I have no stake in the gentrification debates that have been waged here at Ordinary. But they anger me.
I’ve realized that my anger stems from precisely the fact that I have no stakes. No stake to call my own. There are no communities on the planet that I can enter as a majority member. As an Indian-American, wherever I may go, I am part of the raiding party. (Yes, there are some Indian communities forming in America now, but these consist of recent immigrants. All I have in common with them is the ability to eat lime as a fruit.)
It’s predictable then that I have little sympathy for members of preexisting communities who expect special treatment over their newer neighbors.
Existing communities might belong to sympathetic groups, but their complaints reek of unearned privilege. They believe control should be vested based on seniority. Familial seniority. But that is only one of many ways in which power can be divided, and it is among the worst.
Let’s now examine two hotbeds of debate around gentrification.
The perils of holding seniority as sacred become apparent upon reading Ta-Nehisi Coates quoting Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Tom Sugrue:
…[in the town] not a single resident was black. It was not for a shortage of potential black buyers. Black housing demand far exceeded supply. In metropolitan Philadelphia, between 1946 and 1953, only 347 of 120,000 new homes built were open to blacks. Racial exclusion had perverse economic effects: It created a vast gap between supply and demand. As a result, blacks paid more for housing on average than did whites. In nearly every northern city, black newcomers crammed into old and run-down housing, mainly in dense central neighborhoods left behind by upwardly mobile whites.
You can only imagine what kind of money was made exploiting the dreams of middle class black people trapped in the ghettos of America. That money represents a transfer of wealth from black hands to white hands. It continued unabated from the early 20th century, through the New Deal (which actually aided this process), well into the 1960s.
Additionally, Coates quotes Beryl Satter’s Family Properties explaining how the government’s Federal Housing Authority has been used as an instrument for housing segregation:
[Appraisers] ranked properties, blocks, and even whole neighborhoods according to a descending scheme of A (green), B (blue), C (yellow), and D (red). A ratings went to properties located in “homogenous” areas — ones that (in one appraiser’s words) lacked even “a single foreigner or Negro.” Properties located in neighborhoods containing Jewish residents were riskier; they were marked down to a B or C. If a neighborhood had black residents it was marked as D, or red, no matter what their social class or how small a percentage of the population they made up. These neighborhoods’ properties were appraised as worthless or likely to decline in value. In short, D areas were “redlined,” or marked as locations in which no loans should be made for either purchasing or upgrading properties.
The FHA embraced these biases. [Emphasis added] It collected detailed maps of the present and likely future location of African Americans, and used them to determine which neighborhoods would be denied mortgage insurance. Since banks and savings and loan institutions often relied upon FHA rating maps when deciding where to grant their mortgages, the FHA’s appraisal policies meant that blacks were excluded by definition from most mortgage loans.
The FHA’s Underwriting Manual also praised restrictive covenants as “the surest protection against undesirable encroachment” of “inharmonious racial groups.” The FHA did not simply recommend the use of restrictive covenants but often insisted upon them as a condition for granting mortgage insurance….the FHA effectively standardized and nationalized the hostile but locally variable racial biases of the private housing industry.
These policies continued in less extreme forms through mortgage discrimination through the 70s and on through at least 2008, the end date for the period covered by Countrywide’s $335 million discrimination no-fault lawsuit settlement:
The United States’ complaint alleges that African-American and Hispanic borrowers paid more than non-Hispanic white borrowers, not based on borrower risk, but because of their race or national origin. Countrywide’s business practice allowed its loan officers and mortgage brokers to vary a loan’s interest rate and other fees from the price it set based on the borrower’s objective credit-related factors . This subjective and unguided pricing discretion resulted in African American and Hispanic borrowers paying more. The complaint further alleges that Countrywide was aware the fees and interest rates it was charging discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers, but failed to impose meaningful limits or guidelines to stop it.
The inference I make from all this is that where people live today is at least partially influenced by some fished up processes. That sympathetic fixed-income widow living in a rent-controlled apartment since the 60s, is where she is in part because her representatives cleared the path of competition. It may not have been done at her explicit request, but it was done all the same. Her claim to her rental is built upon a racial fault line. San Francisco is 6% black and 15% Hispanic, and it shows in photos of the protests.
The longer you and your family have lived someplace, the more likely it is that the circumstances around how your family ended up there were problematic, even if you had no hand in creating those circumstances. Yes, you helped create the community as it stands today, but color me unimpressed. That’s part of being a resident, and I have little evidence that your particular contribution to the community was actually for the better.
Even if we discount these issues, “I’ve lived here longer, so everyone should have to adjust to me and my preferences, and no one I don’t approve of should be able to move near me,” is both obnoxious and elitist. Even if you experience relative poverty and that is the basis for your complaint, it is still obnoxious and elitist.
New York has perma-relevance to the gentrification debate in no small part due to Spike Lee. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t claim unearned privilege.
There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!
Spike Lee’s father bought a house in 1968, at a time when his housing options were likely artificially altered due to his race. He nevertheless bought a place along with some others and made a community out of it. Respect is indeed owed.
I have little idea about the merits of the noise complaints. Personally, the idea of people playing African drums at the park sounds awesome (at least in theory), but ultimately these are community decisions, and community decisions should be made by all affected members, not only by those who have been there the longest.
I do acknowledge the discomfort this creates. Narratively, we told black people “you can only live in these assigned, undesirable places” one decade and then said “we want to change what you’ve built to suit us” 45 years later. That should make us uncomfortable, and I think Lee is right to ask for respect and tolerance rather than a call to the cops. An example of doing it right would be Trader Joe’s canceling plans for a store in a community that opposed its entrance.
But that doesn’t mean that the final authority on the subject should not still be all members of the community regardless of the means by which they got there.
Photo credit: CJ Martin