Gentrification a warranted issue for mythically ‘post-racial’ societies


By Simon Brown / Columnist

My grandfather remembers the Lawrenceville of his childhood as the working-class, Irish-immigrant neighborhood at the heart of “Hell with the Lid Off,” as Pittsburgh was known in its steel-smelting days. Two generations later, Lawrenceville is distinctly known as the “hippest neighborhood” in the city, replete with micro-breweries and fixed-gear bicycles.

In addition to hip shops and transportation, the young professional class now populating the neighborhood brings about another calling card of its culture: increasing property values.

Over the past 50 years, the city has evolved from manufacturing hub to rust-belt shell to the supposedly most livable “knowledge economy” in the United States. This transformation has been propelled by outgoings and influxes of various demographic groups. It is naive to expect the cultures and characters of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods to remain stagnant throughout the changes, but neglecting communities’ commitments to streets, schools and services by permitting drastic cost fluctuations will only divide neighborhoods.

Brooklyn filmmaker Spike Lee recently sparked gentrification’s trademark tensions in a 10-minute monologue passionately lamenting the changing neighborhoods of his own childhood. His criticism of “hipsters” claiming to “discover” low-income, historically-black sections of Brooklyn and challenging the culture was quickly written off as a rant. To some, his explicit talk of implicit racial connections to communities smacked of racism.

But Lee’s sentiments aren’t uncommon, and they certainly aren’t racist.

To those who have not grown up in neighborhoods in which long cultural histories are remembered from generation to generation, his response comes across as ignorant of what professional young people have to offer, at best. They bring more disposable income, more expensive retailers, higher property values and higher rents — but why is that bad, in itself? Besides, if property values increase, don’t third-generation homeowners see an equal increase in wealth?

If the story were that simple, then Lee’s comments could be read as an intolerant attempt to “keep white people out” of neighborhoods of color for no reason but distrust.

In reality, the positive perspective on gentrification misses several economic consequences for low-income residents. The considerable population of renters in these neighborhoods see only rent increases, while established homeowners see increased property taxes until they sell their homes. The very idea that higher property values must be good for native residents only bears fruit when those residents decide to sell their homes and move elsewhere.

Moreover, the economically-necessitated migration out of traditionally familial neighborhoods can often displace residents from easy access to their jobs — a fact only compounded by the greater reliance on particular public transit routes among lower-income workers. All of these factors make the move from Lawrenceville to “Upper Lawrenceville” less straightforward than it seems.  

All these criticisms still simplify the unquantifiable connections between communities and neighborhoods to probabilities and statistics. What is needed is a cultural sensitivity both from those looking into and out of changing communities.

For the natives of most suburbs, the deeply-grown roots binding residents and communities appear foreign. The American suburb is largely the product of voluntary migration — either from the post-World War II housing-credit boom or the post-manufacturing white flight of the 1960s.

The first and second generations of these suburbanites now constitute much of the professional class returning to the city-centers of their factory-working grandparents and great-grandparents. It makes sense that they can’t so easily relate to deeply-rooted residents who see less-voluntary migration for its inherent harms.

And while Spike Lee may have faced criticism for his blunt discussion of race, no one is ignorant of the fact that white flight has a distinct coloration. His Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, as well as our Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as the Hill District, have acquired a unique meaning for residents of color, whose ancestors created them as safe havens in otherwise unaccomodating metropolises.

Ultimately, while racially-identified neighborhoods may seem outdated to new city-dwellers growing up in a mythically “post-racial” society, it is important to note that they are still current for those who have experienced intolerance. 

Write to Simon at [email protected].