Will I be able to live with myself if I contribute to "gentrification"?
March 21, 2007 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Ethics question. Should I contribute to gentrification or not?

I'm thinking of buying into a neighborhood in DC (Petworth to be exact) that appears to be in the beginning stages of gentrification. Without getting into the safety concerns, what are your feelings on contributing to gentrification? I am young, white, and can't afford much of anything in the rest of DC. (And am not quite ready to move to suburbia.) Petworth (besides the safety concerns) also has a lot to offer (more residential, more space, yards, basements, possibly a great investment). Should I only buy in areas that already fit my demographic, or is it okay to contribute to gentrification (by which I understand that I would be a factor in making poor, mainly minority people have to leave the nieghborhoods they now live in). I've read the pros and cons, but I wouldn't mind hearing them again here (might be some I haven't heard of), and also I'm interested in your gut feelings about this issue.

(Full disclosure: I want to feel okay about this b/c I want to be able to buy a house in this (or similar) neighborhood, but my gut tells me it's morally wrong. I don't have a ton of faith in my gut on complicated issues like this, though. Hence the question.)
posted by n'muakolo to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The big question to me would be whether the developers are buying cheap, unused property or whether it's part of a planned project that abuse eminent domain rights.

Property prices increasing in urban areas is a natural part of supply and demand; forcibly removing working-class businesses to make way for condos that are going to sit empty for the most part seems to be a recent idiocy.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:48 AM on March 21, 2007

If it will happen, gentrification will happen, with or without your economic input.

Neighbors who are vested in their surroundings tend to work in concert to make a good, safe neighborhood.

If you like the neighborhood for the reasons you specify, which I'd think would be more compelling motivations than macroeconomic forces you have little direct control over, then it might be better to get in on the ground floor.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:50 AM on March 21, 2007

So you think it's morally superior to not move to this neighborhood in order to keep it 'real' which is, by your estimate, unsafe? Oh that's great. Nice move. Look, you have the right to live where you want to live, economically and socially. Read up about Jane Jacobs and the broken windows theory and then rethink your position on gentrification.
posted by gsh at 6:54 AM on March 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

You should buy a place where you want to live. If you wanted to live in an area with a bunch of white people then you should move there. If you want to live in Petworth then you should move there. There is enough to worry about when buying a house that you probably shouldn't bother worrying about stuff you have little control over.
posted by chunking express at 6:58 AM on March 21, 2007

Somebody who's really interested in thinking about her impact and her place in a new community is, almost by definition, less culturally disruptive than your average gentrifier. Just keep your mind/eyes/heart open -- and learn about your neighbors' language (if applicable) & culture -- and although you'll be clueless sometimes I think your good intentions will come through. (That's been what I try to do as a white woman living in a neighborhood with a strong Latino/Latina majority and culture.)
posted by sparrows at 7:12 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

A major part of gentrification is the shift in what businesses a neighborhood can support, and that's something you can resist even while living there. Shop at the stores that were there before you. Don't go to the goddamn macrobiotic cupcake bakery when it opens up, no matter how adorable it looks.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:25 AM on March 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm with sparrows. Move in and learn, then now, or when you feel comfortable, educate whomever you can. The problem is not you, the problem is the other people who do it and don't know, nor care to know, what they're doing and how it is affecting other human beings.

Move in and talk to those people who are clueless on the issues that you've already show you're aware of. Not in a holier-than-thou kind of way, but to show them what is going on. Sometimes people just need to understand what is happening, and it's not like they'd necessarily know, depending on what their background is.

I say move in there and be as positive a force as you can be, by learning and by teaching, where appropriate.
posted by cashman at 7:25 AM on March 21, 2007

Buy the house if you want to live there. Don't assume that everyone that lives there is a renter. You are contributing to increasing property values which may hopefully increase the wealth of some of the current residents.

And you are also decreasing the burden on the infrastructure of the entire area. By living in an urban center you are decreasing the need to build more highways and water and power lines etc...
posted by hilby at 7:39 AM on March 21, 2007

Gentrification is not a moral problem, it is a planning problem. When a human being consumes anything with a non-zero marginal cost they are contributing to the scarcity of that item and driving up the cost. Living anywhere will slightly raise the cost others in the area will have to pay, this is true in North East, Arlington, and Dupont Circle, pretty much everywhere. Live where you want and where you can afford to and be the best neighbor to your neighbors that you can be.
posted by I Foody at 7:44 AM on March 21, 2007

I'm honestly having a tough time with your question because of the level of self-loathing I detect in your rhetoric and "moral" opinions, but lots of my friends have gone though similar situations and so I've thought kind of a lot about it. So, I'll (mostly) refrain from tellilng you to get the hell over yourself, and try to address your question on both a conceptual and a practical level.

