Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Word Of The Day: Gentrification

My latest spiel on words commonly considered as provocative or misunderstood or at a minimum, ambiguous in St. Louis is on the word "gentrification".

I've touched on the word hoosier and ghetto so far, two words most in the region use with a strong local meaning.  Even though these words may carry negatives, they are highly descriptive and continue to be used whether we like it or not.  There's no doubt in my mind that those two words are pretty universally understood and used with accuracy.

Gentrification on the other hand, not so much.  First of all, it is a relatively modern word that was added to the dictionary a mere 48 years ago.  What the word means, especially in the context of St. Louis, is fascinating to me.  Some see gentrification as a good thing, others not.

Let's start with a dictionary definition:
the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents (source)
Simple, right.  Yet, I've been in several conversations where the topic simply gets out of hand and fast.  When I hear anyone speak negative of sensitive investment, infrastructure upgrades or renewal in any neighborhood in St. Louis, a city that has seen staggering population losses and destruction of historic property, I am flummoxed.  How can that be bad regardless of what powers are doing the planning, bank rolling and execution?

Another definition:
the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. (source)
This one describes the potential negatives of gentrification in a little more detail.  It touches on property values raising and pushing out the same people who may have provided the area with much soul and flavor for decades.  Think Cherokee street mom and pop Hispanic/Latino businesses being pushed out by higher rent and changing demographics.  That would be a bummer.

But is that really going to happen here?  I don't know but I doubt it.

Still, with the current state of affairs in St. Louis, investment of any kind seems pretty good to me.  Every neighborhood in the city could use an influx of people with money willing to invest right here in the city, no?  I'd kill for some more of that medicine in my neck of the woods. 

I think the gentrification as a negative argument just doesn't play well in St. Louis.  The city seems inherently built to not push out poor people; it was built for the huddled masses when the country was in a state of massive immigration from Europe and migration from the South.  Sure there are mansions and swanky residences, but the vast majority of homes are of modest size compared to the national average.  In fact the Midwest has the lowest average new single family home sizes compared to the rest of the country:

The average home size in 2010 was 2,265 square feet in 2010, 2,020 in 1992 and 1,445 in 1973.  The vast majority of homes in St. Louis were built prior to 1973.  So, based on these data, you can assume in the heydey of our building boom from the late 19th Century to 1955 or so, the average home was even smaller than 1,445 sq. ft.  The point I'm trying to make is, St. Louis is built smaller and more dense than the new construction areas and trends of bigger is better.  You could argue that our built environment is set up for density and the masses....hence it'll be cheaper to live here based on overall lower square footage and supply & demand keeping costs of living much lower than the national average.

We have rows and rows of houses that are very modest in size from the northern tip to the southern tip of the city.  These are all over, look no further than the concentration of such homes in North Hampton, Walnut Park West and many many other neighborhoods.

 the North Hampton neighborhood

the Walnut Park West neighborhood

Furthermore, there are cheap rents all over the city.  There are so many multi-family and multi-unit properties here, I just don't see rents skyrocketing over the next 10-20 years enough to push people out of St. Louis.  Maybe a street or a block, but not an entire neighborhood or city.

If you think gentrification is a bad word you probably have not been around our fair city.  This word having a negative context in Portland, New York or San Francisco makes sense.

Pushing out people who are from somewhere and give that area a certain vibe, history and feel is not good.  But that doesn't seem to be happening here in St. Louis, we just don't have that kind of demand and masses of wealth elevating property values to a level where the folks living in a neighborhood for decades can no longer afford it.  The rich and poor are dispersed all over the city, especially the diverse southside.  Compton Heights, DeBaliviere Place, Central West End, Downtown and Downtown West have some of our richest and most priviledged residents, yet these places I just mentioned are diverse (economically and racially) and no one is getting pushed out of these areas.

Now let's give some thought to a few neighborhoods that are going through a gentrification phase as we speak.  Why not just pick out Old North St. Louis, Forest Park Southeast and Gravois Park as examples.  If you view the activity in the last 10 years in these areas as negative or exclusionary of any particular race or economic level, than please make your points.  I am genuinely interested in your take; but I only see these areas as exciting, inspiring and improving.

