeping power over employment discrimination, including the authority to receive, investigate, act in, and render decisions” on complaints that alleged discrimination in employment.

This was an incredible amount of power, to say the least, and it wasn’t going to be obtained without a protracted fight.

There was also open and aggressive housing discrimination in San Francisco. Broussard writes,

Seaton Manning was so distressed over his personal housing situation that he threatened to resign as executive director of the Urban League and return to Boston. “After two full years,” Manning wrote Lester Granger, ” we have been unable to find a house or apartment in San Francisco. The housing shortage is acute …Anything good is restricted.

Black leaders thought that the housing shortage could be addressed with a permanent low income housing unit. They soon learned differently. Broussard describes how the San Francisco Housing Authority allowed African Americans to live in only one of six newly constructed housing projects. He writes,

The housing authority adopted a resolution in 1942 by unanimous vote which stated…..In the selection of tenants for this project, this Authority shall act with references to the established usages, customs and traditions of the community.” Nor would the Housing Authority “insofar as possible enforce the commingling of races, but shall insofar possible maintain and preserve the same racial composition which exists in the neighborhood where a project is located.

No commingling of races in “liberal” San Francisco? Who knew?

The state of 2009 Black San Francisco can only be examined in the context of its history. Given the discrimination that African
Americans faced historically, the fact that San Francisco’s African American population grew from 43,460 in 1940, to 55,000 in 1951, and the restrictive covenants that kept working class, middle class and prominent African Americans from moving out the ‘hood, the fact that African Americans are leaving San Francisco in droves isn’t that surprising.

At the end of the day, when we look at shifting demographics, it is important for us to turn to history and to what is going on in the world at large in order to understand how our economic system and legal policies affect our lives.

If we do this, I think we will be on the road to having a meaningful conversation about the sustainability of our communities.

Want more?

Tania Ketenjian conducted an interview with Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins. Tom Wetzel’s essay, What is Gentrification? is informative.

Experience any gentrification lately?
Can you afford to buy a house in the neighborhood where you grew up?
Why do people hate hipsters?
Was this post informative? Is there anything you wish I would have discussed?