First, conceptually, you need to seriously reassess your thoughs and beliefs about what a "neighborhood" is, what makes a neighborhood "real" or otherwise desireable, and what "gentrification" is. First of all, not to get all postmodern on you, but the idea that a neighborhood has an essence and a consistency readily accessible to you is an arrogant cultural bias. Even if an area is majority-minority, it is already full of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, religion, and politics. Quit thinking of minority people as "others" whose territory you shouldn't be invading, whose culture you can't participate in. They are Americans, they are DC residents just like you, and even if you have radically different backgrounds, open yourself up to making genuine peer-type connections with all people rather than viewing yourself as an oppressive interloper.

Secondly, on a practical level, think about who gets to make decisions about the evolution of a neighborhood: the residents of that neighborhood, in combination with the local government. If you are concerned about mistreatment and disenfranchisement of current residents, then how better to help defend their interests than to become a resident yourself and fight on their (and your) behalf? Move in, attend city council meetings, lobby for strong tenant rights. Just become part of the community, get to know people and get to know what your neighbors actually want instead of broadly imposing your existing political opinions that you got from academia or commercial media or wherever (venues in which, incidentally, disadvanraged inner-city people are not exactly overrepresented). If concerned people like you don't buy property in up and coming areas, then slum lords and speculators will.

You can't stop gentrification, but you can help shape it if you have the courage to get involved rather than anxiously avoiding any uncomfortable situations.
posted by rkent at 7:50 AM on March 21, 2007 [8 favorites]

In a housing market crash, developing areas are going to be hit the hardest.

If there's a chance you will want to move in the next 5-10 years, that could present a problem, as you could easily end up upside-down on your house.

The risk of this situation is significantly lower in areas with more predictable housing demand and pricing.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 7:56 AM on March 21, 2007


By buying into minority dominated areas, you you are contributing to desegregation, and that is a huge and laudable thing. If you buy into a minority majority are, when the prices rise, there will still be more minorities there than in an equivalent area which has traditionally been white. So this is good.

Do it, it is morally right. Going somewhere that "fits your demographic" is segregation, and morally wrong.
posted by markovich at 8:14 AM on March 21, 2007

One of my closest friends bought a home in Petworth. He's a white IT professional, and he did remark at the overt hostility towards white residents all over DC. Potential neighbors made snide comments to him.

He was recounting stories from the search process.... once a seller said: "You know, my momma was a maid for you people", another said "things have changed a lot in the neighborhood since you people started moving in".

DC's a huge hotbed of anti-white sentiment, and you'll find it in lots and lots of places, including Petworth.

My friend was recounting that his city councilman (or alderman, I can't recall which) will attend meetings with the overwhelmingly-white gentrifiers, etc, at the same time keeps a number of prominent black-separatist/black-nationalist types on staff, who frequently get caught sending out anti-white and anti-semitic literature to residents.

Your black neighbors will likely harbor resentment, your latino neighbors, less so.

Now, as for gentrify or not? I say do it. It's odd seeing check-cashing places and liquor stores being turned into high-end Ukrainian-themed bars, but, hey, gentrifiers need entertainment, too.
posted by The Giant Squid at 8:20 AM on March 21, 2007

Are you moving into recent or new construction? Are you only going to frequent gentrified businesses? If you are going to contribute to the existing community, in a way that is compatible with it, what's the problem?

Well, I know what the problem is.. Anytime you do something you aren't expected to, there is a big backlash, but don't let that stop you.

If you are going to move into one of the new town houses down the block, and you buy your Vente Caffe Vanilla Frappuccino® at Starbucks® every morning.. Well, I want to say "go to hell", but I'm slightly more civilized than that.
posted by Chuckles at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2007

Now, regarding gentrification as a moral issue...

First off, if it wasn't for "gentrifiers", most older homes would fall into further and further disrepair.

If you believe it's "morally wrong" for someone to come in, bring money to an area, improve housing, demand better police protection, (potentially) demand better schooling, etc,
then, is it also true to say that it's "morally right" to leave these areas in disrepair, getting worse and worse from neglect and people who cannot afford to repair them?

The implication here is that young professionals should only live in "white" areas (which is to say suburbia, and... Georgetown).

