On Being a Good Neighbor.

the "G" word...

14th and Kenyon, Columbia Heights, DC. (via IntangibleArts, CC 2.0.)

DCentric, a blog from DC’s local NPR affiliate covering race and class posted a piece several days ago called “Five Ways to be a Good Gentrifier.”

Are you a middle or high-income earner, who is probably white (but not necessarily!) and has moved into a predominantly black or Latino low-income neighborhood? And is that neighborhood rapidly changing, as longtime residents move to less expensive suburbs because they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood’s revamped, much pricier apartments? Check off a bingo card if you must: you live amongst hip coffee shops, with white people where white people never dared to go before and patronize yoga studios that were once corner stores. Face it: you’re a gentrifier.

For the self-aware and well-meaning among the gentry, the guilt can be almost akin to white guilt — your very existence can make you feel bad. But if you’ve moved into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, there are ways you can be a good neighbor. Here are five things to get you started, and feel free to suggest more in the comments section:

Yikes.

I have two problems with this piece.  The first is that it’s firmly stuck in the “not funny” zone.  Either make it undeniably tongue-in-cheek, or make it an actual, serious examination.  Muddling around in the middle just serves to trivialize the issue, which is a recipe for disaster.  Second, and more importantly, these are not rules for being a good gentrifier, these are rules (as Alex Baca of the Washington City Paper tweeted) for being a good neighbor, period.  I would go do so far as to say, the reason why gentrification is such a hot button topic is because people apparently need primers like this.  If you can’t behave like a decent neighbor/human being, I wouldn’t want you living down the street either, regardless of what it does to my property values.  Confusing being a “good gentrifier” with being a good neighbor, as if it is something special, is probably a large part of the reason gentrification gets such a bad rap.  Hell, “gentry” itself is a socioeconomically loaded term.

It gets worse:

4. Don’t automatically cross the street to avoid young, black kids.

This is something Levy (and myself) have noticed among some young, white commuters in particular. For instance, there is a recreational center near Levy’s home where children and youth often hang out in front. Some commuters getting off the nearby Metro pass by the center as they walk home.

“And I’ve noticed this in terms of white people who will cross the street before they even get there,” often going out of their way, or blatantly crossing the street near the center, she says. “Sometimes there’s an assumption that because they are kids, you will have cracks thrown at you or something. But you walk by and you’re either going to say ‘hi’ and they’re going to say ‘hi’ back, or they’re going to make a comment and you ignore it, or they will most likely ignore you because you are not the center of their world.”

A lot of Levy’s advice centers around being aware and mindful of your own internal reactions to various social situations and questioning those motives. In the case of crossing the street, she says people may want to ask themselves: “Is this something I really need to be worried about? Or is this sort of a knee jerk reaction?”

5. Visit local, small businesses and take note of what they offer. Some sell things you actually want.

It’s difficult for existing, small businesses to survive waves of gentrification, even if they start selling products appealing to the new residents. John McIlwain, a housing and urban issues expert with the Urban Institute, previously explained to us that “if the store sends the message that this is a store for the low-income community, most of the new residents… will look elsewhere to shop.” This is despite what products the store carries.
Those kinds of unspoken messages include such things as having bullet-proof glass. Whether the shop owner should adopt to survive and take down the glass altogether is another matter. But if you need a nice bottle of wine or a gallon of organic milk, don’t necessarily assume a store doesn’t have it simply because of the presence of bullet-proof glass. Check it out first.

Scary black kids?  Bulletproof glass?  For a blog that recently published a piece (from the same author no less) explaining why you should rethink using the term “ghetto,” this sort of trafficking in stereotypes is surprising, to say the least.  While there have been some nasty incidents of youth led violence in DC lately, I feel comfortable in saying this is the exception, not the rule.  In my travels around DC, I have yet to see roving bands of angry teens waiting to attack me.  I have no doubt there are bad eggs out there, but I feel pretty safe in saying that when the kids on the block know you (you know, because you’re a decent human being who says hi and helps someone’s grandma get her groceries up the stairs), your chances of violence are dramatically decreased.

This piece was written by Elahe Izadi, one of the two authors of DCentric.  I would be remiss in not noting that I count Anna John, DCentric’s other author, as a good friend.  My understanding is that DCentric has a follow up piece planned, with commentary from our own quadmoniker, among others.  I’ll be curious to see what it says.

What say you commenters?  Is the delivery off?  Is this even about gentrification?  Have at it.

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belmontmedina

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7 comments to On Being a Good Neighbor.

  • LJ

    I read this article and the original “don’t call my neighborhood ghetto” article. I thought the first one was better. You are right, the being a good gentrifier one seemed a bit off but she is being honest about white folks crossing streets when they see black people coming (shoot I’ve seen people do it to me a few times). I didn’t think the advice was that great, but I give her props for at

    I also loved some of the comments on the original “don’t call my neighborhood ghetto), which I participated in. I took a lot of exception to one reader who said the neighborhood in question should get more gentrified. It really turns my stomach that people have the nerve to move into someone else’s neighborhood and then wish it would change more to suit their most likely white, middle-class bourgeoisie standards and leaves the less-affluent original denizens out in the cold and having to move. That mentality is just sooo wrong. It is almost manifest-destiny.

  • Mad

    I don’t know. I’m a bit conflicted about this piece, as a white person who recently moved to Harlem. (Well, I moved to an apartment on the border of what people consider Harlem two years ago, and just moved apartments and now my neighborhood is definitively Harlem).

