El Blog

Gentefied

Responding to my latest piece on gentrification in my native Logan Square, Sergio C. Muñoz, host of the monthly podcast Intelatin, wonders if historically working-class Latino neighborhoods can be developed from within by the long-time residents living there:

In this scenario, it seems like we do not have the (potential) income to compete with the grandkid of the flighter. And it seems that the political body, represented by Rahm, seems to be content with accepting the highest bidder at the expense of ‘us.’ If this is the case, the only option we have is to move elsewhere less geographically desirable, right? But, if we do so, there must be a moment when we might control the less geographically desirable space and have the ability to make it ours by our own metrics. This typically becomes the domain of the strivers who whilst they look like us, they clearly do not have our wellness interests in mind. Question: Do you know of any redevelopment initiatives nationwide that have ever led to (our version of) wellness as opposed to dislocation and continued disadvantage?

It’s the ultimate question, isn’t it? As working-class, mostly Latino communities stare down the barrel of removal, their defenders wonder what can be done to resurrect neighborhoods like Logan Square and Pilsen from the inside — by the long-time residents, for the long-time residents — rather than from the outside. After all, surely the people of Logan Square and Pilsen have wanted to see fancy new restaurants, cafés, boutiques and farmers markets in their neighborhoods since the day they arrived. Who doesn’t wish those things for their community, especially when they originate from within the community itself? So the question is, and what Sergio seems to ask indirectly: why, after living in their neighborhoods for decades now, haven’t the residents initiated such development already?

First you must remember that the Humboldt Park/Logan Square and Pilsen/Little Village areas were once home to predominantly white European communities. Beginning in the 1950s, urban renewal projects in the Near West Side and the Near North Side scattered the blacks and Latinos residents would lived in those areas since the years immediately following the First World War, forcing many to move west and venture into Humboldt Park and Pilsen. As city planners steamrolled westward, blacks and Latinos kept fleeing westward as well. They had nowhere else to run, since the wealthy white North Side was off-limits and well out of their price range, and Latino racism toward blacks made the South Side a concrete island. And heading east in the “City by the Lake” was never an option. The influx of dispossessed Latinos into Humboldt Park and Pilsen in turn led many of the long-time white residents in their paths to move even further west into Cicero and Berywn on the Southwest Side or Irving Park and Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side. Those who could afford to segregate themselves even more moved into the newly colonized suburbs. In Humboldt Park specifically, the once Jewish and Italian homeowners became absentee slumlords, renting busted buildings to Puerto Rican families who’d just been forced out of “La Clark” and Lincoln Park to make way for — what else? — white money. Much the same occurred in Pilsen, and around the same time too, when Czech and Polish residents started emptying their homes to get as far away as they could from anyone speaking Spanish.

In her 2012 study, Brown in the Windy City, Professor Lilia Fernández explains why whites chose to leave their long-time neighborhoods once displaced blacks and Latinos began appearing:

“Some white residents [of Pilsen] insisted that their opposition to encroaching Mexicans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans was not racial but rather economic. One business owner, a pharmacist named ‘Mr. B–‘ who had moved to the suburb of Berwyn twenty years prior, explained in 1969 that ‘Europeans aren’t prejudiced against Blacks or Mexicans, but they’ve been in business for years and people come to the neighborhood, change it, and property values deteriorate about half.’ The pharmacist framed white residents’ decisions to leave the neighborhood in very pragmatic terms: racial minorities simply portend economic decline. The pharmacist’s complaints about newcomers and their negative impact, however, belied the positive effect they had on his business: he spoke Spanish in order to attract the growing Spanish-speaking clientele that frequented his pharmacy. Mr. B. was happy to do business with Spanish-speaking customers; he just did not want them as his neighbors. …

“Rising tax rates, declining property values, shifting employment markets, and growing crime motivated many to give up on the city and move to the racially exclusive and more peaceful suburbs. Sinking home values and the changing economy, however, were not directly caused by the influx of racial minorities; they were the result of racially biased banking practices, Democratic machine corruption, patronage that favored politically powerful neighborhoods of others, and industrial flight. [How little Chicago has changed since!] Yet like African Americans, Mexican and Spanish-speaking residents embodied a social difference that became conflated with negative economic trends. Quite to the contrary, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans did not precipitate deindustrialization; they bore its consequences.”

