Solving the city’s gentrification ‘paradox’


The Gateway at Belknap is one of the projects neighbors mentioned when considering the gentrification process and what it means to specific neighborhoods. Courtesy Concept Design

Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz faced some tough questions during the panel segment of a talk on gentrification at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium last week.

The panel discussion followed a presentation by Columbia University urban planning professor and gentrification expert Lance Freeman that called the process of gentrification a “paradox.”

The questions posed to Schulz largely regarded why the city doesn’t do more to ensure the neighborhoods are fully engaged during the development process, and what the city is doing to help minorities advance economically.

Schulz said although resources are limited, many city departments are working on ways to address issues of economic development across the board.

She also noted how most neighborhoods in Grand Rapids have active neighborhood associations, which the planning department relies on to make informed decisions on developments.

“If we’re serious about community-capacity building and organizing, I’d argue whether it’s a city function,” she told the crowd, following a question about why the city doesn’t knock on residents’ doors. “Do you want a city staff person mobilizing the community? How do you develop a structure that you can disseminate information to every person in the community?”

The other panelists, Coit Community Church Pastor Jerome Burton and Hispanic Center of Western Michigan Executive Director Roberto Torres, said more could be done to ensure their neighbors felt included in the development of the city’s neighborhoods.

Torres said the neighborhoods need to start creating development, investment and better engaged master plans so outside developers don’t come in to dictate what happens.

Freeman wrapped up the evening by saying the major lesson in gentrification is that, to help combat the negatives of the process, a grassroots effort is needed.

“The city has to be made to do certain things,” Freeman said. “Developers don’t do that because they’re there to make money. This city is progressive, but they have to be made to do things. Community mobilization is so important.”

Burton said he felt the neighbors in his Belknap neighborhood, in particular, were afraid for their community’s future as heavy development is underway by Orion Construction and Grand Valley State University.

That sentiment is something Freeman spoke of during his talk, which included samples of interviews conducted for his book, “There Goes The ’Hood.”

Freeman explained that gentrification in its simplest form is the reversal of declining urban population, white flight, poverty de-concentration and property abandonment, while bringing new commerce and amenities to inner-city neighborhoods.

“This is a process of turning a city around; it sounds like an elixir of our ills,” Freeman said. “But we don’t have to go too far to see that not everyone sees it as a savior.”

Gentrification is not a phenomenon unique to the United States and, in fact, was coined in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, Freeman said. Nor is it related to a race issue but rather an economic one.

Many residents in the communities undergoing gentrification feel displaced and as though they don’t fit into the evolving neighborhood, but Freeman said he found that is far from the whole story as he delved into the history of ghetto evolution.

Freeman pointed to African-Americans moving north in the early 20th century to escape Southern oppression and seek economic opportunities as the start of American ghettoes, largely in part due to restrictive government policies. Those neighborhoods became home to many, a place people valued no matter how they looked to outsiders, Freeman said.

“It was their community, their homes, where African-Americans established their presence, and they valued it,” Freeman said. “People became suspicious of outsiders coming in and taking the space from them.”

Freeman cited Harlem in New York City and how, to planners, it looked like an overcrowded slum, but to those who lived there it was home and a community and worth fighting for.

Freeman, having spent a few days in Grand Rapids prior to his presentation, said, like many other cities, it is still relatively segregated. Most black neighborhoods are not seeing an uptick in white population, but there has been progress in that direction in the past 30 years, he said.

There are many reasons for the fact that young white people are no longer flooding to the suburbs the way they once did, including that many want to have a different lifestyle than their parents by getting married later and living closer to the exciting lifestyle often associated with the urban core.

As he interviewed residents in Harlem and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn for his book, Freeman found there were generally two views of existing residents in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification: ambivalence and cynicism.

Some residents said it was good to see an increase in diversity, better services and interesting new commerce.

Others, however, said those improvements were only done because of “them” — referring to whites moving into the neighborhoods. Freeman also said that, because many gentrified communities are largely renter-based, residents often don’t benefit from the uptick in property values.

Freeman said people from all sides should be concerned about gentrification because no one should fear losing their home and everyone should have access to decent neighborhoods.

His suggestion that the gentrification phenomenon might be more socioeconomic than race-related was reaffirmed by Torres’ opening remarks during the panel discussion. He noted Latinos are the largest minority in Grand Rapids, calling it the fastest-growing Latino community in the state.

Torres said he read a recent report about how Grand Rapids’ future economic vitality will hinge on how well it embraces the international and Latino presence, but he feels as though the current situation harkens back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He said the only community in the Midwest to really harness Latino diversity is Chicago, which has resulted in a Hispanic community bringing in more than $900 million in revenue last year.

“Are we missing the conversation?” he asked the crowd. “As I look at Grandville Avenue, I hope it embraces the potential that exists in those immigrant populations. What we can do is protect that cultural identity and support economic growth.”

Whether it’s the middle class taking advantage of lower-priced retail, another race moving into a neighborhood, or a mixture of many factors, Freeman said gentrification likely won’t end soon, and the best way to combat the negative part of it is to empower those within the communities and make sure they’re included in the conversation, and those efforts can be tackled by all parties, he said.

“I’d argue community mobilizing is just as important as community development; just building housing may not be enough, you need to build community,” Freeman said. “It gives people a voice in what’s happening and changes their perspective in the community. People feel the way they do because they didn’t have any say in what was happening. Their voices weren’t being heard.”

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