Imagine your city is the board. Now try living on Baltic Avenue.
Any time I mention gentrification in a public space, someone invariably pops up wanting to start an argument vis-à-vis a seemingly rhetorical question, offering dandelion observations like, “Why are you applying the label of gentrification to an area like Franklinton when all of the people had already moved out?” or something equally obtuse.
Most of the time, such retorts have an air of willful ignorance about them; the speaker knows something is off, but they don’t really want to know how it all works because they have Gallery Hop plans and who needs that baggage on a Saturday night?
Others don’t argue that gentrification hasn’t happened, so much as they don’t see what’s so bad about it. There are plenty of people who flip the term into self-deprecating “oh well”-isms, like white people who make fun of their whiteness over craft beers and oversized Jenga blocks at the local watering hole. I’d like to believe that somewhere in there is a person who genuinely wants to know what the heck it’s all about, and what’s the difference between gentrification and development, but the truth is that person usually just stays quiet for fear of being run over by strangers on social media typing in all caps about their privilege.
I want to speak to that last group now, the group who earnestly wants to know but doesn’t know how to ask. I write and talk about this a lot, so much of it is rote to me. In turn, I’m going to use a tool that I've found to be really effective in the past: the board game Monopoly. Think of it as a middle ground between your desire to know and my desire to not have to break this down any further than, say, a board game.
Let’s roll the dice. (And, for the record, I’m the shoe.)
Imagine that the whole Monopoly board is a city, which should be easy to do because that’s how the game was designed. The goal was always for you to become a land baron and ruin everybody’s Thanksgiving. Also, for the purpose of this discussion, the little green houses are low- to middle-income housing. The big red hotels are upper-class housing and development. And the shoe is a shoe.
Out the gate, we need to talk about the difference between development and gentrification. Let’s use Baltic and Mediterranean avenues — the low-cost, low-paying brown strip of properties next to Go — as a Petri dish. It may help to think of them as Linden (or rather, “Old Linden” since we’re re-branding now).
Usually you get a poor area like Baltic Avenue because of disinvestment: A neighborhood that used to be somebody takes a turn for the worst (or is targeted) and the machine of the city ignores it, directing (“re-prioritizing”) its resources elsewhere. The result is blight, crime, lack of infrastructure maintenance and predatory businesses. Sometimes a city cuts its losses for a while in terms of safety and infrastructure, finding it easier to let an area languish until it becomes so unwanted — cheap — that it actually laps itself in value, becoming profitable years later to the right buyer (the city, land banks, developers, slum lords). This is often what a city means when its stewards say they are “investing” in a community that seemingly has no resources at all. They mean invest in the portfolio, in a wait-a-while sense.
This is the point at which cities start using words like “development” and “urban renewal” (since they almost never use the word gentrification).
Development is when every property on the board benefits as the machine of your city — politicians, civil servants, utility companies, businesses, cultural nodes — works to increase your quality of life regardless of where you live. So Baltic and Mediterranean get police coverage and street cleaning and trash pickup and business incentives, just like St. James Place and Marvin Gardens.
On the flip side, gentrification looks like another player placing their green houses on Baltic, as if you don’t already have the property card in hand, and collecting all of the rent that comes through while you rant and rave about the injustice of their actions, only to discover the card no longer sits on your side of the table. Gentrification is a process used to replace low-income green houses with red hotels, but also who gets to place the cubes. It basically wants to turn as many Baltic Avenues as it can into Atlantic Avenues.
A comment I received on a recent column (in the aforementioned way that exposes it for the non-question it is) asked how a swank business replacing a business that was pretty nice before was an example of gentrification. Using this scenario, I’d tell them that they’re looking at Baltic after it got a hotel, and after it already had four illegally placed green houses, and then trying to convince me that’s the whole story. It’s not the whole story. For the first ten turns before they showed up:
- Baltic used to cost $2 a month and now it costs $100 a month (price gouging).
- Baltic didn’t get appropriate police coverage or street repairs for the first 10 turns before those houses went up (civic neglect).
- The banker wouldn’t give me money for the houses I wanted to build on Baltic (redlining).
- I was allowed to keep living on Baltic so long as I didn’t build a garage or otherwise develop my home in any valuable way (exclusionary zoning).
- I was only ever paid enough to cover a Baltic rent (Section 8 vouchers).
- Every other player got incentives and discounts to build hotels on their properties except my Baltic plot (tax abatements).
So, no, the farm-to-table restaurant that was replaced by the new, hip breakfast diner is not the whole story. There were things in the places you like before they became the places that you like. Gentrification takes time. Some of us know because we used to hold the deed cards.