In the year 2013, there exists an ever-increasing desire to live in cities big or small, and return to the urban centers of life from which people fled merely ten years ago or less. The benefits of living in a city are overwhelming. More culture, more activities, accessibility, ridding oneself of a car, cutting down on a commute, and being engaged in a vibrant, diverse community. However, urban communities are losing their original diversity and vibrancy.
And gentrification is the culprit.
Gentrification by its very definition is complex. It encompasses both positive and negative language. Essentially, it can improve the safety of neighborhoods and restore local businesses and store fronts, while simultaneously displacing the original low-income residents of the neighborhood. How do residents get displaced? If you’re not familiar with gentrification and its processes in cities, it may sometimes be a hard concept to grasp as an outsider looking in.
It is fundamentally about changing property values. If the original neighborhood in a city is seen as undesirable real estate due to lack of transit, few stores or restaurants, a history of violence, or blighted and empty plots of land, then property values remain relatively low. This low demand comes from potential business owners and resident consumers not wanting to invest in certain neighborhoods due to the aforementioned reasons.
Let’s use a local example that is close to my heart: Inman Square.
I moved to Inman Square over two years ago, when gentrification had already begun. Since I was not living there before gentrification had started at an accelerated pace, I had no reference to what it looked like five or ten years ago. According to some of the online history of Inman in the early 2000s, it was a diverse place with strong Brazilian and Portuguese influence. The makeup was working-class families and academics. Today, the changes range from subtle to severe. For the most part, there still remain some of the original working-class families, mostly white, mostly in single family homes. However, the influx of graduate students and young working professionals has increased significantly.
While some of the original restaurants and stores have remained, including S&S (circa 1919), Christina’s (early ’80s), and a few hardware stores locally owned and run, others have lost out to gentrification. Johnnie’s Foodmaster, an Inman Square staple, recently closed its doors after many years of providing easily accessible and affordable grocery products.
The family-owned Chelsea chain could no longer compete with its competitor and purchaser, Whole Foods, which to many is the corporate face of gentrification.
As much as I routinely complained about the gross produce or the off-putting carpets lining its floors, Johnnie’s was around the corner from my house, and held a charming place in my heart. I loved getting to know the community folks who worked there, of all ages and backgrounds, and cashing in on their frequent 2-for-1 deals on snacks, or discounted beer. It made impromptu brunch cooking feasible and affordable on a blurry Saturday morning. With the imminent closing of its doors, the claim by Whole Foods to re-interview and hire Johnnie’s employees this fall became less and less of a reality. The bit of old-school Somerville flair that remains lost another lustrous piece to higher property values, larger paychecks, and demand for organic baby food.
Inman Square has obviously transformed into a hip place to go out, with many exciting bars and restaurants. For me, a white, middle class, young professional, I’m not only contributing to gentrification, but benefiting from it. As a privileged twenty-something moving to an area relatively close to the Red Line, a vital part to my work commute, I can afford to live in a room in a three or four-bedroom apartment. Every September the rent prices increase with demand for housing, and it becomes less affordable for all. And for every young, working professional that moves into rental housing in Somerville or Cambridge, the increases become steeper to the surrounding rental and owner occupied units until low-income individuals can no longer afford to live there.
Gentrification is complex in nature, because the effects are not all necessarily bad.
New business and safer streets are obvious benefits. How can wealthier people move into an urban area without it being detrimental to its original residents? If the community in question is mobilized and well aware of how to combat gentrification on their terms, the benefits can be enjoyed by all and the existing community preserved. The problem with gentrification is that most of the time it’s rare to catch and control it before its onset.
Families, the elderly, and working class individuals continue to move further and further outside of their original urban neighborhoods to seek refuge from rent hikes and a changing face of a once recognizable community.
Gentrification is nothing new to Boston or the greater Boston area. There are currently battles being waged and lost in Charlestown, South Boston, and Dorchester. As public transit continues to expand and businesses grow, the threat of gentrification will continue to hang over the head of low-income residents of Boston neighborhoods. As a housing advocate that works with homeless individuals, I already know the landscape of affordable and subsidized housing in Boston. It’s grim and insufficient to meet the needs of low-income Bostonians. While there are new and hopeful affordable-housing partnerships being created everyday, we still haven’t addressed the steady decline of community at the hands of gentrification, and under-funding of existing affordable-housing programs. Will we reach our limit once it’s too late, and Boston looks and feels like New York City?
As the complex issue of gentrification wages on, will you be part of the solution?