community

Gentrification

09 Aug 2011

The term "gentrification" carries with it a substantial cargo of economic, social, and racial baggage. In general, it is a pejorative and Completed renovation of a vacant homeCompleted renovation of a vacant homeloaded word used to describe what might otherwise be seen as positive changes in a challenged neighborhood: increased investment in homes and influx of middle-class and wealthy occupants.

The negative aspect of gentrification is, of course, "displacement"

The Displacement Dilemma

In order to be adequately parsed, displacement due to gentrification must be subdivided into several categories:

  1. Displacement of homeowners due to rising property values - As properties are renovated, rising property values may impact long-term homeowners on fixed incomes who find themselves unable to keep up with property taxes.
  2. Displacement of renters due to rising rents - Increased property values, more desirable properties, and increased competition may lead to rent increases that existing tenants cannot accommodate.
  3. Displacement of minorities due to changing neighborhood demographics - Racial, religious, and social minorities may feel excluded or unwelcome in their own neighborhoods as the population demographics change.
  4. Displacement of poor families due to changes in available goods and services - As neighborhood economics change, so change the types of stores and services available to neighborhood residents.
  5. Displacement of criminals due to increased crime reporting and police response - With wealth comes political power, including the ability to do things like hire private security and influence resource allocation.

Clearly some of these categories are neutral, some good, and some negative. For example it may benefit one neighborhood to push criminal activity elsewhere, but unless the underlying issues are dealt with, it is a zero-sum game. Some other, less fortunate neighborhood will see an increase in crime.

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Historic buildings are more than just piles of sticks and bricks. Over time, buildings become a part of our community narrative: the stories we create through our daily lives all have place. The spaces that enclose memorable events become inseparable from the events that happen within them and the people that pass through their doors. This effect is all the more profound when the buildings themselves are inspirational.

Despite the proliferation of crappy buildings created in the past 50 years, I think most people actually recognize this phenomenon to some degree. We do continue to recognize beauty in fine craftsmanship, thoughtful design, and artful space.

Des Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchDes Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchA perfect example of this is Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines' River Bend neighborhood. Trinity Church has embarked on a fabulous and difficult journey to restore their sanctuary and update the rest of the building to serve the congregation and the community for another 100 years.

Trinity Church has become more than just a building to house a congregation, though that is certainly a contributing factor. Through the development of a variety of service programs, the organization has evolved into a true pillar of support to the Des Moines community: breakfast and dinner are provided to hundreds of people daily in the basement; fifty children take part in before- and after-school care programs; teens and community members can use the computer labs to study; the doors are open from early morning to evening for anyone who needs a place to be. The building itself represents stability in a neighborhood that needs more constants.

With not a whole lot of internal capacity for funding the restoration project, Trinity Church has initiated an ambitious capital drive (with a lot left to go). Some of the work is being done with volunteer labor.

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Most cities are scarred by freeways cutting through residential neighborhoods and downtowns. These highways have multiple commonly accepted negative impacts that include:

  • Long-lasting effects of the original construction such as removal of historic buildings, relocation of poor residents, and division of long-standing neighborhoods.
  • Facilitating suburban expansion at the expense of traditional neighborhoods. Highways encourage automobile use rather than public transportation.
  • Creation and maintenance of a physical separation between formerly connected neighborhoods. Restricted access highways are a physical barrier that prevents people from crossing - what was once a two-block trip may now take 12 blocks. Bridges and tunnel crossings are often unpleasant for pedestrians.
  • High cost of construction and maintenance for the road surface, bridges, and ramps. The complexity inherent in a highway ratchets up the cost of maintenance and construction.
  • Massive amounts of formerly productive land are utilized as circulation and buffer rather than generating taxes through intensive use.

40th Place Pedestrian Bridge40th Place Pedestrian BridgeDes Moines has done a comparatively good job of reconnecting across Interstate 235 for both pedestrians and automobiles. There are numerous pedestrian bridges between major cross streets. Streets like Cottage Grove connect through easily by automobile, bicycle, and foot to downtown amenities.

Generally speaking, it is my opinion that the introduction of highways within city borders has done much more damage than good. The highways themselves have become one of the primary drivers (so to speak) of our dependence on automobiles for personal transportation, economic stimulus, and as symbols of freedom. Instead of planning our cities around people, we now plan them around automobiles.

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I am saddened and angered that the Republican leaders have such disdain for people who dedicate their lives to making their communities safer, stronger, and better equipped to deal with changing economics.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said the following in her acceptance speech:

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities."

Rudy Giuliani was aggressively dismissive of community organizing in his speech as well.

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Sixth Avenue is a north-south thoroughfare forming the spine of the River Bend neighborhood. It runs more or less from downtown at the south to Interstate 80 (where it turns into NW 6th Drive). Along the way it strings together a variety of destinations including Mercy Medical Center and North High School as well as crossing I-235, University, and Euclid.

It is also, for the most part, underutilized and dreary, particularly for the pedestrian. Until now.

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