When gentrification comes knocking at your community/city’s door, it doesn’t barge in like the police during a drug raid. It starts with a soft knock that only a few people can hear. These people tend to be eager city officials and planners looking for a way to bring in new faces and revenue into a struggling urban area. After a few have heard the knock, some residents hear a louder knock. These tend to be homeowners, professionals, or people who are worried about crime in the area. They feel the new development would bring things they like into the city and drive down crime (more on this later). So after you have some city officials and prominent members of the community, the knock of gentrification starts banging on the doors. Now working class residents who are too busy trying to scrap by and get a living can hear but they still don’t really understand what it means. During this stage developers either become more aggressive or more manipulative. They start demanding that the city follows up on promises made. The proposals have already gone through many stages of revision. The city officials want the “improvement” that would come with new housing targeting certain people, the developers want the money, and the professional class of citizens would rightfully like (though in a warped way of thinking) want to see their tax dollars go to things they care about, but in the end it is the working class black and latino populations that get the short end of the stick and before they know it, they are forced to move somewhere else.
So this analogy comes from something very personal to me. Last night, April 2nd, I went to a zoning board meeting at the suggestion of my colleagues. I didn’t intend to stay long as, planning on leaving at 8:30 the latest that way I could make it home in time to watch another episode of Scandal. Well I missed Scandal and I don’t miss Scandal unless something VERY IMPORTANT came up. See I live in a 2.2 sq mile town named Orange, NJ (Not West, South or East, just Orange) in Essex County right outside of Newark. At this meeting, there was a discussion about an development plan for the central area of the township that had undergone several revisions since 2004 when it was first introduced. Again I didn’t plan on staying long but going to one of these meeting showed that I was an engaged citizen and gave me political capital for when I planned my own events. So I was willing to sacrifice some time (and some grad school reading) for an hour. However, while they were explaining the meat of the proposal all I heard in my head was GENTRIFICATION, GENTRIFICATION, GENTRIFICATION.
Orange was one of the surrounding areas that received some of the blow back following the 1967 Newark riots. Major factories that provided jobs for blue collar black and European immigrant communities closed. 280 tore straight through the middle of the town forcing many residents to relocate. Moreover, Orange has a troubled history with racial segregation and racial politics despite its small size (I can’t even get into all of this now but just know it is so important for this post). We gradually see white flight until the point where I am growing up in the late 90s and the first decade of the 2000s that I had no white classmates (maybe one or two but that’s it). In the 80s there was the explosion of the crack epidemic which wrecked havoc on black and Latino communities. The War on Drugs was no help for the situation as families were split a part and people who should have received society’s assistance to get rehabilitated were sent to jail where they were further dehumanized or became involved in more criminal activity (this is a generalization but the sake of time let’s keep it to this). So with all these factors of deindustrialization, poverty, drugs, and a majority minority [sic] population, Orange, like surrounding Newark and East Orange, developed a negative reputation with the neighboring suburbs. In these suburbs, people always complain about crime and perpetuate an negative narrative of Orange which basically can be summed up as “it’s so dangerous down there…it’s a ghetto…those people just live on government assistance.” In other words they racialize my town and employ what Dr. Mindy Thompson calls a process of redlining based solely on words (In fact my town was listed as one of the most dangerous cities in NJ by Movoto sigh).
This emphasis on the ghettoization of Orange from many outsiders considered a :good safe community back in the day” and where they have bouts of nostalgia feeds what becomes the gentrification machine. Unlike communities in Brooklyn or in Harlem that have been gentrified, Essex county faces a different form of gentrification in my personal non-expert opinion. You see NYC is expensive. This is why as a PhD student I have opted to live at home instead of trying to struggle in the Big City. I am not the only one who understands this but developers see this as well. Don’t get me wrong NJ is one of the most expensive states to live in in the US but I will gladly buy my Chipotle burrito in expensive Hoboken and take it across to NYC on the PATH train just to save a few cents. This logic is exactly what developers who are looking at the urban areas in the Oranges and Newark are looking at. Hoboken and Jersey City are becoming too expensive to the point where they compete with NYC housing prices so Orange, East Orange, and Newark seem like viable choices for redevelopment. The reasoning for this is because all three cities are on the direct train line into NYC which is perfect for people who don’t want to pay those obnoxious housing prices but still plan on spending the majority of their time in the city at work or having fun.
