By Harold DeRienzo
Gentrification is not a term that is seen as being value neutral. It is a term that has negative connotations – a formerly undesirable area becomes desirable, people with financial means move in, and poor people are forced out. But I think that what is important is that we not view gentrification as a process, but as an outcome. And if we look at it in that way, we then can look at what is feeding the process and work to change the outcome.
And by changing the outcome, I do not mean that we stop it from happening entirely. People in poor areas, such as the South Bronx, particularly this Congressional District, the poorest in the nation, want more diversity of retail, more job opportunities, more political accountability, more investment. The challenge is how to ensure, to the extent possible, that new investment in the area benefits those who live here. How do we do that?
Gentrification, as an unfavorable outcome for vulnerable populations in particular, which translates mostly into poor people, mostly poor people of color, occurs because of a lack of local control – control over:
- Real estate
- Local institutions
- Local Economy
- Political Processes
- Collective Capacity
Given this lack or absence of control over these components, the first wave of gentrification is often driven by real estate speculation. We are seeing that now in the recent wave of predatory equity lending, where owners and banks have been betting on being able to displace low income tenants with higher income tenants who can pay higher rents. To address this concern, there is a need to organize, develop collective capacity, fight displacement and work towards responsible ownership, preferably local ownership with resident control – either through mutual housing associations, cooperatives, community land trusts, or similar models of non-speculative ownership.
In the 1960s, one of the mantras of the left was “down with institutions.” But what are institutions but the vehicles through which a community’s agenda is accomplished. The problem comes in when we lose community, and local institutions become little more than local agents of outside funding sources that transform what should be an empowering organization into an organization that is paid to manage the poor (such as some present-day CDCs). The challenge is not to destroy local institutions, but to transform them into entities that are accountable to the people they serve.
But in order to transform or to develop new institutions that are accountable, and then maintain them, there needs to be a community of people who are vested in these institutions. In the long run, there can be no effective community without some degree of local economy. Community, as a concept, is more than just a neighborhood; it is a collection of people with something in common, who are interdependent and have collective capacity. Commonality is easy to understand – common living circumstances represent the most evident form. But interdependence is becoming less and less a part of our existence. We are all becoming independent bargaining units in a global economy, but that individual independence comes with the extreme price of individual vulnerability. When we are interdependent, if I benefit, all those in the community benefit; if I am hurt, the whole community is hurt. We sink or swim together. But we are not alone in this, and through this mutuality of obligation and sharing of benefits, we also develop collective capacity.
But where do we start? First, we need to recognize that nothing is inevitable. Either we make our own history or we are consumed by the history that is made by others. We need to claim public space and use that space to discuss concerns, comprehend sources of oppression, and then act to address them. So to fight gentrification as an outcome, there are many things that can be done as market forces begin to threaten affordable living circumstances:
- Organize. Power is realized when people come together and word and deed are joined. But we must recognize that hollow activism (simply reacting) is as bad as empty rhetoric. Actions must be strategic, comprehensive, flexible, and mutually understood and acceptable.
- Use the internal demand (purchasing power) at our disposal. Banana Kelly makes a conscious effort to hire locally, spend locally, and invest locally. We need to expand this to larger institutions such as hospitals, universities, and government institutions to ensure that money spent in our neighborhoods has a chance to remain in our neighborhoods. Transform these larger, local institutions into community anchors for local economic development through their hiring and procurement policies. This is something that the Ukrainian in the lower east side and Hasidic communities (and to a lesser extent the Polish community in Greenpoint), do well.
- Support alternative financial and consumer-oriented arrangements by becoming members in credit unions, promoting worker and other cooperatives, even developing local currencies.
- Support re-use of outdated manufacturing facilities – not simply to develop storage facilities or luxury, residential loft spaces, but to promote activities such as urban agricultural development and other job creating industries.
- Use green technology to promote local jobs.
- Work to responsibly transform local institutions into accountable agents of organized community residents.
- Push for living wage jobs so that anyone who works full time is able to live with their family with dignity and pride.
- In the process of all of this, build community and with community, will come political accountability.
This is how we fight gentrification – not by fighting every manifestation of change, but by influencing and guiding the process of re-investment in low income communities and forcing the process to accommodate decent jobs, local economic development, and local control wherever possible.
(This issues and ideas in this blog are to be presented at Bronx Documentary Center – Saturday, December 7, 2013)
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