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Gentrification Is About Power, so What’s Community Got to Do with It?

City Rising: Brenda Protesting
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City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

Gentrification is frequently described by its epiphenomena — that is, the appearance of new housing and new restaurants, the arrival of a wealthier and whiter populace and the seeming loss of street scapes and businesses that had proudly weathered harder times. The pace of change — and the many moving parts — often leave both researchers and observers hard-pressed to offer a clear definition of a process in motion.

That challenge is matched by the fact that it is hard to assess the implied neighborhood change in the usual binary: good or bad. In fact, long-term residents often greet gentrification with deep ambivalence. They appreciate the new amenities — stores boasting fresh food and police that actually protect rather than just patrol are considered pluses. But they also worry whether they will be able to stay to enjoy them — and resent that it took new neighbors to gain the corporate and municipal services that have long been desired and deserved.

But despite the glitter of change, the confusion about specifics and the ambiguity of resident reaction, one thing is clear: gentrification is fundamentally about power.

Taking it Back, Occupy Oakland
Taking it Back, Occupy Oakland. Protesters shout and pump their fists in the air shouting "We are the 99%!"  |  Glenn Halog/Flickr/Creative Commons

After all, if residents had sufficient market power, they would own local property and local businesses and so benefit from an uptick in demand. Or if they had sufficient community or political power, they would be able to put restrictions in place that would force new development to minimize displacement and disruption and maximize affordability and local employment.

Given this, it is useful to step back from the immediate fights about the new local vegan breakfast joint or the Peruvian restaurant with no Peruvian customers — and step back as well a purely policy-focused discussion of the tools that can contain negative change and preserve community character. To grasp what is really at stake, we must understand that the control of land has long been a reflection of the contestation for power and a deeper contestation over meaning.

Land is always valued in two ways: for its intrinsic use and for its market yield.

To understand this duality, consider what is for many of us our most important asset: our house. On the one hand, it is the place where we settle with partners, find solace and calm and make the markings on kitchen doorjams that record the history of our children. Of course, none of that is listed on Zillow; instead, the focus is not on your house as a home but rather as a financial nest egg.

Indeed, the ability to sell a piece of property is described legally as “alienation” — the right to render land without meaning or history and instead treat it simply as a commodity. This version of property rights was certainly foreign to indigenous Californians who found it difficult to conceive of land in anything but a collective way. The Mexican ranch owners who were part of the system that displaced them may hvae brought a different understanding as they amassed vast tracts of land and created the map for much of modern-day urban California. Yet for these Californios, claims were often unclear and market ties were weak; as a result, there was generally no compelling need to sharply define territory and put the land to its “best and highest” — that is, most profitable — use. 

Acquisition of territory and its distribution

The Mexican-American War and its aftermath changed that. While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo supposedly guaranteed the property rights of Mexican land-holders, defending claims required money for lawyers and retaining property required paying taxes. In a sort of 19th century version of gentrification, the ripple effects of the California Gold Rush forced decades of reckoning: with the market driving up land values and a new state government hungry for revenues, land titles were lost and new whiter and wealthier arrivals changed the meaning of what it meant to be a Californian.

Of course, the racialized nature of property ownership had long been baked into the U.S., including the very idea that people could be owned as slaves. Still, California helped drive new sorts of exclusions. For example, the California Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 were set up to prevent immigrant Asians from buying property; while some responded by placing land in the names of their U.S.-born children, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II completed the asset-stripping of at least that part of the Asian population. 

California Alien Land Law of 1913
Juichi Soyeda and Tadao Kamiya of Japan who lobbied against the California Alien Land Law of 1913 |  Library of Congress
Oakland, California - Japanese American Internment
A sign left behind by a Japanese American shop owner in Oakland, CA upon the forced internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor  |  Library of Congress

California housing markets were also broadly marked by the racism infecting the larger American body politic. Racially restrictive covenants, which put the more desirable parts of urban areas out of the reach of African Americans and other minorities, reinforced segregation; even after they were formally struck down in the late 1940s, discriminatory lending practices forced many people of color to purchase property in locations where wealth accumulation was elusive at best.

Other aspects of public policy also actively sought to devalue neighborhoods of color. Consider Los Angeles in which the Mexican-American eastside was cut up (and cut off from the central city) by a system of freeway exchanges that drove down local property values — and made it easier for suburban commuters to avoid stopping anywhere that might expose them to a sea of Brown faces. Adding to the toxic stew of auto emissions from the new highways were land use regulations that permitted industry to abut housing in “certain” neighborhoods, producing a highly unequal environmental risk-scape.

1939 HOLC "redlining" map of central Los Angeles
1939 HOLC "redlining" map of central Los Angeles |  LaDale C. Winling/urbanoasis

In these frequently challenged locales, populations found property values low but community cohesion high. Consider the proud struggles for social justice that emerged from Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s (and now home to a vibrant renters’ rights movement). Or think of the fight for education and against the Vietnam War that burst from East L.A. (a community whose residents are now fighting to stay on the ground that they have long defended). Asset values may lagged but a sense of community pride was vibrant.

Black Panther Headquarters in LA 1977
Black Panther Headquarters in L.A. 1977 |  Los Angeles Public Library

It is against that racialized history — and in the context of the struggles for community control — that the new forces of gentrification have been unleashed.