The meeting was an interesting sight in itself. Aside from the planning jargon, the basic gist was that they were going to build up the neighborhood right around the main train station in the city.Two residents complained that they were basically rebuilding the projects that were torn down a few years ago but in my opinion they didn’t truly understand the larger trends at work. What I saw in the plan last night was the beginning stages of what is happening in downtown Newark around the Penn Station. See back when I was thinking of wasting money by trying to be independent and move out on my own, I looked into how much it would cost to rent in different places in NJ near train stations so it would be easy for me to get into the city. Newark was one area and what I found was that a lot of the housing around the train station was nice and modern but with that came high prices. High prices I wasn’t willing to pay and thus I am still at home. Downtown Newark is looking different with a Whole Foods on its way. Let’s be honest only certain people can afford to shop at Whole foods. These two residents lived in the target area so it made sense that they were concerned about crime (though their statements were littered with coded respectability politics). They thought the plans would bring more traffic but these people living close to the train stations don’t own cars and won’t need them if a Whole Foods is nearby. Plus they would most likely be in the City anyways. In the odd chance they do spend their money in Orange, they are right by the major commercial area on our Main Street. So while these two residents have valid concerns, they are fearful of the developments for the wrong reason.
Now some of you are probably saying I’m overreacting and that these people should be welcomed for a number of reasons. My response is, I am not opposed to people coming to Orange and making it their home but I am opposed to said people making my town their dormitory. Well the city planner had an answer to that concern and it wasn’t to my liking. He suggested that we try to attract Starbucks or Whole Foods to the area. *Insert What and confused emoji* When he said this, something inside me clicked. I have been waiting for this day when someone would suggest Starbucks coming to Orange, because with its Caramel Macchiattos comes a certain kind of clientele. Working class people can’t afford $5 lattes and iced teas/coffee (which are filled with half ice). With Starbucks comes other specialty businesses as we have seen in Brooklyn which the SNL skit linked below so brilliantly critiques.
I’ll say this again. I am all for new people moving in, after all that’s what keeps cities vibrant and differentiates them from rural areas that tend to suffer from depopulation. However, I refuse to accept the idea that in order for a place to improve that we have to eventually force people out of the city. This concept is wrapped up in the whole “this is a ghetto and no one really lives here” narrative. Similar to colonialism, gentrification treats areas as undiscovered land whose people are savages and not worthy to live and be in charge of their communities. White people who once fled from urban areas following deindustrialization, are returning to these areas, bulldozing what is there with the support of certain residents thinking that this will stem crime. What this rhetoric always ignores is that the majority of being in an urban area are law abiding citizens who are just so bogged down with work that they are unable to be truly active sometimes. Other times, these working class citizens feel apathetic either because their voice was ignored in the past or because they think things can’t change. For immigrant communities, particularly black immigrants, urban areas become places we live but a lot of parents encourage their children to work hard so that they can become successful and leave the community instead of pouring back into it in positive ways (thankfully my parents weren’t like this). With the absence of intellectual capital and positive examples or local success, apathy grows among students in the school system who feel trapped and disillusioned. This is all just my personal philosophy but it is undeniable that gentrification is able to slowly creep up on communities because of a multitude of issues at work. When I spoke at the meeting asking about how much housing in the new developments were required to be set aside for working class families, the city planner informed me that Orange had already met the requirement back in 2009 with a paltry number that I cannot recall so now anything else was just extra. How long will it take for a developer to realize they are not bound to set aside housing for working class people and instead start renting $2000 1 bedroom apartments to young millennial professionals who love the City, don’t want cars, and want their amenities like Starbucks at their disposal. It won’t take longer for rents to rise and for certain businesses that cater to working class residents start to close only to be replaced by high end shops. Gentrification rarely comes barging in with a battering ram but it seeps in through cracks in the urban infrastructure offering solutions which only benefit a few instead of the masses. Speaking last night I got my concerns off my chest but I wonder what did I accomplish? What ways can developers and citizens work together so that we all are welcome and contribute to our cities? After all with public parks basically becoming privatized (see video below) we are definitely straying from all are welcome society.
Mission Playground in San Francisco
Kai, the guy in the video above explains what happened to his community
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