Petrification

That’s right, petrification.  A combination of petrified and gentrification – two words that seem to belong together.

I’ve wanted to write a post about gentrification for awhile now, but I’ve been putting it off, as I do most things.  Well, what I’ve been wanting to say sort of fell into my lap today, so I suppose it’s time.  I ate lunch in Bethany Day Center, over at N Street, today.

N Street Village

N Street Village

I tend to forget that I can eat free lunch over there whenever I want, but today I remembered.  It’s always pretty good food, and I love the chance to talk with the women, but it never really feels like the lunch “break” that I need from work every day.  For that reason, I think I often avoid it, but any time I decide to eat at the shelter, I sure am glad I did.

The last time I ate over at N Street, a lady by the name of Sarah sat with me, and we had a lovely conversation.  Sarah is caucasian and older – perhaps in her 70s?, but she’s bright as ever.  Today, when I walked (hesitatingly) through that hidden blue door, unexcited by the day’s menu of some sort of scalloped potatoe and chicken casserole, I saw an empty seat right across from Sarah.  I sat myself right down, and, noticing that she had her magazine open to this week’s horoscopes, asked her to read Sagittarius aloud.  Nothing too coincidental.  (You know how sometimes those things line up exactly with your life, and you believe for a moment – just one moment – that perhaps astrologers aren’t so crazy after all?)  Something about seizing the moment and acting now.  Not really sure what to act on though.  Anyway, it got the conversation started with Sarah, which is all I was really concerned about anyways (…not a good day to be concerned about eating).  We talked about movies and culture and Senegal and Calcutta.  About civil engineering and poverty and horoscopes and …horoscopes.  And everytime I have a conversation with one of these women, I can’t help but wonder why they’re homeless.  I want desperately to ask them to tell me their stories, though I know I shouldn’t prod.  As I wondered about Sarah, I explained to her what I do at the Steinbruck Center.  I talked about how many people stereotype homeless people without realizing that the causes of homelessness are complex.  Sarah simply said, “I just can’t afford rent.  I have a job – same job I’ve had for years, but it doesn’t pay enough for rent.  I could move out of the city, but I’ve never wanted that.”  And she shrugged her shoulders.

The number one cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing.  To make that situation worse, Sarah is one of the many victims of gentrification – the process by which more affluent people move into lower-income neighborhoods, hiking up property rates and eventually forcing the lower-income folks to move out.  This is often talked about with the more affluent people being “white” and the lower-income neighborhoods being “black” neighborhoods, though that is not necessarily the case.  Though some people see gentrification as potentially positive, I’m not sure it is.  I realize that crime rates and levels of education may not be the greatest in low-income neighborhoods, but kicking people out – and many of them out onto the street – is not the answer.  Black flight is another term used for gentrification, which makes it appear as though African-Americans are wanting to move to the suburbs.  Again, each case would be different, but I get the feeling that these moves are often forced.

Why would I have wanted to write about gentrification?, you ask.  Good question.  The neighborhoods where I live and work are perfect examples of gentrification at its finest.  Shaw neighborhood was once famous for its black culture, raising Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington among other successful artists.  Howard University, just a few blocks from my home, was one of the first historically black universities.  I am surrounded by gentrification, and the meer fact that I’m living in this neighborhood is contributing to the change in demographics from a once-famous African-American corridor to an up and coming ritzy condo mart.  Eek.

So what happens to people like Sarah?  Some move to the suburbs.  Some refuse to sell their homes, keeping it in the family (read A Bittersweet Renaissance).  Some are kicked out of their houses and can only afford to live on the street.  And others, like Sarah, just need some assistance to supplement their income.  Why have we priced houses so high that a decent full time job isn’t enough to make a living?

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2 thoughts on “Petrification

  1. The white flight from the cities to suburbia that began in the 1950s was made possible by cheap energy and government policy that invested huge resources into transportation infrastructure. Now energy is expensive and government funding for infrastructure is dwindling (note: bridge falls in Minneapolis; dozens of others to follow). Hence gentrification. Do cities now evolve into the realm of the wealthy and the suburbs into the sprawling villages of the poor outside the castles? And those of us whose homes are in the decaying small towns and countryside of the Midwest — do we become the new serfs of the ultimate capitalist system achievement (you know, 10 people own EVERYTHING)? Stay tuned for future developments. Short-term advice: horde rice, beans and drinking water.

  2. My sister works as an urban planner/developer with a company in Manhattan NY. She deals a lot with the balance or unbalance of gentrification. She often works on projects that bring decent affordable housing into areas where people like Sarah have lost their place of living or perhaps are living in slum conditions. I have seen some of her projects and they look like wonderful normal homes with all the fixings — new appliances, carpet…. they just don’t have granite counter tops. She also does things in neighborhoods that provide the neighborhoods with businesses they need without disrupting the culture or market of the area. It has been really interesting to learn from her and her projects about gentrification. It is funny also, because my brother is one of those people who sees the ‘bad’ neighborhoods become high rise new condos for small families and feels good has been done….. he totally doesn’t get it.

    So thank you for your post on gentrification. I wish more people truly understand what it was and how it is not always a good thing….. sometimes a little is needed to break trends but to completely change a neighborhood is not always best.

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