Imagine if your car was a clunker, (back in the day, we would’ve called it a “hooptie”) but it was the only car you’ve ever known. Both your parents drove that car, practically raised you in that car, before passing it onto you. You drive it all through high school and college, doing your best to keep it running. Gradually, you start making improvements, you rebuild the engine, you put in new upholstery, give it a paint job, etc. You work hard, in your spare time off of work, for four or five YEARS, getting that car into nice shape. Eventually, you take it to a few car shows, you even win 2nd place once. Your name is in the paper, it’s a pretty big deal. You feel pretty great about that car.
Then one day you get a letter from your car insurance company. They congratulate you for getting second place at the car show! Also, by the way, they need to double your insurance premiums. WAIT, WHAT?! Your car has become so valuable that you can no longer drive it.
Whoa. You loved the attention and all, but you still have to get to and from work. So you’ve got a problem.
So then you think about selling it. But you don’t want to sell it! This is your car, the only car you’ve ever known. A part of you is connected to this car. And the people who want to buy it from you, don’t even want to drive it! They just want to put it in their fancy showrooms and take pictures with it. And when they do drive it, it’s certainly not to the kinds of places that you would go. You just can’t bring yourself to let these people have your car.
But, you make the hard choice and decide to sell it, because you’re an adult and life isn’t fair and all that. You make peace with it, and prepare yourself to move on.
Except now, guess what? The people who want to buy it, they KNOW that you need a car, so they lowball you on the offer. So instead of getting how much you know it’s really worth, you’re only getting about half as much. And you would refuse their offer, except that the insurance company will still charge you an arm and a leg on the premiums, and you can’t afford to pay that AND pay all your bills (including gas to get to and from work).
So you sell it, but instead of having enough to actually go buy a new car, now all you can afford is another clunker. So all the hard work and energy you put into having a nice car is currently being enjoyed by someone else, while you have to sit there and get used to broken window handles, peeling vinyl seats, and irritating, squeaky brakes — AGAIN.
Guess what? That’s what gentrification is like.
* * *
So my city made the national news recently, after Trader Joe’s decided not to build a store in a neighborhood adjacent to mine. I had already seen several stories on it from Casey Parks and several others reporters at the Oregonian, but I was curious to see how the story was playing nationally. The only other national story I knew of, up to this point, was the NAACP editorial by Dedrick Muhammad on gentrification that was reprinted in the Huffington Post.
While I admit that I am not as informed on these issues as I would like to be, I still read a fair amount, I’m out in the community a lot, and I know a lot of people who have been negatively impacted by the economic forces that comprise the phenomenon known as gentrification. That word is something of a buzzword in a lot of social science circles, and it’s fascinating to me how, depending upon your ethnic or cultural background, it might have either a positive or negative connotation. (The same thing happens with the word “assimilation” as it relates to churches and evangelical culture, but that’s a whole different discussion.)
Anyway, in an attempt to be active and participate in a free exchange of ideas in the modern marketplace known as the internet, I left a comment on the ABC News story. I know, I know… I forgot the golden rule of effective time management — don’t read the comments from internet news stories. But this time, I couldn’t help it. I felt invested in this issue.
And, to be honest, I also felt pretty conflicted, at least initially. I’ve shopped at Trader Joe’s plenty of times, and enjoyed it. There is a part of me that was actually disappointed that there was opposition to the store development. But then, I actually dug into the details a little bit more closely. I found out about the huge subsidy from the Portland Development Commission. I read the letter from the Portland African American Leadership Forum. I saw the story about the invite-only event at El Gaucho, hosted by Majestic Realty. And I thought about my own life experiences, growing up in Portland as an African-American young man.
And I changed my mind about that land development deal.
So in the comments, I said what I thought — I am hopeful that something positive can be developed on the plot of land at MLK and Alberta, but I supported the PAALF’s call for action, and I’m glad that particular development plan was quashed.
Wow, was THAT a mistake.
Almost immediately, I got all kinds of really racist comments pouring into my email, courtesy of the Disqus reply system. The first few, I was amused by. But they kept coming, all morning. I also got a fair number of honest questions from people who were wondering why anyone could be against something like a grocery store coming to my neighborhood. I realized pretty quickly that, for the majority of the commenters, not only didn’t they really understand what it feels like to get pushed out of your neighborhood, but they didn’t even understand gentrification as a concept. I had to endure like five different people making sarcastic comments about how black people must love living on welfare.
This calls for an analogy.
Because honestly, unless you know what it feels like, unless you’re willing to read personal stories of people who are affected by gentrification on an everyday basis, unless you’re willing to do the painful engagement work of digging into the ways that race and class and economics intersect in the ways that cities navigate real estate and community development… then you won’t understand. And you, or someone you know, might end up leaving really racist comments like this (yes, an actual comment from this morning):
“Blacks are the reason Philadelphia is falling apart, and detroit has fall apart. You blacks are the most racist segment of the world — and you wonder why all other races hate you.”
Wow, dude. Really?
I have a newfound respect for people like Gene Demby, Kat Chow, Matt Thompson and Karen Grigsby-Bates, writers for the NPR Code Switch blog that focuses on stories about race and culture. They must deal with these kinds of comments all the time (I don’t know how).
As for me, I recognize that gentrification is a complex issue, I recognize that no one buys a house or frequents a coffee shop or attends an art showing because they are trying to push people out of the neighborhood. I don’t think the people at Majestic Realty, the company who was set to build the Trader Joe’s market, are evil people.
But it’s also such a personal issue. Even for me, someone who tries, desperately sometimes, to think dispassionately and analytically about issues like these, there’s still a sense of personal pride and history that bleeds through. Part of the reason why I make so many references to how white Portland is now, is because I still remember when it was more integrated. I know there was more crime in this part of inner NE Portland when I was growing up, but there was also personality. There were concerts and outdoor street fairs, church barbecues and outdoor weddings. These are things that all still happen in NE Portland, but without a critical mass of black people, they look different, feel different, sound different.
And I know that change is inevitable, I’m not one of the those, let’s-stay-stuck-in-the-past kinds of people. But I remember what it was like when I moved back to Portland from Chicago in 2005, and I was like, “what happened to the black people?” It didn’t hit me at first, because there have always been a lot of white people in Portland, but still… I started noticing… none of my family members live in the old neighborhood anymore. None of my favorite restaurants are still there anymore. Many of the churches that I grew up around have either closed or moved further east.
And then as an adult, I started paying more attention to how things work, politically. I started actually reading the voting guides in the mail. I started paying more attention to news stories. And I started noticing instances of what I would call soft racism, the things that happen that cause racial disparities to happen, even though no one is trying to be racist. I would see the different ways that scandals would be covered when they happened to both black and white public officials. I would hear stories about how money earmarked for minority-owned business development ended up being used for other purposes because of backroom handshakes, legal maneuvering, and cronyism. And I saw how even something as seemingly benign as bicycle advocacy and lane restriping can be unfair if it’s done without the input of African-American stakeholders in the area.
So yeah, if it means I have to drive a little further to get to the closest Trader Joe’s, I’m fine with that. There’s always hope that the PDC can meet with members of the community to get something positive to happen on that lot. (Maybe they could build an ALDI instead? A brotha can dream.)
Until then, feel free to use “My Hooptie” as an analogy for gentrification, and while you’re at it, enjoy this 80s NW hip-hop classic from Sir Mix-a-lot. Remember that it’s possible to have pride in something while simultaneously wanting something better.