Understanding the history of these communities and how they came to be is fundamental to understanding their present dilemmas and, potentially, divining their future ones. If we realize, and if we can face the fact, that city planners designated places like Pilsen and Humboldt Park as “dumping grounds for relocated families” (as the Chicago Urban League put it), focusing nearly all of the city’s resources and attention on the whiter, richer communities, then it should surprise no one that those “dumping grounds” remained so for decades, and only experiencing development once members of the whiter, richer communities began showing an interest in them. Believing that the Latino residents of Pilsen and Humboldt Park have had in their power to improve their neighborhoods themselves assumes those residents have had the power to shape their own economic destinies at all, a notion which defies all we know about the segregationist history of Chicago’s development policies. Before the gentrifiers showed up, Logan Square and Pilsen were blighted areas not because Latinos are lazy or lack the entrepreneurial spirit. (They’re the exact opposite, in fact.) City hall has yet to allow the Latino residents of Logan Square and Pilsen to develop their communities because the residents have been predominately Latino. (As a professor once told my class, “according to the U.S. government, the problem with Puerto Rico is that there are too many Puerto Ricans.”) Only now that the demographics of Logan Square and Pilsen have begun to change, as more and more whites move in, do we see the restaurants, cafés, boutiques and condos.

Black people are shielded from white dollars by their own blackness; they’re also kept from white dollars by the same blackness.

A person would have to be a fool to pretend gentrification isn’t a racial issue. Race and class — race and opportunity, race and urban development, race and bank loans — are so bonded together in the United States, that to discuss one is to almost directly speak of the other. When someone says a neighborhood like Pilsen or Logan Square is gentrifying, they always mean that white newcomers with money are pushing out working-class blacks and Latinos without any. Many may view the words “White people out of Pilsen!” scrawled on a new 18th Street café as a sign of “reverse racism” against whites, but the term “white people” has a specific meaning in a place like Pilsen. There are plenty of Latino residents in those communities with white skin, after all. So the “white” in “white people” must mean something more than skin deep, something closer to the wallet.

Plus whites aren’t the only gentrifiers. Latinos often get the wrecking ball rolling in their own communities, a process which has come to be known as “gentefication.” As Gary Dauphin, an L.A.-based writer, detailed in a 2010 article titled “Shades of Gentrification“:

“The vast majority of conversations about gentrification in this country are a literal kind of ghost story, ritualized tales where stylized embodiments of demographic good and evil play out their appointed roles in predetermined scripts. These dramas always begin in the hardscrabble idyll of monolithic, once-upon-a-time ‘hoods, lurch through zero-sum economic warfare where white gain goes hand-in-hand with colored/working-class loss and invariably end in bohemian elegy, pale-faced victors compelled by guilt to speak for the dead, the erased, the evicted. In such a vision, the unique texture of, say Oakwood, is lost. Before Oakwood could become the site of ‘gentrification’ many say it is today, it transited through other stages not typically part of the standard white/non-white two-step, phases where black middle class and black working class people faced off in their own internecine and often inconclusive encounters.”

Every Latino reader in Pilsen knows exactly what gentefication is, even if this is their first time laying eyes on the word. Before Bow Truss brewed its first macchiato on the west side of Ashland in August 2014, the Mexican-owned La Catrina Cafe had been attracting hipsters of all shades to the east end of 18th Street. To be fair, La Catrina was merely chasing a trend that began a decade earlier. A few steps away from La Catrina sits Simone’s, a self-described “green-friendly” bar that’s been a hit among Pilsen’s Millennial cohort since opening its doors in 2009. And then there’s Gozamos itself, which launched in March 2010. Few if any of the senior editors and writers can be described as working-class, and by doing our best to spread the word about the regular events and programs we organized at our former space on 19th and Carpenter, we too added wood to the fires of gentrification. We at Gozamos knew we were gentefiers, and no matter how uneasy it has made us feel, we knew our gentefication inadvertently inspired more gentrification to the very community we were trying preserve.

