Gentrification: Brandon's and Amber's Stories
If you’ve ever lived near or been to a big city, chances are you’ve experienced gentrification in one form or another. You know those trendy little neighborhoods with the newly renovated buildings that were once abandoned or sitting idle? The organic coffee shops where the coffee is brewed using Bunsen burners, or the Asian fusion restaurant with the excessive amount of hanging industrial lights that uses only locally grown ingredients? The area where if you walk a couple blocks over you’ll find “hidden” graffiti-ridden, boarded home or dilapidated buildings still occupied by residents? From San Francisco to New York City, and every major city in between, you can find these areas. A lot of notoriety surrounds the constant struggle between the self-proclaimed “Locals” whose historical and cultural connection to the neighborhood could be as vast as generations, and the “Incomers”, who converge on these lower economic neighborhoods in hopes of joining a movement and/or fulfilling an entrepreneurial dream. Two different perspectives, all struggling to survive in a capitalist, free society we call America. Here’s their perspectives.
College was difficult for Brandon. It wasn’t the work that gave him trouble, it was choosing what he wanted to actually go to school for. After drifting from major to major, from classroom to classroom, he finally found something that he wanted to do: own his own business. The thought of working for someone else in some stuffy corporate setting for the rest of his life left a bad taste in Brandon’s mouth. A suit and tie, the stern boss watching him work in a cubicle was the stuff of nightmares. So Brandon buckled down and got his business degree. After much planning and talking to real estate agents, he decided to buy a little shop in this up-and-coming neighborhood in the city. There were lots of small businesses moving to the same area, and many already established and doing well, so it seemed like an ideal place. Plus, it was a nice little area. It seemed older than other parts of the city, with it’s own character. Not like other locations he had checked out that just seemed so...bland. He got a really good deal on the property too; It was something very much within his budget unlike the previous properties mentioned before. It was kind of strange, but Brandon went with the flow. It felt right. Everything was shaping up to be a great year, for him and his new business. Brandon knew that the area had once been home to poor families and many of the shops had gone out of business in years passed, before someone had the idea to buy up properties and transform the neighborhood into what it is today. “Gentrification”, some people called it. The guy, Dave, who owned the coffee shop a few doors down to him called it “Urban Renewal”. He said that the developers were taking an area that was run down and failing, and made it nicer. Dave said that the change was helping the community by bringing in new jobs and by revitalizing a once-declining area with a variety of businesses, which in turn brought more money to the area and the City. Brandon wondered what the neighborhood had looked like back then compared to now. Who had owned his little shop before him? Why did they go out of business and how long did they own it? He tried to imagine himself in 10 years, still going strong in this neighborhood. He had heard that some families were evicted by their landlords to make room for higher paying tenants and business owners in the past. Some locals had held on as long as they could, but they relocated as well in the end. A few restaurants had survived the change but many of the others were vacated, sitting idle until new owners scooped them up. Brandon felt bad for the families and locals who had once walked these streets and called this place home, only to have their rent raised so high that they were forced to relocate. It wasn’t his fault that they were forced to leave, he just saw the opportunity and he took it. If the landlords hadn’t raised their rates and forced everyone out then he wouldn’t even be here. It was their fault, obviously. It wasn’t Brandon’s. Was it? Dave said that this was the way America worked, the way the world worked. “Change happens all of the time.” Dave had said. “Change is good for this City.”
Amber was born and raised in this neighborhood. Each of her three kids were born in the same hospital down the road and were raised in the same house that she was. Amber’s parents had bought the house before she was born and her family had held onto it ever since. It was a small, cozy little place, but she loved coming home to it after a long day of work and making dinner for her kids. Her eldest daughter was 12 and she also had a son who was 9 and her youngest daughter, who was 6. Growing up, Amber had always known that her neighborhood wasn’t the best, but it was their home and her family couldn’t really afford to move anywhere else. Nowadays, she was worried that they might have to end up relocating. The streets around the block had the same names but different faces. Sure, many of the buildings were the same familiar ones, but everything felt different. It all started when investors came in and started buying up all the properties and some of the vacant buildings. The landlords realized that they could make a lot of money if they sold to these new rich people who were offering them more money than the poor families around here would be able to scrape together. Soon enough, the property taxes started going up in the area and more and more families were forced out of their apartments or forced to sell their houses. People she knew, people she had grown up with and known all her life were slowly being pushed out so that new businesses could set-up shop in their place. That all happened a few years ago though. Amber and her family were some of the last locals still hanging on in the area, but she didn’t know how long that would last. At first it made her angry to see her friends being forced out by greedy businessmen, and she wanted to do something about it. However, she soon realized that there wasn’t much that she could do about it. It made her feel helpless. Amber and her family were lucky in the sense that her job had given her a raise, just enough to pay the higher property taxes and stay, but it was bittersweet. Practically all of her closest friends were gone, along with the children that her kids used to play with, a whole network of people and families dispersed to other neighborhoods or towns, wherever they could find a cheap enough place to start over. She had to admit, in some ways, the new shops and the renovations did make the neighborhood look nicer than it had in the past before the change. There weren’t any vacant buildings anymore and everything looked similar, but more lively. But even though there were nice, trendy little businesses all around her, Amber couldn’t enjoy them anyways. All of her money went to her kids and keeping the roof over their heads. At first Amber had blamed the landlords and developers for pushing people out, then she blamed the owners of the new businesses, seeing them as immoral opportunists who were just looking for a quick buck without really understanding what the gentrification of her neighborhood had really done to the people who once lived here. Now, she didn’t know who to blame. She heard some people calling it “Urban Renewal”, which made her scoff. “Urban Removal” sounded more like what she had witnessed. There was hardly anyone left from before. Strangers walked the streets now, frequenting the little coffee shop on the corner and ate breakfast and brunch at the new restaurants. They walked as if they belonged here, as if it was their neighborhood, like they had been raised here. Maybe Amber should blame them, the customers. But was it really their fault? They were just here, living their lives, just as Amber was trying to do for herself and her kids...though somehow it seemed they were having an easier time than she was.
Gentrification is a hotly debated topic in our world today. It's happening as we speak in many neighborhoods around the United States and the World. Many people have heard of it, but few really know what it actually means. These stories above presented the perspectives of just two people that are involved in this interesting aspect of today’s culture. Some people view Gentrification as a revitalization or renewal of a neighborhood, while others, view it in a more negative way. Either way, I think we can agree that gentrification can be accomplished without predatory business tactics. Whether intentional or not, the displacement of home and life structure at the cost of reduced property value isn't honorable or ethical. The business owners are setting up shop and making money, while the citizens, some who have lived all of their lives in these places are forced to relocate. This break of personal, social, and economic networks can cause drastic lasting hardships to those involved. Some may say that this is just the “American Way”, that this is how a capitalist society works, utilizing chance and opportunity to achieve economic gain, creating success. However, this is not just about business. These are real people, with real stories and lives, with dreams and aspirations just like everyone else. When it comes to blame, one cannot place responsibility on any particular party. But when it comes to solution, we are all involved.
Written and Edited By Vu Francois & Daniel Andrews
Photos By Vu Francois