Gentrification and Mixed Feelings

September 5, 2014 at 3:39 am Leave a comment

Alley Valkyrie has written yet another amazing essay, this one about her experiences living in a working-class Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, and how her presence there helped lead to gentrification. (link to be added!) I’m long-time city-dweller with mixed-class status and white privilege as well as a live-in caretaker of a home in which I rent out rooms to low income tenants. So yeah, I have a very complex relationship with gentrification. Neighborhoods need to be maintained and improved, yet a balance must be maintained as well. Likewise, I don’t really believe that there are “good” and “bad” neighborhoods. Those are big over-simplications with many unexamined assumptions lurking behind them.  

My neighborhood, Midway in St. Paul has fluctuated in its reputation over the time I’ve lived here. Back in 1994 my dad drove by and spotted the house and made an offer to the owner that very day. Apparently my neighbors thought he overpaid for it at the time. Many of the neighbors were elderly or middle-aged empty-nesters. There were only a handful of kids I knew, mostly younger than me. Over time, a bunch of them have moved away and younger couples (with and without kids) have moved in. There was a tattoo parlor close by (much to my parents’ chagrin), and several businesses later there’s one there again! Midway had a worse reputation then. My Dad, who is from the suburbs of Philadelphia originally, strongly believes in fighting the trends of middle-class white flight (a social trend which has had a terrible effect on Philly and many other metro areas) by staying vigilant and aware of what’s going on. He and other neighbors in our block club were in frequent contact with the police about activities they found suspicious- cars stalling by our large privacy fence might mean drug deals. Lots of people going in and out of a house might mean a drug house. And so forth. So with this vigilance, the neighborhood got better, but we try not to be complacent. We continually need to keep an eye on things. I still get comments from people, especially from suburbs about where I live. “You live there, really? Well, at least it’s not Frogtown!”  Frogtown, or Thomas-Dale is nearby, and I don’t really consider it “worse” than Midway. Different in flavor, more like. When I take the (newly finished as of June!) Green line light rail down University Avenue, I notice both neighborhoods have a mix of businesses that are newer, or have been fixed up, and ones that are run-down, and vacant buildings and a few empty lots that are waiting to be bought. There are somewhat more of the latter in Frogtown, but there are also improvements in the works. There are lots of immigrants from Southeast Asia- Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia. Many of them have lived here for a couple of generations at least. There are more recent immigrants from Northeastern Africa- chiefly Ethiopia & Somalia. There are Black Americans and European American whose families have live in this country much longer. I suppose this diversity scares some people, but I find their own ignorance scarier. I think the mix of cultures makes things interesting. For one, I can go have Cambodian for dinner, then have breakfast at the Finnish bistro the next morning!

We have Hamline University, and not too far away, Macalester College and St. Catherine’s, St. Thomas, and in the other direction, the University of Minnesota.  Having all these educational institutions nearby. Oddly though, I’ve never rented to any students before (as my parents and many neighbors expected to happen), I’ve gotten a few Craiglist responses from students, and shown the house to a few, but none of them ever worked out.

Just as with things in nature, neighborhoods and cities have cycles. And different neighborhoods and cities go thru phases of the cycles at different times. I could do some homework on urban studies and sociology to get into more , but I intuitively know what some these cycles are without doing that. I’ve watched them over the years just as I see the dramatic turns of Minnesota seasons. I already mentioned one- generational cycles. Waves of people often move in or out of a neighborhood at particular times. Individual buildings and businesses go thru cycles. A change in one individual’s decision of where to live, or whether to renovate their home or business or build a new one, influences others decisions. Each neighborhood and city has its own social and economic balance that it needs to maintain in order for people to get what they need. And within a metropolitan area like the Twin Cities, each adjoining town or city tries to find niches to fill within that context. Within a city, a neighborhood tries to figure out its own niche. In St. Paul and Minneapolis, each neighborhood has a name and a council (some are larger, more organized and do more things than others, and it also depends on what other non-profits exist that focus on that area, or if a city or state government decides to fund a special business development program there and so forth.
I feel my neighborhood is pretty good about maintaining the necessary equilibrium, without going into full-blown gentrification mode.

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