There’s no doubt about it. I am a gentrifier. So, why don’t I feel like one? Maybe no one really does, but if I may be honest, I think it’s because I’m African-American. Does that mean I get some kind of free pass to gentrify without it weighing on my conscience? Not even a little bit. I think about it a lot. I experience guilt over paying exorbitant rent prices that I complain about, but can afford with an awareness that my presence and ability to live in the country’s “hottest” neighborhoods means someone else can’t.
But here’s what race has to do with it. First of all, when middle and upper middle class people seek out more affordable housing options, the most budget-friendly places to turn to are communities that have been historically ignored by developers, retailers, elected officials, etc. The populations of these neighborhoods are often black and brown people who aren’t necessarily poor or even struggling. In fact, if houses and buildings have been well-maintained, that’s an attractive foundation to envision a community that feels like home to many more kinds of people. This is why many folks who decry gentrification define it as a process in which “rich white people” come in and take over everything. Property is cheaper in predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods and so these areas are frequently ripe for development, investment and economic change — all courtesy of wealthier people taking an interest. When I move into such communities, I am perhaps in many ways not like the “old timers” there, but I look a lot more like them than white people and there’s a good chance I share some cultural connections with the neighbors that don’t feel forced.
The second point I’d like to make is inspired by a conversation I had with Georgetown journalism lecturer and author Natalie Hopkinson. Hopkinson, a longtime D.C. resident, is African-American, a wife, a mother and a scholar who has witnessed many changes to communities within the urban landscape of our nation’s capitol. She has a career and the financial means to live in almost any neighborhood she’d like. But, “I don’t have that white privilege,” she says, recognizing the main difference between herself and some of the newcomers to the community where she lives. “They can come onto the same block and just through the sheer fact of their whiteness, they can raise the value.”