Call me gentrifier. I don’t reject the appellation, but depending upon the route I take in describing myself the label could seem a bit odd: I have purchased an old townhouse near the center of the city which could have easily become 3 or even 4 apartments and converted it from an office/apartment combination back into a single family home; I earn 6x the median family income for the neighborhood and my wife and I together earn easily 9x that income; we have season tickets to the symphony; we eat at the expensive legacy restaurants of the downtown and the new ethnic ones too; we’re White. The city is putting a tremendous amount of time and effort, and attempting to leverage state, federal, and private dollars, to get more people like us to move here.
On the other hand: If I were to cross the street and walk one mile to the south I’d arrive at the hospital where I was born; on the way I’d pass 100 yards or so from the high school I attended and from which I graduated. The city I was born into was over 80% White and comfortably middle to working class. Of the handful of Black and Hispanic friends I have on this block, not one was born in Springfield or even New England, and yet all 5 of the White people I know were.
I realize that this particular circumstance is not at all the one universally being called gentrification, but there are some interesting insights to be gained by looking closely at this particular circumstance. As I was reading Richard Florida’s New Urban Crisis the words of Spike Lee regarding the gentrification of Brooklyn leapt off the page at me:
He’s angry because the neighborhood has changed, and I understand it. But I’ve experienced something somewhat similar but I can’t get mad; if I do it can easily be interpreted as racist. I DON’T “hate” or even dislike what’s taken the place of what used to be in the neighborhood where I grew up though, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t miss what it replaced.
To invert Mr Lee’s rant a bit as well; THIS city hasn’t STOPPED picking up the trash in Forest Park (my old neighborhood), the city HAS invested millions and millions of dollars to modernize the schools that I and my mostly White middle class counterparts attended in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s; only one of the four buildings I attended as a student in the Springfield Public Schools was even built in the 20th Century. Conversely, of the three my daughters attended from the poorer more central part of the city we’ve lived in now for 30 years, where nearly all of their classmates were poor students of color, all 3 buildings are new or have been completely renovated top to bottom in the last 15 years. The parks which my parents’ “Greatest Generation” left to rot for us have been renewed, restored, and recreated in the last 30 years to a level we never could have imagined in 1975.
So where is the pride of place? Where is the appreciation for the struggling city that’s put more investment into its poor neighborhoods as resources have dwindled than it ever did when resources were abundant?
Now we get to an interesting conundrum in this discussion surrounding the concern over some potential future usurpation of the current residents of the city by the White middle class; I have NEVER met a Black person or a Hispanic person in my neighborhood who expressed any desire to stay here. Not one. Forget the brand new schools, the free museums, the abundant and inexpensive transit, every single Puerto Rican I meet wants to leave this neighborhood, if not the city, as soon as they possibly can. I wouldn’t make the claim that there are no people of color who want to stay here, and I can even understand the reasons for these desires to leave, but it makes fretting over their dislocation a little strange, doesn’t it?
Again, my city, this neighborhood, the neighborhood I grew up in, they’ve all been completely transformed not just in my lifetime, but in the last 30 years. Again, I not only don’t hate what the city has become, I’ve embraced it and become an active part of it. But it has displaced a culture which preceded it, and I can and do miss that as well. Wanting to see what remnants of that culture remain continue to thrive is no more or less understandable than Spike Lee wanting to see the Black culture he grew up with in Brooklyn persist.
Springfield is no more at fault for the structural racism in our society than it is for the general trajectory of newcomers to a culture; yes, Puerto Ricans are NOT immigrants, but most of the Boriquas who move to Springfield do so as poor people looking for new opportunities. The city needs to become, once again, a truly diverse city where the poor, the middle class, and even the rich ALL live and not just a ghetto for the poor. Deep down in my leftist core I would love to see a classless society, but that’s not happening anytime soon; any city which hopes to survive and thrive must be the home of the workers, the managers, and the owners. The middle class and even the rich moving BACK into the parts of the city they abandoned in some cases a century ago should be no more surprising than it is necessary. Resources can only be used if they exist. A city cannot be preserved in amber: buildings, schools, parks, roadways and sidewalks, water mains and sewer pipes begin the inevitable process of decay the very moment they are constructed. Having only a population which, due to the realities of our society, does not have the resources to maintain, at the very least, its infrastructure makes the only possible future outcome annihilation.
There are studies that show that displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods occurs at the same or even at a lesser pace than in poor ones. The changes brought by gentrification may make the current residents more likely to want to stay, a richer neighborhood in some sense means a better neighborhood, and yet it may make it more difficult for them to do so: Let’s be honest, the poor may always be with “us”, but the rich do go out of their way to see to it that they are with “them” as infrequently as possible. Demanding that the city somehow reinvent itself while at the same time making the contradictory demand that it not change, however, is ridiculous.
One of the benefits of the ridiculous patterns of development we’ve adopted in the last 75 years, however, is that there is plenty of vacant, un-utilized, and under-utilized space in places which are fully elaborated infrastructurally. We can easily invite many of our relatively well-to-do neighbors to come join us in Springfield without displacing a single soul…not that I believe in souls…but that is a topic for another day and another blog.