I’ve wanted to write a rambling tale on gentrification for a while now, today ended up being the perfect day as my ramblings will show. I’m writing from the perspective of a well-educated suburban girl, with strong anarchist leanings, living in a mostly ignored working class neighborhood in the city.
In the Beginning: A Suburban Girl Goes Urban
The first time I really traveled into the city I now call my home I was fifteen years old. My father was taking me to visit one of his old haunts. The end of the shopping district that lay along the water was clearly a refined tourists destination. With little shops full of very expensive things, cobblestone streets, and pubs. It wasn’t until we got up the street that things got strange, there was a 7-11 right next to a porno theater, and a dirty little enclosed market with an old woman with a hair of mud. It was then I fell in love.
Throughout my teenage years I would get into the city at any possible opportunity. If I heard people were heading in whether I knew them or not I found a way into the car. The purpose of the trip didn’t matter, I was going. I wanted the city to be my home. By the time I was 17 I was regularly spending weekends blocks away from that porn theater. By the time I 19 I was living in the neighborhood I’m in now for the summer. When I was 20 I was venturing in on my own by bus.
It was around then I stumbled into an anarchist bookstore and first heard the dreaded word gentrification. That big strange new word immediately resonated with the things I had seen. One of the neighborhoods I had spent some time in clearly did not used to be filled with yuppies. I realized that the grocery store I had gone to when I lived there was brand new. That old buildings were being taken over and repurposed, houses were being bought and flipped. So many of the people I first got my foot into the city only knew the new stores and cleaned up streets. They barely ever ventured out of their comfort zone, and none of them were from there.
I realized I had become more in tune with the city when I had traveled there by bus from my dorm room. Riding through streets, and transferring buses in places these people had never seen and would never likely go. As the months passed my clean suburban voice became mangled, when it was going to be a long wait for the bus I would walk. I stopped caring about how late it was, or where I was, because the city was becoming my home.
Some misguided decisions a few years later led me back to the suburbs. I still rode the bus into the city on a regularly basis though normally only in daylight. When I started to feel panic again when the sun was setting on a semi-bad street I knew something was wrong with me. I moved into a neighborhood downtown, old manor houses once for the city’s wealthiest residents had been converted into apartments. The neighborhood was mostly filled with students, and professionals who were just passing through. At this point I had a car, though in protest of downtown traffic and bad parking I walked to work. My coworkers thought I was insane. There was a lot to do in my neighborhood, but otherwise it wasn’t very practical. Shopping was hard. There is a large market just west of downtown and I’d try to pick up random items there, but it just wasn’t working. The grocery stores where I lived were expensive with poor produce, and common household items were impossible to find.
On a whim and a memory I drove east. Remembering the main street I’d always turn to in a pinch when I was younger. I found the perfect grocery store, cheap, with lots of fresh food. Along with a myriad of dollar stores, general stores, thrift stores, and affordable clothing stores. I began going down there to shop every weekend.
That main street was less than a mile from the house I used to live in when I was 19. I was sad but not surprised that we had never stopped to shop there, even when we were starving and unable to pay rent. It was a true city street part Latino, part African-American, part grumpy old white men, part junkie, part loud kids. To someone else, likely even a younger me, it would seem loud, dirty and foreign. Yet, I felt more comfortable there than bad in my sparkling little neighborhood uptown. If for no other reason that no one had any trouble understanding what I was saying. I knew then I was going to move here, and likely plan to buy a house. I also knew that in no way, shape or form that I would be a part of the problem of gentrification.
Hidden Boundaries that Yuppies Fear to Cross
Today I have been immersed in reading. Much of today I have been on the front porch with my book. A few hours ago I was out of cigarettes and it looked like it was going to rain. I decided not to walk down to the corner store, but instead drive to the 7-11 to avoid getting wet and get a slurpee. As I got back home I was irritated at the lack of parking, realizing that the music I heard earlier was likely the beginning of one of the local festivals way down the street. Though my spot almost too close to the fire hydrant was open. I noticed that a car had quite obnoxiously pulled up behind me, and was amused when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a Prius.
No one in my neighborhood drives a Prius, most of us have old cars, most have scratches and dents. My street is mostly filled with economy sedans, pick-up trucks, and the occasional SUV. I was intrigued by this newcomer. So I sat on my porch with my slurpee and Doritos. I had finished the 99 cent bag before the inhabitants of the Prius even exited the car. Two women warily opened their doors, the driver was an older thin stuffy looking thing in white capris with short blond hair. The passenger was a skittish brunette in a sundress. They cautiously started walking down the street, then dashed back to peer in their windows. Probably to make sure that the GPS and iPod were well hidden. If they heard me laughing I don’t care, and the show was worth the wait.
The fear was hilarious, as my street is far from dangerous. I walk it alone all the time. There is no car break-ins, there are no house break-ins, no real violence of any kind. There are just no Prius’s on my street, and no white Capri’s. I can’t help but wonder what took them over 5 minutes to exit the vehicle. I can’t imagine having that level of fear and hypervigilence in broad daylight on a street that is never dangerous. The same rumors of violence and indecency that help them maintain their sense of class, help keep them confined.