And, if the only "morally acceptable" place for white professionals is suburbia, then I'd say you're out of your mind.
posted by The Giant Squid at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2007

I am totally a gentrifier and I don't feel bad about it. It is a structural issue and just because I am on the most obvious edge of it, I don't think it is particularly my fault or that I should suffer most. I need someplace to live, and that is what I can afford. I will support smart planning and politics and policies that work to keep the middle and working classes in the city, but I am not going to mortify myself for the sake of the people at the top of the heap, which is what not buying an affordable condo would be.
posted by dame at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2007

And another way gentrification can start to be a positive force is when the influx of cash lets locals start businesses they've always wanted to start, but which might not have found a big enough customer base earlier. In NYC this is what I see in Harlem and the Heights; just one example is in natural foods (the Black- or Latino-owned businesses in stereotypically white/upscale food specialties such as raw foods [Raw Soul], health food [many small places like Sano Health Food Center], vegan food [Strictly Roots] and more).
posted by sparrows at 8:50 AM on March 21, 2007

WASP in NE DC here. We went through your exact thought process two-and-a-half years ago when we bought our place. What eased our moral burden was that we really wanted to live in that neighborhood, in that house, regardless of the investment potential. Our living there might, indeed, cause real estate prices to rise, but we wanted the house because it was within walking distance to my job, had a big yard (by DC standards), was nicely-designed, and was affordable (again, by DC standards).

Shoot me an email if you want to talk more.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:01 AM on March 21, 2007

Whatever, it's DC. DC is already so racially and demographically fucked up you aren't going to be able to make it all ok by the personal choices you make. There's a lot of BS "this is how it's a good thing for everyone" sentiment on this thread, but really, you moving into that condo is just the visible (to you) part of a whole system of exclusion. You don't have as much power in this situation as you might feel - by the time you're thinking "Petworth looks ok" the damage is basically done.

DC's a huge hotbed of anti-white sentiment,

Why do you think that might be? (and the US is a huge hotbed of anti-black sentiment).
posted by crabintheocean at 9:09 AM on March 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

Well here's the way I see it.

When "gentrification" is done right, the neighborhood benefits by being made safer, local businesses benefit by having a better market for their goods, local residents benefit by taking advantage of the improved availability and quality of jobs provided by those local businesses, and property owners benefit by rising property values. Some property owners will take advantage of this opportunity to cash out and leave the old neighborhood.

Done poorly, developers swoop in, buy out property owners at artificially depressed prices, force local businesses to close, thus drying up the source of jobs and making it easier for aforementioned developers to buy more property at depressed prices. These developers then build properties that the former residents of the neighborhood could never afford, rent to businesses the locals couldn't/wouldn't have patronized, yuppies move in all smug about their rehabilitated neighborhood.

Which is happening where you are?
posted by ilsa at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Trouble is, everything you do is "wrong" in the sense that this is wrong. Your very life in the West is endlessly exploitative of people in developing countries, for example - that's the way the world is structured economically. The only thing you can really do is kill yourself.

Gentrification is a pretty bad thing for locals in a lot of cases, but it's also not something that you as an individual can do anthing about. And ultimately, whatever arguments are put forward here, I'm sure you'll buy that place anyway, because people can justify anything to themselves if it's in their own self-interest.

This is not intended as any kind of judgement.
posted by reklaw at 9:37 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

The only thing you can really do is kill yourself.

You can choose to spend less money, you can choose to earn less money.. Those are very difficult choices to make, socially, but it is possible.
posted by Chuckles at 11:22 AM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: Hmmmm. I'm surprised at the answers here. I expected much more "don't do it." But it's good to hear the arguments for, as well.

Re ilsa: what kind of development is going on - I'm not in the area yet, I've just heard about it from friends and from what research I've done on the internet. It sounds like for the most part it is older row homes that have been refurbished, and not very much new yuppy condos. That's a major part of its appeal to me - I hate living in big buildings. Petworth used to be the "suburbs of DC" in the 1920s when that construction started, and those row houses remain.

Re gsh: I. Don't. Know. That's what I'm grappling with. It IS more dangerous than most of DC/NoVa/southern Md - that's not just my opinion. The issue isn't "realness" the issue is making other people's lives suck if my choices contribute to them having to move and have their community dispersed as often happens with gentrification. One of my good friends is a landlord/tenant public interest lawyer, and she's been lecturing me on the negative impact of gentrification on her clients' lives (as they get evicted bc they can't keep up with rising rent prices in gentrifying areas of DC), so it's especially on my mind right now.