    I actually think point #4 is not as offensive as you do, because it’s important for white people to have some race consciousness. Look, when I see white people walking around Harlem, I notice subtle body language things, like leaning further away as you pass a black person on the street compared to when you pass a white person on the street. I think there’s something to be said for being aware that you’ve been raised in a racist society, might have these subtle racist instincts that you don’t notice, and actively try to counteract them.

    It also makes me think back to my college town, where I’d always notice the college students crossing to the other side of the street just because they passed the local housing projects. What’s the harm in this article telling white people and other gentrifiers: “Hey, this might be something you do and not even notice – watch out for it!”

    I think this point is right on: that Levy encourages “being aware and mindful of your own internal reactions to various social situations and questioning those motives”.

    I don’t think that’s so bad. I think that’s good advice – yes, for everyone, but especially important for people who are white and moving into a primarily not-white neighborhood.

  • Mad

    Also, one more thing – I think the advice about saying hello is right on. I grew up in a neighborhood that was completely and totally not friendly. People certainly didn’t say hi to each other when they passed each other, and kids didn’t play together on the street. That’s something I’ve really *liked* about my neighborhood in Harlem – everyone is friendly, and people in the apartment building all know each other!

    Sure, there is something to be said for the fact that all neighbors should be courteous and friendly. But for me, it was a big culture shock, and I had to make an active effort to get to know people in my building, many of whom had lived there for 20+ years when I was a stranger just coming in.

    At my old building, there was a block party which had the explicit theme of anti-gentrification. One of my neighbors (who is awesome and I’ve since become friends with), started talking to me and my roommate about how gentrification sucks – but then made sure to add in “oh, but I guess without gentrification you guys wouldn’t be here, you guys are cool!”

    There’s an awkward line to walk, I think. It’s stupid to gloss over real cultural differences and pretend they aren’t there. I think the author of this article meant well. I also think that it’s really hard to talk intelligently about issues of [race/gender/ableism/whatever] when you’re in the more powerful/oppressive category, but making an effort is worth something.

  • about the roving bands of kids in DC…it’s kinda true. As an ‘area’ resident i don’t necessarily fear them, but their rowdiness is a bit much. and the violence, particularly on metro, doesn’t necessarily engender them to other riders. just my 2 cents.

  • riotgrrrl

    “Scary black kids,” you say? If you read the article, the author never actually says scary – she just says young. It’s this very preconception that the author is trying to combat. While I agree that these are all tips for being a good neighbor, I guess the point of the piece is that sometimes people “forget” about how to do so when they move to a new neighborhood in the context of “gentrification.”

  • I read the DCcentic piece and I think it’s flawed but not ill-intentioned and my critique has already been summed up by the transposition of “neighbor” with “gentrifier.” Frankly, I have a greater reaction to the larger conversation around “gentrification” than anything offered by this particular post. So, wading in…

    Kneejerk arguments against gentrifictaion irritate me. There, I said it.

    The romantic fantasies about poor neighborhoods that underlie such arguments smell unmistakably middle-class to my working class nose. Ever chased a crackhead out of your house in the middle of the night with a baseball bat? Was your mom ever robbed at knifepoint? Were you? No? As it happens I can answer yes to all of these questions so when someone presumes to lecture me (or the internet in general) about the “horrors of gentrification” I am utterly skeptical about their motives.

    Cities are not museums. Not healthy ones anyway. They change.

    And the ethnic composition of neighborhoods change. Unpleasant–and potentially dangerous–cultural frictions often accompany these changes. So… what? The truly awful side effects of gentrification are more properly attributed to unchecked, ravenous capitalism than anything else. If more of the poor were owners and not renters they would at least have the option of getting bought out rather than pushed out. The fact that the poor are completely at the mercy of a market that is designed to keep them poor–and that their ranks are steadily growing to include the formerly Middle Class– is the real problem, not marauding bands of white people with yoga mats.

    It has to be said that the parallel market for illegal drugs, which subsumes poor neighborhoods, is also an important part of this dynamic. I am old enough to remember the ghetto (no, I don’t have any problem with that word) before crack cocaine and there is no question that life there became exponentially cheaper after its widespread sale and use became ubiquitous. If you actually asked residents of poor neighborhoods (instead of presuming to speak on their behalf) whether they’d rather have coffee houses or crack houses on their blocks, what do you think they’d say? …Of course the question would probably be moot since the bitter reality is that they probably wouldn’t have the choice since the advent of the coffee houses usually presages getting priced out of their own neighborhoods. Again, this is the real issue, not whether or not newcomers will or won’t cross the street when they see groups of young black men. That is a dynamic that exists whether there is gentrification or not.

    Let me be clear: I do not think that the fate of poor neighborhoods lay between these extremes, drug-driven violence and rich people pushing thousand dollar strollers. There *are* potential solutions for residents of poor neighborhoods–food co-ops, group home heating oil plans, neighborhood associations, all of which I have used myself–that improve the quality of life for the poor on their own terms. But in a city like New York where real estate is at a premium, the pace of change is very fast and entire neighborhoods go under in the blink of an eye. Everyone knows that if you live in a poor area that is adjacent to Manhattan you shouldn’t get too comfortable. Because the grandchildren of the generation that fled to the suburbs are all flooding back into the city and they have the cash (or their parents do) to demand space. But putting the over-simple label “gentrification” on the complex class, race and cultural dynamics at work in the transformation of city neighborhoods is intellectually lazy. The arguments that follow are always shallow, shaped by class-romance and worse, they prevent a necessary larger discussion about the ways that the market shapes the composition of cities.

  • Also, for the sake of clarity–my irritation is more with the comments left after the DCentric piece than those that appear here.

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