Gentrification Conversation: Part One

I didn’t expect to be married to one of the bad guys, but there it is.

My husband Kendall was recently asked to lead a workshop at a seminary conference. I came along to help him keep time. While we were waiting for everyone else to arrive, I read the program. We were Track #2.

Track #2: Neighborhoods and Development. Goal: To assist churches and communities in analyzing and responding to physical, cultural, and socio-political changes within neighborhoods as a result of urban development policies and approaches.

This was a mouthful, but I knew what it meant. My husband works for a local Community Development Corporation (CDC) that has succeeded, over the past decade or two, to bring significant changes to the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Changes like a dramatic reduction in the crime rate; changes like an upturn in the housing market. Changes like opening (at that time) the only Whole Foods in Western Pennsylvania.

Changes like white people walking the streets with yoga mats tucked under their arms.

3936450656_1d6e343e2a_oAnd the word, the g-word, began to buzz in conversation, public and private. By the time of the conference, I was used to concerned friends asking questions like, “But what will happen to all of the residents who were already there?” or “What if rents rise and push people out?”

Kendall had answers to these questions: His organization had secured a large number of affordable units a decade earlier. More than a third of the housing in the neighborhood is subsidized long-term. The improved market could create generational wealth for current residents. The increased tax revenue benefited public schools. Turn-of-the-century houses were expensive to renovate, and without investment, they would rot and be torn down.

And finally, if our friends weren’t convinced (they usually weren’t), he would remind them that his organization had merely enacted the results of two extensive community plans, done in 1999 and 2010. These plans called for the creation of a mixed-income community, and that is what East Liberty was becoming.

“But isn’t it just being gentrified?” was the shorthand response, or, as one brave participant in the seminary workshop finally voiced, “Aren’t you just trying to get rid of all the black people?”

I checked the time; Kendall was just halfway done.


This month’s theme at You Are Here is “Together in Place,” and as I have reflected on the gentrification conversations that go along with being married to my husband, I realize that a “Mixed Income Community”, however attractive in theory, is messy and frightening in practice.

Consider the alternative. Isn’t there something in us, as human beings, that is drawn to living near people who look like us, act like us, and make just about as much money as we do? Why else would we create gated communities? Why else, sixty years ago, did people flee to the suburbs? And why else, as the wealthy (in Pittsburgh, read ‘white people’) return to the cities in this decade, would there be a sense of invasion and take-over?

Take-over. This was the phrase my friend used as we sat together in the car after Kendall’s presentation. “I know that he’s got a convincing argument,” he conceded, staring out the window, “but there’s just this sense that people have, this sense that their world is being taken over, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. It feels like a take-over, and that’s scary.”

For awhile, we sat in silence. Neither of us had any answers. There were good reasons to build a mixed-income community; there were compelling arguments for the change. The cost of doing nothing, of stagnation, of the status-quo, of ghettos and gated communities, was also high.

But living together is hard, and there’s this open question: how long will we able to keep it up? Rich, Poor, Middle-income, Black, White, Asian, Latino–all the census categories and a thousand variations–will we learn to live as neighbors? Will we attend each other’s birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and funerals? Will our children grow up together? Can our worship spaces go from being the most segregated places in America to become communities of reconciliation?

Can we live together? Or, is it inevitable that one group will take-over, one group will flee or be pushed out, and that a mixed-income community is just a stop on the way to gentrification?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the friend in the car was the pastor of my church, our mixed-race and mixed-income church of a hundred-or-so people who love one another, and we were determined to continue the conversation.


Early this morning I was walking up the hill to my house, and I saw someone approaching, coming down the hill. The sun had not yet risen–I am on my guard in the dark–but as the figure came into focus, I relaxed. It was a middle-aged woman, vaguely familiar, dressed in hospital scrubs with an umbrella tucked under her arm. “Good morning” I chirped, perhaps a little too cheerfully, my voice loud in all that quiet morning space.

And… nothing. For a long moment, she just stared. I took in her worn brown face, cigarette in hand; she glanced at my pink cheeks and the orange yoga mat tucked under my arm.

“Good morning” she finally acknowledged, her sharp tone cutting into the air between us, her meaning clearly the opposite of her words. And just like that we passed one another, quickly, and the silence re-settled into the city streets.

What will fill this silence? This remains to be seen.


Later this month, I will fill some of the silence with another post, Gentrification Conversation: Part Two. In the meantime, those of you with opinions, questions or your own experiences… please comment. I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Yoga Mat photo by Grace Commons

11 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: I Love the Internet! vol. 4 | Accidental Devotional

  2. Jennifer,
    I don’t have anything specific to add to this conversation. Memphis is a hard place, remains fairly segregated, but some strides are being made. Thank you for taking on this difficult topic. I look forward to part two.

  3. I work for a developer and I have been a property manager in LA for years. I have worked in mixed income and conventional communities. What I can say is that affordable housing programs are too few and poorly executed. In general, real estate trusts despise their low income clientele. They are often treated with disdain and disregard. Residents who pay full price also tend to complain about these neighbors. A development in New York for example made their low income residents take a different elevator than the conventional counterpart. So this is why gentrification is such a bad word.