I imagine they were from the neighborhood a block below my favorite grocery store on the main street in my neighborhood. On the block between our worlds there is a Royal Farms that I often walk down to from the grocery store parking lot. I see white capris, white faces, polo shirts, and cropped hair milling around the streets surrounding the farm store. Occasionally I spot them grabbing a Vitamin Water from the fridge inside the convenience store. Yet, I never see them in the grocery store.
Many of them live less than a block away from my awesome affordable grocery store that has everything from body wash to kale. Many of them have houses with a view of the back of the store, and the store parking lot. However, in 3 years of shopping there I have never seen any of them inside. The store is always packed full of people, and never a single yuppie. They all likely shop at the Safeway over a half mile away. Where the prices are way higher, though at least everyone is like them. They feel safe there, but not a block away from their own homes.
What Makes Urban Living Gentrification
When I moved to my neighborhood it was because everything here was perfect and I did not want anything to change. I picked this neighborhood for its local stores, for the way my house was built, for the kind of neighbors I would likely have. I’m starting to look for houses and I want one that is intact. I want one with tiny little bedrooms on the upper floors with one that can only be gotten to through the bathroom or the other bedroom. Ideally it’s been updated to have central gas heat, versus a radiator.
When yuppies move into a neighborhood it is because they want to make an investment. I have seen so many gutted houses, that were once like mine. They immediately turn their backyards into parking pads, and complain about the trash in the street. When they gain critical mass they petition to get expensive stores and restaurants built, or installed into older buildings. They don’t move into the neighborhood for what it is, they move into it for what they want it to be.
About a mile from me there is a beautiful park. There are tons of playgrounds, basketball courts, a swimming pool, and an ice rink. Less than 10 years ago the street along the northern border of the park wasn’t good. Recently the houses on the north end have been bought, and flipped to the yuppies. There is never any parking on the street on the north end, as the street is crammed with Mercedes and Priuses. This upper class wave only extends for a few blocks northward and then the city begins to return to normal. Further north one of the streets that starts at the park becomes one of the most dangerous in the city, two summers ago over 20 people were shot there in a gang initiation.
The pool in the park is awesome, and I try to go every summer. It’s only 2 dollars to get in for the entire day. It’s nothing fancy, but I can afford it. There is no diving board, likely the city can’t afford the insurance, but parts of the pool are deep and it’s nice being able to swim in deep water. The pool is always packed with kids and families, and I can now deeply appreciate the concept of adult swim.
Only once have I seen yuppies at the pool, and the entire time they talked about being yuppies at the pool.
What Makes Gentrification Bad
I’ll start where I left off, at the pool. The city kids rely on this pool, it is a place where they can swim and have fun. The cheap admission is no accident, it is set that way so everyone can come there and swim. Many of the people who swim there are local, the pool has no parking lot and was designed to be walked to. Now there are yuppies forming a 3 block perimeter around the park and the pool. Amusing the most the yuppies ever use the park is to walk their small dogs around the edge, or to occasionally use the tennis courts. I see them there about twice as often as I see them at the pool.
All the yuppies moved to the park because it was pretty there. There was a window where the housing was cheap and they all seized upon the opportunity and refurbbed the houses and built their little cafes and very expensive restaurants. All of them completely ignored the purpose of the park, and the people who go there. None of them participate in the majority of the activities offered by the park, and now no one who could benefit from having all of this affordable recreation can live any closer than 3 blocks from it.
For me it’s a bit of a walk to get there so unless I take the bus I have to park three blocks away and walk past all the Lexuses to get there. Thankfully no one is going to break into my dented up 10-year-old sedan, not that I have anything valuable in it anyways. It also puts me in near the corner stores so I can get a soda that doesn’t cost over $2, and cigarettes on my way to the pool.
I would be scared for all the kids who love that pool if the housing bubble hadn’t burst. Houses aren’t selling on that street anymore, and property values are plummeting. I’m hopeful that the yuppie perimeter will disintegrate and original city residents take their houses back and are perplexed by how the rooms have been re-arranged inside.
Most yuppies are too scared to learn the city, and their fear a misunderstanding of the culture here tears the city apart. There are plenty of neighborhoods within the city designed for the upper class, however yuppies can’t afford to live in those neighborhoods. Instead they buy houses on the cheap and destroy neighborhoods with their ignorance. Most can likely only afford a house like mine, but can’t appreciate it for what it is. They have to maintain their lifestyle, and do so in credit even though they could afford to shop where I do with cash.
Part of why I want to buy a house here is that I want to protect my neighborhood. I want it to stay a little tough, a little dirty, quiet, and affordable. I want this to continue to be a place where immigrants start to build their life, and kids can always play in the streets. And until yuppies stop being ignorant (likely a cold day in hell), I’m glad they walk my street with caution on the few occasions they dare to visit.