Re rkent: I'm not filled with self-loathing, but I do try to think through thorny issues, and regardless of your take on gentrification, this is generally considered a thorny issue. And call me crazy, but I don't particularly like the idea of participating in a wave of change in an area that will probably ultimately cause the current inhabitants to be forced to move out, as gentrification generally tends to do bc of rising rent prices and property taxes. It isn't just about race - it's about class as well - but Petworth does happen to be mainly a poor, BLACK area, not a poor, WHITE area, so race is an issue too. If I thought this had an easy answer (no absolutely not, my presence will ruin everything) I wouldn't feel the need to post this question. And Petworth seems to be an actual neighborhood, in the old fashioned sense of the word - people are friends & have family with other people very nearby. I don't think it's irrelevant that gentrification will probably cause that neighborhood to disintegrate or relocate. I do like your second, practical point - if I live there I can help contribute positively to Petworth.

Re whether I'll actually buy there: who knows. I've got some time to think it through and there are other considerations (economic risk, physical safety, transportation convenience, DC taxes) that may be more important factors.

Re recklaw and my existence being "wrong": I'm sure this was a bit of a joke, but without going crazy I do actually try to live my life so that it is a "net positive." I know I'm screwing up the environment and exploiting people by living & buying the way I do, but I try to counter that (loosely) by community service, my job, my interactions with other human beings, the choices I make, etc. This is just one example, but it is a big one because it's a house and a neighborhood.
posted by n'muakolo at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

I do like your second, practical point - if I live there I can help contribute positively to Petworth.

That was my main point: that you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and shape the inevitable changes, rather than turning up your nose and refusing to be part of something you find objectionable (but which will roll on with or without you). The other part merely provides a conceptual framework under which that's allowed, as opposed to a static us/them - our neighborhood/their neighborhood worldview that apparently leads one to feel that running away from the problem is the "moral" option.
posted by rkent at 11:47 AM on March 21, 2007

I'm with dagnyscott (very first response): if the development is being done based on land that has been forcably taken from its owners by eminent domain in order to 'gentrify' it, don't touch it. In fact, consider going down and chaining yourself to a bulldozer with the previous owners (or some more rational form of protest, like writing a letter) if that suits you.

However, provided that the land isn't being taken at gunpoint, I don't think you should feel any guilt about moving in, if it's a place you want to live and think you'll feel comfortable.

But do try to shop at the businesses that are there already, and meet the neighbors and reassure them that you're not an ass, etc. But don't act guilty, because you have no reason to be.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2007

I haven't thought much about gentrification as an ethical issue, but it sounds like you may be able to ease your conscience by developing some kind of "gentrification offsets" you could contribute to on a regular basis. Perhaps patronizing local shops could be a form of this. If you're going to move into the neighborhood, be a good neighbor: become a member of the neighborhood and work to keep it affordable and stable, establish rent controls or something similar.

But for the record, I do tend to disagree with ethical justifications that take the form "If you don't do X, someone else is going to do X (and enjoy X or get ahead by doing X) anyway, so the world won't be much different and therefore X is morally permissible." The rich person who lives next door to me might be well known for leaving his money laying around in his unlocked house when he is away, virtually guaranteeing that someone is going to steal it. This doesn't mean it's morally permissible for me to steal it, given that my plans for the money involve buying a new television (or donating it to Oxfam) rather than other potential thieves' intentions to use it for drugs.

I think the right thing to say here, as many have been saying, is that your presence in the neighborhood is only the very first of ethical steps. It's what you do with that presence that will determine whether you've helped or hurt the neighborhood. One thing's for certain, though, you're going to have a lot more potential influence on the neighborhood from inside it than you would outside it.
posted by ontic at 2:56 PM on March 21, 2007

Why don't you get on the census website and find out what proportion of people in that neighborhood are renters? And did they kick out renters to sell you the house?

Otherwise, you're helping a house seller make money. You're also helping anyone who owns their home around you. In CA, property taxes are mostly capped, so if people own their places they won't be forced out.

Random other stuff -- a study I read said it's all about who's on the street, and what sort of landscaping there is. So encourage all the non-white people you know to continue hanging out out front, and don't put in new landscaping.
posted by salvia at 12:48 AM on March 22, 2007

Honestly, Petworth will gentrify with or without you - it's well on its way, I know two people who have bought places there in the past six months, and a few more that are renting. Good luck, I'm about to start looking and Petworth is 2nd on my list to Shaw.
posted by echo0720 at 12:23 PM on March 22, 2007

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