The (Sub)Urban Scene | Winter 2012
Gentrification and Marginalized People of Color
By Max Hunter, The John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
Over the last few years, three crises seem to have gained prominence within conversations among African-American activists, ministers, intellectuals, and lay people: mass incarceration, the education crisis, and gentrification.
On almost any morning, one can find an article dealing with these issues in the mainstream media. For example, on July 18, 2011, The New York Times published an article about Washington, D.C., losing its black majority, in which Sabrina Tavernise describes the shift in culture, politics, and power that is accompanying the shift in demographics
The nation’s capital has changed since 1994, when Washington journalists Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood wrote their book Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. A New York Times review of the book described the city as being plagued by “thieving real-estate operators and bureaucrats, corrupt police, Congressional overlords who for too long governed the city as Ole Massa once ruled his Southern plantation, a black aristocracy too proud of its light skin and long lineage to mix with the ‘Bamas’ — sharecroppers and their children who thronged into the city in their great postwar migration out of the South.”
While I’m sure that some might dispute this description, my own experience in D.C. resonates with the journalists’ depiction of the capital city’s stratification.
Changing Times in the City
Yet these days, things have changed in the “chocolate city,” according to Tavernise’s interviewees, which include Sherwood. Tavernise writes:
The shift is passing without much debate, but it is leaving ripples of resentment in neighborhoods across the city, pitting some of the city’s long-term residents, often African-American, against affluent newcomers, most of whom are white, over issues as mundane as church parking and chicken wings. ‘You can’t help but look around and see the face of the community changing before your eyes,’ said Tom Sherwood. . . . He added, ‘That can be an uncomfortable feeling, and you’re going to have some people acting out, expressing their concern in racial code words.’”
At a recent neighborhood council meeting, a potential ban on the sale of chicken wings in a 7-Eleven was debated. The white majority argued that “the bones attract rats and choke dogs.” The city has seen similar moves to restrict hair salons from development assistance. As these foods and cultural institutions are signs and spaces of the black counter-public, some residents see these moves as “attempts to erase the traditional character of the neighborhood.” “‘I want to have a voice. . . . I don’t want to be told to ‘sit down and shut up while we cast the vision for the city,’” says Rev. Cheryl J. Sanders.
In my humble estimation, gentrification is the most important issue facing marginalized people of color in many cities across the nation. For those involved in urban missions or working with urban populations, gentrification is going to change how their work is done and how resources to do that work should be allocated.
These changes in the urban landscape point us toward the critical issues of geography, community, and politics at stake in gentrification. In his book The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, Murray Foreman points out hip-hop culture’s fluid signification of the terms “ghetto,” “inner-city,” and “the ’hood,” and how these spaces, both real and imaginary, are used to define individual and collective identity. However, the importance of the hood in the city both precedes and transcends hip-hop.
A Racial "Code Word"
For three years now, I have been attending an urban men's ministry meeting in the south end of Seattle, where less than half of the men present are non-white. While my definition of the term “urban” and the communion table is ecumenical and elastic enough to embrace all inhabitants of the city, “urban” is often deployed to define our ministries for supporters interested in helping marginalized populations in our cities. Gentrification and displacement should cause us to reexamine this practice. We have to think critically about how we have used “urban” as a racial code word, discuss how we can preserve the diversity of our cities, and finally, examine exactly what we mean when we say “urban ministries” in an era in which we’re witnessing a transient urban minority population.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend talks and discuss this issue with a few folks who have been thinking deeply about the crisis of gentrification. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem Is Nowhere, came to Seattle in the spring for a One Pot event. We had a chance to sit down and talk at the Sorrento the next day. Her website captures the inspiration of her work:
At a crucial moment in Harlem’s history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem’s legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America’s democracy.
This past summer, Professor Kristen Haring, sister of the late Keith Haring, sent an email in response to my comments about the sloppy and often racially coded use of the term “urban” in SPU’s Response magazine. Kristen stated:
I teach a year-long world history course called Technology and Civilization. Ultimately (though it may not always be apparent to the students), this is about people living in cities; etymologically, that is what we mean by "civilization," and city life also has a lot to do with the various technological systems that developed in the last three millennia, at least those we still value today. So I'm not satisfied with any connotation of "urban" that means a particular class or ethnicity or culture of people, because the exciting human endeavor of cities, what makes them at once complicated and innovative, is that they are diverse.
Kristen ended with a list of provocative questions and led me to a recent review of books by Nicolas Leman in The New Yorker.
In my thinking, the city itself has developed into a modern technology in which social, political, educational, and economic resources are concentrated. Thus, the homogenization of the city is going to have profound implications for those on the margins.
Those in urban missions are going to have to think more critically and deploy proactive strategies to retain diversity and minister to the poor as we face the ongoing displacement of the communities we serve. Our inquiries into the meaning of justice in the midst of gentrification must be informed by intentional grounding in the history of restrictive housing covenants in the city.
As we have noted in the past with the issue of mass incarceration, injustice takes place right under our noses. Before it’s too late, our city leaders should seriously consider initiating a conversation about preserving diversity in Seattle as well. At the end of June, KUOW’s Steve Kerr hosted a program on the issue called Gentrification: The Good and the Bad. Although Seattle’s former mayor Norm Rice was present, the show didn’t include any of our local politicians, community/cultural activists, or folks in urban missions. While the participants provided important insights into the historical process of gentrification in Seattle, it’s time for those who want to fight inequity to enter the conversation.
Max Hunter, Ph.D., is the Perkins Center teaching fellow, and has been with the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University since 2008.
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