Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Not just a white thing: On the 'shades of gentrification'

Photo by Nomadic Lass/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In stories of gentrification, that process by which lower-income neighborhoods are renovated through an influx of wealth that simultaneously pushes poorer residents and merchants out, the role of the gentrifier is often played by whites, the role of the displaced by people of color.

But it's not that simple, as seen in the conversations surrounding a couple of recent posts on Multi-American and its Washington, D.C. sister site DCentric. Neighborhoods in both cities have been experiencing investment in businesses and real estate by more affluent minorities, notably Latinos in Los Angeles' historic Boyle Heights and blacks in D.C.'s Anacostia community.

What is the role of the gentrifier of color? In a piece titled "Shades of Gentrification" on the KCET Departures site last year, Gary Dauphin explored the demographic changes that have occurred in neighborhoods like Venice's once-predominantly black Oakwood community, writing eloquently about the people who "often sit between the place's old and new incarnations, becoming the positive 'local color' that gives a gentrifying area its coveted character."

Here's part of Dauphin's essay, reprinted with permission:

Indeed, the vast majority of conversations about gentrification in this country are a literal kind of ghost story, ritualized tales where stylized embodiments of demographic good and evil play out their appointed roles in predetermined scripts. These dramas always begin in the hardscrabble idyll of monolithic, once-upon-a-time 'hoods, lurch through zero-sum economic warfare where white gain goes hand-in-hand with colored/working-class loss and invariably end in bohemian elegy, pale-faced victors compelled by guilt to speak for the dead, the erased, the evicted.

In such a vision, the unique texture of, say Oakwood, is lost. Before Oakwood could become the site of "gentrification" many say it is today, it transited through other stages not typically part of the standard white/non-white two-step, phases where black middle class and black working class people faced off in their own internecine and often inconclusive encounters.

Those other, interstitial stories are rarely told because our image of immigrants, people of color or the poor often admit only the most stereotypical or easily communicated details. Take the key player in every gentrification narrative, the hipster. He is rarely the figure evoked by African American novelist Colson Whitehead in a recollection of gentrification days across the country in Brooklyn:

I used to live in Fort Greene, and whenever I visit my old neighborhood, I am tormented by the same absurd thought: I should have bought that crack house when I had the chance. Never mind that I was broke--this line of thinking is a natural member of that gang of peculiar New York regrets. Regrets about places you loved but had to leave, places you coveted but could never pay the admission price, places that were surrounded by invisible barbed wire before you were born. Regrets about quaint little crack houses with southern-exposure gardens, owner duplex, needs TLC. [full story]

The hipsters of most gentrification fantasies - whether set against the backdrop of Whitehead's Brooklyn or our own Chinatown - are always white newcomers, real estate-minded vampires coming to feed on the flesh of authentic communities. We rarely imagine the possibility of a Whitehead: colored, middle-class hipsters carrying both universal dreams of cheap rents and their own peculiar set of ambivalences on slouched shoulders as they navigate neighborhoods on the cusp of change.

Whitehead's tale of a quaint little crack house with a view doesn't say so explicitly, but being a white gentrifier is not quite the same thing as being black/Latino/Asian and snapping up an undervalued steal. For the white gentrifier there is profit and maybe wry guilt, but for the colored gentrifier there is profit, guilt, and a fear of betrayal. It is, after all, very often their "own" communities that they're making safe for future generations of white folks. In neighborhoods with informal economies where word of mouth trumps Craigslist, the first person to hear of the perfect vacant warehouse often has what amounts to a blood connection to the place.

This is why no ethnically-charged tale of neighborhood change is fully complete without initial waves of doubled black/Latino/Asian folk transforming neighborhoods from within: shop-keeps, restaurateurs, fashion designers, idiosyncratic sitcom-style landlords, classmates at art school and literal boyfriends and girlfriends who help put the previously off-limits neighborhoods on white real estate maps. As neighborhoods change these figures often sit between the place's old and new incarnations, becoming the positive "local color" that gives a gentrifying area its coveted character.

But not too much character.

This story resonates for me, a two-time resident of Silver Lake. I lived there as a young child in a family of new immigrants when our neighborhood was predominantly Latino, then again as a young adult, during a brief time when it was still partly Latino, but rapidly gentrifying.

Naively then, I perceived it as the best of both worlds, a balance of old and new that fit my identity as the American-raised child of immigrants. This balance couldn't last, of course, and it didn't.