Monday, October 14, 2013

Gentrification

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us to be living in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  Historically, East Austin was treated terribly by the City or at best, ignored.  Now that it is the "hip" place to be, long term residents are being forced out as the composition of the neighborhoods shifts, sometimes just within a few years.

We do not live in most desirable neighborhoods on the Eastside, but our area is not immune to gentrification.  Since we moved in less than 18 months ago I can count at least six houses within a three block radius of ours that have been bought by young, white professionals.  In fact, every house that has been listed for sale since we moved in has been bought by young, white professionals.

The working class people of color who originally (and still) populate the neighborhood can no longer afford to buy houses here.  Increasingly, families who have lived here since the neighborhood's inception are being pushed out by the high property taxes.  

We moved here because this was a house that we could afford, with a large lot, and a reasonable bicycle commute to my husband's work.  We did not move here with the intention of gentrifying or making it unaffordable for longtime residents.  But whether or not we intended it, our presence is helping to do just that.

I can rationally list the reasons why moving here was the best choice for us.  Rents are skyrocketing in Austin and getting even a two bedroom apartment would have been hundreds of dollars more than our mortgage.  We could have afforded it, but just barely, and it would have meant living closer to month-to-month.  Costs aside, we wanted to own rather than rent so we could fix up a house, plant a garden, and not be beholden to a landlord after two frustrating experiences with terrible management companies.  

Even though I think we made the best decision we could have given our circumstances, I do not think it is fair or wise to brush off the discomfort I feel about living here or to ignore what it means for working class people trying to find affordable housing in the city.

All of my thoughts/doubts/confusion about gentrification were brought to the surface this summer as the community faced questions about the place of urban farms on the Eastside.  In one of the most recent articles about the process, Daniel Llanes, a neighborhood activist, made the following quote:
"There are two types of gentrifiers. The ones who realize they are coming into an area with people of color and a working class -- they take a back seat," said Llanes, who has lived in the area since 1988. "The other gentrifiers come to conquer: They come to tell us this is what the neighborhood should be like and here are the new rules."
At first I bristled at the idea that I had to fall into one category or the other--either I wasn't allowed to participate in decisions about the neighborhood (taking a back seat) or I was out to conquer.  While I do not think the characterization is entirely fair, there is an element of truth to it.  I want to be a part of the neighborhood and I do have a stake in how the neighborhood develops, but I would be remiss to ignore the role that my privilege plays in how easily I am able to influence the system.

There are no easy answers.  I do not need or want someone to wave a magic wand that relieves me of the struggle and discomfort I feel about gentrification and my role in it.  What feels the most honest to me is to sit with it, even if the process is humbling and uncomfortable.

In the meantime, I have put a couple of books on hold at the library that discuss modern gentrification.  I do not expect them to turn all of the grey into black and white, but I do hope they will add some shades I had not yet seen and help to put my thoughts into a broader context.

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