It isn’t a Latinas fault if her trendy, Mexican-centric café becomes so popular among long-time Latino residents that outsiders, well-meaning and otherwise, begin showing up to find out what other treasures her community holds — and which treasures they can buy, destroy, or build on top of. Any successful bar, club, restaurant or artistic showcase in a Latino neighborhood is bound to attract people from other neighborhoods and even the suburbs. In fact, attracting outsiders is the agreed upon mark of success in a city like Chicago. If you build it, and it’s great, they will most definitely come.

Except if you’re black. The reality is black communities aren’t threatened by gentrification to same degree as Latino communities. If you need to know why that is, then I need to know how long you’ve been in this country and what planet you’re visiting from. Latinos are a racialized minority, which is college talk for “non-white according to white people.” And even though most people — Latinos and non-Latinos alike — perceive Latinos as a “brown” race, it’s no secret white people would much rather visit, move and invest in a brown neighborhood than a black one. Black people are shielded from white dollars by their own blackness; they’re also kept from white dollars by the same blackness (the gift that keeps on cursing). Thus, the blacker the neighborhood, the less likely it is to be gentrified. “We refer to it in the paper as ‘white avoidance,'” writes Robert Sampson, a Harvard researcher:

“[Gentrifiers are] not moving into neighborhoods where there are lots of black people. In Chicago, the [neighborhoods] that are gentrifying are the ones where there was a white working class, or Latinos, but not many blacks. …

“[There’s a] perception that predominantly black neighborhoods are higher-crime, more disorderly. And that’s feeding into which neighborhoods — among poor neighborhoods — are being gentrified.”

So Latinos are screwed either way, and screwed especially. Whether they gentefy, enlivening the milieu of their communities with their own restaurants, bars and artistic spaces, which then attract outsiders and, with them, white money; or they do nothing, allowing their neighborhoods to remain neglected and underdeveloped, which will also attract white money looking to make a profit on seemingly (to the outsiders) unused land — either way, the gentrifiers are coming, and they’re going to change everything to their liking.

White privilege, if it means anything, means white people can move into any neighborhood, kick out the long-time residents, open businesses, erect condominiums, and do whatever the hell they please. Most white gentrifiers probably don’t see themselves as gentrifiers, just as Latino gentefiers don’t realize they’re heralding the beginning of the end of much of what they hold dear. Were they alive today, Lewis and Clark would have us believe they were merely exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, with Sacagawea explaining she was only their gentle guide and translator, but their expedition from the Mississippi to the Pacific led the way for waves of white settlers that crushed countless Native American tribes and destroyed ways of life which had been maintained over thousands of years — all in the name of Manifest Destiny. The conquistadors and settlers believed they were spreading civilization and God’s salvation across a savage land; the gentrifiers say they’re bringing urban renewal to blighted areas. It’s all the same in the end, because the road to displacement is paved with good intentions.

Unless, of course, the settlers are never allowed to arrive. If institutional racism teaches each of us that race equals class, that white skin bestows privilege, and if whites prefer to gentrify Latino neighborhoods because they’re seen as safer and more malleable than black neighborhoods, then it’s clear to me that what Latinos in gentrifying neighborhoods must do is be less safe and less malleable. Regrettable as it is, I’ll admit, until the border between race and class is no longer blurred, the border between white neighborhoods and non-white neighborhood must be made crystal clear.

 

Featured image: Manjonni/Flickr

Share this! (You know you want to.)

Got something to say? Say it loud!