    I am not sure what the answer is. As density builds in Los Angeles I just see it getting worse. The way LA has handled many much needed development is to do away with affordable housing requirements altogether. They allow developers to build smaller units so they are priced lower and are “sort of affordable.”

  4. This is something that I think of a lot, as I live in Lawrenceville, another area of Pittsburgh that is dealing with the gentrification. I know that the rental prices have gone up by probably 20-35% since we purchased our house 6 years ago, and that the value of our house is probably double what we paid for it (though this is after a new roof and windows). While I’m not familiar with the plans for East Liberty, I think the intentionality of mixed-income community is a key component to defining the neighborhood. At least in Lawrenceville, I don’t feel that that is the primary goal, and that is not what it feels like in practice. To me it very much feels like people are trying to colonize the area. I feel guilty because we are benefitting from this system, even though the reason why we moved here was because it was what our income would allow. I don’t know that I’m adding much to the conversation, but I’m very interested in seeing your next piece.

    • I’m so glad for your honest words, Niki, and I love these two especially: ‘intentionality’ and ‘colonize.’

      What does it mean to be intentional as organizations and as individuals? I think that this is a question that we answer constantly as we walk down the street, attend community events, listen to each other’s stories, and learn to live with people who are not ‘like us.’ (which, let’s be honest, sometimes the ‘yinzer’/’hipster’ divide is just as great as any racial difference). I may be naive, but I am hopeful that this intentionality will help neighborhood change feel less like ‘colonization.’

      Have you ever done anything with Lawrenceville United? I only know one person there, but he’s fantastic.

  5. such a hard conversation. During grad school I toured some of the development projects in Philly. They were doing some really impressive stuff – block by block – – but the fear of gentrification was definitely there. Mixed-income housing with long-term subsidies- where poor people and rich people live in the same building, seems to make the most sense to me for a variety of reasons and seems to help make sure that long-term residents get to stay and benefit from community improvements.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Nicole. Yeah, Philly is a whole different ballgame… East Coast city with population pressure vs. Rust Belt city that loses population every year (since 1950!). It’s hard to believe that we are in the same state sometimes.

      The problem sometimes with mixed-income rental buildings is that the rich people (who pay really high rents and move on to buy houses) don’t always stay long enough to really get to know their low-income neighbors. I’m realizing more and more that these kind of cross-income (often cross-race) friendships take decades to build. But still, exposure to someone who is different then you is almost always a good thing, as long as it’s not so superficial as to ‘prove’ stereotypes.

      • I hadn’t really thought about the wealthier renters not sticking around for long-term investment.

        makes me just want to put flowers in my hair and sing, “what the world needs now is love sweet love” and think that’s gonna solve all of it. If only it were that easy.

  6. Jennifer,

    You are right, this is hard stuff. The hope that you expressed is to break the chains of multigenerational poverty through redevelopment of mixed income communities. There is deep mistrust among the poor communities who have felt abandoned for years. Also, there is the real risk that rising property values drive up property taxes which drive up low income homeowners. This will abort wealth accretion for those who are historically poor. That’s just the financial aspect.

    Are there community amenities that draw people together. It takes intentionality and long term committment to live with those we don’t necessarily share a cultural heritage with. Does East Liberty have playgrounds and green spaces that draw people together or is it just safer housing and shopping. Can design engender meaningful relationships? Will blacks attend white churches. Will whites attend black churches.

    I think it ultimately evolves around children and schools. Can we come together through the kids and their activities. Like you I have no answers. I try to smile and say hello to all that pass by. I try to be attentive to the tone of my own inner voices and opinions. I try to build relationships where I sense an openess. But it’s hard.

    • Scott, thanks for your thoughtfulness and also your willingness to ‘go there’ with thoughts and opinions that are still evolving in your own head. All of this is much bigger than you and I, and I think that it takes a certain amount of wisdom–and a lot of humility–to engage in our small, faltering ways.

      Your comment inspired breakfast conversations around here, and we talked most about rising property taxes. K says the county only re-assesses about every ten years, so there’s quite a bit of lag between development and the possibility of tax increase. Also he’s noticed that when homeowners appeal their assessments, long-term residents tend to get dramatically lower assessments than new buyers. However, people need to know how to appeal, and then we talked about how his organization could support people in this process. There is also a ‘senior citizen tax abatement’ program that tries to avoid that scary scenario of widows being taxed out of their homes.

      Re: playgrounds and green spaces. There are a couple of new initiatives around this, but K acknowledged that there’s not a lot of city money for these kind of spaces, especially since the city doesn’t want to raise taxes and drive people out of their homes. 🙂 We also talked about community gardens as a hopeful (and relatively cheap) kind of gathering space.

      And all this to say that we need to have you over for breakfast sometime!

      • Breakfast would be a blessing. 🙂

        Here is a hard thing. Poverty usually means poor education. Poor education not only can mean reduced opportunities but can also mean a debilitating sense of having no agency in one’s life. This lack of personal agency was the thing that struck me the most in the community I engaged. This can be a real problem when talking about earned income tax credits and property tax abatement filings. I am not sure what the real answer is to a lack of agency other than intentional community engagement and an education system that promotes personal engagement and agency rather than sitting and passively receiving information. Again, no easy answers.

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