In 2011, my family and I moved to the Southwest side of Atlanta, GA into a neighborhood called the Historic West End. Prior to that, we had been living in the suburbs for about two years and our plans and dreams at the time were quite different than the path the Lord would eventually lead us down. We loved Atlanta and we loved the church that God had allowed us to help plant and serve, but when we thought about the type of community we hoped to move our family into, the West End wasn’t it.
The Southwest side of the city wasn’t the most attractive part of town. Like other cities across the country, it was a place rich in history but had been stripped of resources, programs, and general investment. It could be referred to as the other side of the tracks, the one you knew existed but never ventured into. This neighborhood, however, had not gotten this way on its own.
In 2008, many residents living in the 30310, 30314, and 30318 zip codes lost their homes due to subprime lending opportunities with predatory features. Many of these loans went to existing homeowners looking to refinance under the understanding that they were taking advantage of lower interest rates to extract home equity. Instead, they were only offered complex and risky products that quickly became unaffordable when economic conditions changed for the worse. In simpler terms, homes that people had purchased for $100,000 were now being refinanced at a value far greater than its actual worth and with extremely high interest rates.
The economic downturn meant that once affordable mortgages were no longer affordable and the consequence was foreclosures. The remains of such a crisis were neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, crime, and blight. The removal of the middle class base meant the elimination of thriving businesses, social services, and advocacy. These were the conditions of the side of town we were moving into and, at the time, we had no expectation for any immediate changes.
However, much has changed over the last 7 years. In 2011, you could purchase a fairly decent-sized, renovated home in the area for less than $130,000. Foreclosed homes were selling for even less, though they needed substantial renovations. For a neighborhood that was less than two miles from downtown, it was one of the few remaining where you could purchase a house for less than $50,000. But that didn’t last long.
Gentrification starts with a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. It is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.Peter Moskowitz
What we would soon find out was that the city had a master plan for this side of town, which—unbeknownst to us—had been in the works for several decades. There was a change coming to the neighborhood but not the type of change meant to benefit those who had been displaced due to unjust mortgage fraud. It was a change intended to benefit the “urban pioneer” and not the poor, black minority. It was a change intended to make way for the hipsters, the affluent, the yuppies, the trendsetters, the middle-class families who would change the face of a perceived unattractive part of town.
Now I’m not saying that seeing a community diversify is a bad thing. Based on several studies, it actually shows that thriving communities are diverse communities. What I am saying is that the intent behind diversity is the problem. The intent isn’t to benefit everyone in the community, but to create a new one and the inevitable result is colonization. For the last seven years in my neighborhood, this is what has taken place and the term most commonly used to describe these events is gentrification.
Gentrification has become somewhat of a buzz word in recent years and what I’ve learned is that most of us, including myself, have no idea what it really is. If asked, many of us would probably define it as coffee shops or trendy restaurants opening up in the hood or seeing white people walking their dogs in a predominant minority community. But these are the symptoms of gentrification and not the causes of it.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
In Peter Moskowitz’s book, How to Kill a City, he gives a few definitions that I believe capture gentrification perfectly.
- “It starts with a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. It is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.”
- “Gentrification is a system that places the needs of capital (both in terms of the city budget and real estate profits) above the needs of the people.”
- “There are a losing side and a winning side in gentrification, but both sides are playing the same game, though they are not its designers.”
- “Gentrification is not about individual acts, it’s about systemic violence based on decades of racist housing policy in the United States that has denied people of color, especially black people, access to the same kinds of housing, and therefore the same levels of wealth as white Americans. Gentrification cannot happen without this deeply rooted inequality. If we are all equal there cannot be the gentrifier or the gentrified.”
- “Gentrification is also the inevitable result of a political system focused more on the creation and expansion of business opportunity than on the well-being of its citizens.”
- Example: A city with little federal funding for housing, transportation, or other amenities now puts the primary means for funding these things on the shoulders of their tax base. The richer the tax base the easier it is to fund these things. This means that cities look for ways to attract richer folk while actively pushing out the poor who are a drain on taxes.
In summary, gentrification doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over the span of several decades of careful planning. The root of it is capitalism or what the Bible describes as the love of money, where the poor are viewed as a burden on the city’s ability to thrive and are therefore intentionally displaced. In my neighborhood, it wasn’t so much an issue of displacement through elevated property taxes and such—the housing crisis did that. It was more an issue of, “How do we make this side of town attractive to those we hope to repopulate this community?”
Gentrification bases a person’s value on their ability to contribute to society. If a resident has the ability to give back, they are deemed valuable. But if not, they are worthless and replaceable. So for the southwest side of Atlanta, in order to make it desirable, they developed a Beltline that would serve as a walkable path for residents. This path would allow people to walk, bike, or run and would serve as a connecting point to parks and other affluent neighborhoods. With it, you have access to live outside of your community and that means affordable housing, at least for those who could afford the high price tag of $300,000 or more in other parts of the city.
Fast forward to 2018, when an average size home, 3/2, 1300 sq ft, is selling for upwards of $300,000. The neighborhood has been repopulated with a base of individuals that led to the opening of a bar that serves tacos and several breweries. There is now an obvious divide between the old West End residents and the new, so the neighborhood we once loved so dearly is now virtually unrecognizable.
Gentrification doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over the span of several decades of careful planning. The root of it is capitalism or what the Bible describes as the love of money, where the poor are viewed as a burden on the city’s ability to thrive and are therefore intentionally displaced.
When I think of gentrification, I think of improvement but I also think of the loss of a community. One that had its fair share of problems, blemishes, warts and all, but one where people looked out for one another. One where your neighbor was truly a neighbor. Where you spoke to one another regularly. Where you shared life with each other and you cared about the fixing the problems you faced because they were your problems to be fixed.
Again, I’m not advocating that the West End was better off seven years ago. No, never that. What I am saying is that gentrification has a way of stripping a community bare and then building it up for someone else to enjoy its fruits. I wish I could say that we have found a solution for how to help revitalize a neighborhood responsibly, but I haven’t. My prayer for us as God’s people is that we would view what is happening in cities across the world as a justice issue, and not ignore the impact it has on our neighbors.