Manchester Avenue in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood between Kingshighway and Vandeventer is gentrifying.  This is St. Louis' most obvious gay nightlife part of town, it has a tattoo shop, a skate shop, R&B-heavy music venue (Gramophone), a reality-TV profiled business and many other restaurants and bars...all of which are affordable and you will see people of all kinds in Sanctuaria, Sweetie Pie's, Gramophone, Atomic Cowboy and Everest (the only places I've been).

If you don't like that kind of stuff, and see it as negative then please tell me why.  Or if you think there was some awesome, positive, local, soulful vibe in these areas that is being replaced by milk toast interests by white people, hipsters, gay people or monied people in general, than please point them out to me.

Gentrification to me means more residents, less vacant property, more business, less vacant storefronts, more jobs, more fun, less abandonment and ghetto B.S.  This ain't New York or Boston where rents are prohibitive and exclusive...this is St. Louis, a city that has lost 500,000 people in 50 years.  Our most swanky/happening neighborhoods like CWE are clearly racially and class diverse, check the census data:
In 2010 the neighborhood's population was 58.0% White, 28.0% Black, 0.2% Native American, 11.1% Asian, 2.2% Two or More Races, and 0.5% Some Other Race. 2.7% of the population was of Hispanic or Latino origin
I think the gentrification debate would  be more appropriate in other cities that have seen even more investment than St. Louis.  Most of St. Louis investment has occured in the midbelt, from Downtown to Downtown West to Midtown to Grand Center to the Central West End.  Outside of CWE, most of those areas were largely unpopulated.  Remember what Washington Avenue looked like in 1994?  Dead.  No one got displaced, there was no one there.

Here is one of my favorite recent articles on gentrification with Washington D.C. as the focal point of the story.  Some quotes from the piece:
“Gentrification” is like the secret word in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse — say it and everyone freaks out.
“It’s possibly the most charged word in the built environment right now,” says Christopher Leinberger, the well-known urbanist and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The image of mustachioed, trust-fund hipsters displacing poor people of color will do that.  And that’s a shame, because gentrification has some undeniable upsides: reduced crime, better services and a more diverse array of businesses — and not just coffee shops.

“As a Detroit native who has seen this place rot from the inside-out, I’d kill for a little gentrification,” Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson recently tweeted.
It's a complicated story, but in a city like St. Louis, I just don't think it applies.  I say bring on the investors and next St. Louis that has prouder streets and neighborhoods than the last generation could muster up.  There is no shame in wanting that.  Bring on the middle and upper class.  Bring on the hipsters.  Bring on money, bring on highly educated residents.  We can all be good neighbors.

My favorite local blog right now is the St. Louis Neighborhood Development Blog.  It highlights homes/businesses under renovation throughout the city and indicates the $ amounts that the building permits are for.  Nothing...NOTHING...makes me more hopeful for the future of St. Louis than money rolling into our brick beauties to bring them back to life for another generation, or modernizing the old systems to serve citizens for another generation.  A home being rehabbed in the Ville or St. Louis Hills is equal to me...investment...and that is all good.  No exceptions.  No one is being pushed out of anywhere in St. Louis.  I just don't see it.  I think negative perceptions of schools and crime displace more people across the income and race spectrum than property values and walkability scores.

Gentrification means uplifting our neighborhoods...is that wrong?

Thoughts?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh you really over simplify this word! You "Johnny come latelys", just can't see the bad. Wake up. Gentrification in the "Grove" is a very bad experience. Same thing in Botanical Height, it was old Mcree Town. It's a thirty year nightmare. You have to live on the wrong side to feel the pain brother. Our leaders side up with big money corporations and institutions. Then they methodicaly make living in "their" development zone as hellish as possible till your gone. They don't care where or how you go, the penitentry,graveyard,or homless, just get the "F" out. Cause they want your property and they want it for cheap! I could tell u the ugly dirty side of gentrification but why should u care? You did'nt have to suffer the real life cost of this process. You haven't been targeted to be driven out yet.

Anonymous said...

