Over the last month, a flurry of articles have surfaced referencing the evils of white liberal gentrification in our cities. From cafes to breweries and high end restaurants opening in formally industrial complexes… these activations have been called into question as engines of gentrification and exclusion in our urban landscape. Suddenly what we formally understood to be “progress” in our cities is being labeled as a vehicle for white Americans to shape the urban landscape as they see fit, with little regard for the Black America.
And it’s true. Our American cities have been built upon racial lines for a hundred years, with redlining, subsidies for wealthy white Americans to leave our cities and the construction of urban highways as a means of segregation and exclusion in our country.
But the truth is, our city leaders know there is little chance for our communities to step forward without welcoming back middle and upper-middle class residents to create a stronger tax base and small business growth based on higher density. We need to offer a chance for people who would otherwise have lived in the suburbs to live in the city instead.
But it’s the responsibility of these new city-goers to understand that the city isn’t theirs for the taking the moment they move in. And while they may be playing a pivotal role in our changing urban environments, they are part of a much larger pattern that has played itself out for generations… white people move into an area and slowly gentrify it to fit their tastes. It begins with the arts, then with cafes and breweries and eventually high-end loft apartments… and so on.
Many of the white Americans who feed into this pattern understand that they now play a key role in the future of the community they are suddenly a part of. They understand the segregated history of our cities, and acknowledge that neighborhoods are not theirs to assimilate. They adapt rather than adopt, and work with community leaders and residents to help lift everyone.
But this is the exception rather than the norm. White America has long seen cities as blighted wastelands that need to be “fixed,” instead of seeing that they are vibrant communities that embrace a culture and a set of priorities that might not be their own. Instead, the assimilation or these neighborhoods is the goal of the typical white suburban and new urban American. Recently I heard this group perfectly labeled “The Brunch Urbanists,” referring to the white, upper middle class urban millennial obsessed with high-end cuisine and $12 cocktails. It is a group that reaps the benefit of new urban life without understanding the big picture of what that kind of urbanity means for the folks who have lived in these areas for generations.
The typical fence-sitter that I am (for the life of me I can’t understand why a multi-dimensional perspective is considered gutless and weak in our polarized society), I will say that development and the mobility of wealth from one area to another is nothing new and cannot be stopped altogether. I often champion development, the arts, and so many elements that are healthy for any city, but also have the ability to gentrify and even displace. But with this wide-eyed enthusiasm comes the sense of responsibility for all of us to ask the question “who is this for?” If we acknowledge that it might be what millennial white urbanists want, let’s listen to city residents of color and ask what they want to see next. Progress is not about building a city for white liberals, nor is it about ending the footprint of development… it’s about listening and understanding all perspectives and finding common ground.
If you find yourself reading this with a pit in your stomach, knowing deep inside that you are a Brunch Urbanist at heart, fear not… to some extent I am too. I love brunch, cocktails, brews and java. I love the creative and energizing small businesses that are changing the face of our communities. But I also understand that many of the patrons of these new urban ventures are more than happy to enjoy the new “revitalized” parts of the city they love while still stereotyping the rest of a city they choose not to know.
So let’s do this. If you find yourself spending a lot of time in gentrified areas of the city, perhaps you might find some time to volunteer for a city youth organization. If you realize that you just spent $100 on cocktails and charcuterie with friends, maybe you might think of donating money to a community center in an urban neighborhood.
If you’re enjoying the shiny new additives cities have to offer, do your part to understand the thoughts of the city residents you don’t know. It is vital that we all push past our personal discomforts and preconceived notions and try much harder to understand. The poverty and difficulty we see in so many city neighborhoods is the direct result of racially-driven urban design that purposefully allowed (and in many cases still allows) white people to build wealth while disallowing Black Americans to thrive.
The Brunch Urbanist is someone who has returned to city life because it’s “cool” now and because they “kicked out the riff-raff.” The Brunch Urbanist sees cities in a one dimensional “good or bad” area construct without truly understanding that urban cores are lined with a cornucopia of social, racial and economic complexity. The Brunch Urbanist has likely adopted the mentality of “this is what I want” rather than “what can I contribute?”
So what of all this? I truly believe we can re-imagine parts of our cities while being responsible and accountable to traditionally black neighborhoods that are so often victims of gentrification and displacement. The key lies in thoroughly communicating with community leaders and citizens and truly listening to their wants, needs and desires. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen that it leads to a better outcome for all.
The future of cities will only be better if we acknowledge where they came from, and what elements shaped their paths for better or for worse. We cannot and should not stop the flow of development, but we must align this development with the wishes of local residents. This means listening, understanding and taking time to learn the difficult history of our urban cores in the United States, and how we can collectively make them better.