What may seem curious is why this new version of land seizure and displacement is now happening with such ferocity in areas that were once disdained by those with more privilege. After all, much of the pattern of post-war suburbanization involved those with either wealth or racial advantage separating themselves from city neighborhoods that were denser and more diverse. “White flight” (and later middle-class flight as more economically successful minorities joined the exodus) generally meant that city centers would serve a daytime economic function even as immediately adjoining districts were considered undesirable by those who had other options.

So what’s changed? There are several sets of factors — including structural shifts in the economy, the widening gaps between rich and poor and ongoing efforts to revitalize central cities — and none of them are going away soon. 

Yost Theatre in Santa Ana - Current
The Yost Theatre in Santa Ana which formerly showed Mexican cinema and musicals. It is currently a nightclub.  |  demxx/Flickr/Creative Commons


On the economy, much ink has been spilled on the rise of the so-called “creative class” — more generally, professionals engaged in symbolic work, including not just architecture, design and web content but financial management and other high-end services. Because they gain from being able to work together in close proximity — think of the clustering of software engineers in the Silicon Valley and entertainment workers in Hollywood — this has helped to give place a new importance. 

That geographic turn has often helped to revitalize business districts as they become peppered with start-up firms, legal service and many other functions. But why don’t the highly paid professionals working in those enterprises just get together during the day, then disperse to “safer” suburbs like their cohorts in earlier decades? Why do they now linger in expensive condos and cause long waiting lines in chic “neighborhood” restaurants?

Part of what helps to fill the explanatory gap is the sharp rise in income inequality in the U.S. With highly paid professionals gobbling up gains from a more technological and globalized economy, they are able to colonize en masse — think Google employees taking over the Mission District in San Francisco — rather than being lonely, obvious and perhaps risky pioneers (that role is left to the truly creatives — artists — who are often just one step and one off-brand coffeshop ahead of the gentrifiers who follow).

In some cases, global inequality is at play as well. The global super-rich can purchase condos and apartments that they visit infrequently. Parking assets in the form of real estate may seem senseless to those priced out of the market (shouldn’t somebody be living there? And why can’t it be me?) but in a world in which interest rates have been stuck at zero, accumulating property is one way to safeguard “value.”

On the policy side, it is important to remember that since the 1960s and 1970s, many cities have sought to revitalize their downtowns. Particularly with the slow drip-drip of of declining federal support for cities over the last few decades, municipal authorities have become more “entrepreneurial,” seeking to attract companies and uses to areas that were in decline. 

The surprise for some, particularly after many years of vacant office buildings and empty streets in the older sections of downtowns in Los Angeles and Oakland — is that it’s finally working. Public investments, including in mass transit, have attracted private investors to follow with housing and amenities. Financiers have learned how to pull off complex mixed-use projects. And it’s now being pushed along by climate-oriented policies aimed at encouraging more compact development.

Another trend that will not go away: demography. In the past, suburbanization was driven partly by the view that one’s home was the surest investment possible. But the Great Recession left many stranded in the hinterlands with a foreclosed house and a soul-killing commute. Millennials see less reason to “drive till you qualify” and, in any case, find themselves saddled with college debt and unable to muster the down payment for home purchase. Nice thing about the young: they are more open to ethnic diversity so that widens their range of acceptable neighborhoods. Bad thing about the young: that means they contribute to driving up rents in ways that can displace those to whom they are open.

UC Berkeley Protest | Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr/Creative Commons

So what’s a neighborhood to do? 

The tools to address displacement are rather limited and, in each case, face a constellation of power on the other side. Rent stabilization and strong tenant protections are key — but apartment owners are a strong and resistant lobby. Affordable housing is necessary — but developers, eager to generate profits, fight against mandates. Land trusts — which essentially take land off the market and preserve it for communities — face tough competition from those seeking “highest and best use.” City governments could demand more from development — but they worry that they will kill growth altogether if they ask for what their residents really need.

All this is occurring, particularly in California, in the context of under-building. While it is naive to think that simply expanding the stock of housing of any sort will necessarily solve the problems of excess rents — a position taken by those who imagine that the wealthy will buy new units and “trickle down” their vacancies to those less fortunate — all estimates suggest that the housing industry is way behind on what is necessary to accommodate California’s future population.

In the meanwhile, the long-running struggle over who controls land and what it means continues. Is Boyle Heights just a lovely set of older homes and streetscapes waiting to be revitalized with new residents and new galleries — or is it the irreplaceable heart of Chicano Los Angeles? Is South L.A. the secret location of amazingly well-tended but often poorly known but easy-to-market residential jewels (think of West Adams or Village Green) — or is it the link to a Black history and reality that must be preserved? Is it any different or any better in Santa Ana because some of the gentrifiers are also Latino — or does ethnicity really make a difference to those facing the forces of displacement?

These are not easy questions but ultimately they do come down to the power to define the meaning of both land and community. Moving to a more productive conversation about the sense of loss and fear that grips many neighborhoods will not necessarily solve the problem but it will lead us to understand that there are real lives — real parents notching their children’s history on the doorjams — at stake.

Indeed, when you go to communities and speak to residents — as is the case with the stories in this series — you find a common refrain: “better neighborhood, same neighbors.” That vision may not be entirely possible—communities always experience churn and change. But it should be at least one guiding principle as policy makers, civic leaders and local residents try to promote a more equitable, inclusive and vibrant California.

Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights | Neon Tommy/Flickr/Creative Commons

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