Before it "uplifts" gentrification must drive down! I grew up in Shaw neighborhood, and experienced the beginning stages of the evil gentrification plan unleashed on the nearby McRee Town and Tiffiny neiborhoods. Instead of supporting property owners and residence the alderman sold them out. Future development plans and deals made with the Garden and real estate developers were kept secret. The unoficial policy adopted is described in the, "Team4 Plan". It's where the city withdraws or cuts back on sevices,trash collection,street repair, bldg.code enforcement,and police protection. The "Hood" name for this area is,"the Dark Side" because when the street lights burned out or were shot out, the city seemed to never restore the lights. Nothing clears and drives down and out like planned, premeditated gentrification crime!

Mark Groth said...

^as "anonymous" points out, there is clearly confusion around this word. Gentrification is not the definition or embodiment of the destructive behaviors by "leaders" or residents to destroy and devalue a neighborhood/city. It is the later part, the influx of money and investment. You are sore, and that's understandable; I'd love to hear more of your story. When I moved to St. Louis in 1994 (am I a "Johnny come lately?), McRee town was the first place I saw a horrible crime involving a group of women and a Somali immigrant. It was horrible and etched into my mind of how evil some people are. It was a shithole back then. I look at it today right around Tower Grove and Klemm and I'm impressed. Tell me more about how "Grove" getnrification is "a very bad experience". My email is groth_stl@hotmail.com; hit me up and I'll do an interview with you and publish it as a part II of sorts.

Brian said...

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve a neighbor and invest in it. The problem is how some groups and leaders handle it. There is nothing wrong with the process itself, as Mark pointed out it is intended be helpful. The downtown in my hometown of Fresno is desperate need of gentrification as well. As it stands now, there is simply no reason to go down there at all.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous above is SO RIGHT, Mark. Your "Pollyanna" vision of gentrification being so good in STL is just wrong & does not reflect the reality of the Urban poor who were pushed out when McKree Town was "gentrified". The RFT actually did a great in-depth story about it and said essentially "you can only push so many Urban poor out & further North before real problems start happening" etc This was true of McKree Town then and it is true of Cherokee Street NOW as well as Old North. Cherokee looks great by the light of day but tell me? Why do all the white shopkeepers lock their shop doors at Dusk even though they are open for maybe another hour? The longtime residents of Cherokee are MAD that again, they are never seen as part of the solution but rather, part of the problem. Until this City stops displacing the undesirables in the name of civic progress, GENTRIFICATION will always be a charged word here in the Lou. I could tell you so much about what went wrong here in STL and some of what went right but you seem determined to have a pie in the sky reality of STL so I won't bother you with the FACTS. Oh and by the way, the correct term is "milquetoast" NOT milk toast - look it up - that word actually has a fascinating origin.
Sincerely,
Deb W.

Mark Groth said...

^Anonymous, I had to look up polyanna :) it is synonymous with an optimistic outlook. Thanks, that's exactly what I have about STL, including McRee Town. For those that don't know McRee is now referred to as Botanical Heights. It lost 43% of its residents from 2000 to 2010. It is made up of 74% blacks, 20% whites, 6% other. If you compare Botanical Heights in 1990 or Botanical Heights in 2013, which would you prefer? If it is 1990, then tell me exactly what you liked then that doesn't exist now. Thanks for your comment.

Mark Groth said...

To all the "anonymous" posters who have stories on the bad side of gentrification, I want to hear more from you. Unravelling STL history is fascinating to me. Send me an email at groth_stl@hotmail.com and we can do an interview. I will post your stories as a Gentrification Part II of sorts. on Word Of The Day: Gentrification
Remove content | Delete | Spam Mark Groth at 12:10 PM

Anonymous said...

The word "gentrification" is a euphemism. You actually used two euphemisms in your article. The word "gay" also qualifies as a euphemism. These words are meant to mask truth or distort it completely. Gentrification is the process of displacing lower class blacks with middle up class whites. The process can be manufactured or can happen organically through the simple process of free individuals making choices.

Mark Groth said...

I'm still waiting for those emails from the "anonymous" posters. You can be interviewed and your points of view published on this site.

A Bike Nerd said...

What is the oppisite of getrification? How did these neighborhoods become the way they were in the first place?