Diversifying Gentrification

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Is gentrification only actualized by whiteness? Not anymore.

Bronzeville, a black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, began gentrifying about a decade ago.  At that point, boarded-up homes started undergoing construction, public housing projects transformed into high-rises, and property values began to soar. While the socio-economic status of the neighborhood changed drastically, the racial demographics remained the same- black.

When folks refer to gentrification, they imply that a place has been gradually taken from one group and claimed by another. Ordinarily, the “taken from” refers to low-income people of color, and the “taken by” refers to upper-middle class white folks.

In contrast, the gentrification of Bronzeville follows a different model.  According to an article published in The Atlantic Cities, the gentrification does not necessitate displacement, but accommodates the upward mobility of its inhabitants. The residents of newly renovated property in this neighborhood are either lifelong residents that have achieved upward mobility, or former residents that have climbed the income ladder elsewhere and have returned to their old neighborhood.

Furthermore, the area has been deemed a “Black Metropolis,” serving as a haven for black culture and history. Bronzeville was the final destination for many black folks during the Great Migration, as well as home to many blues singers, including Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong. With such strong history, the community leaders want the neighborhood to become a quasi-tourist destination, where folks can consume black history and culture.

However, this aspiration hasn’t been achieved. The Atlantic Cities article attributes the lack of “ethnic consumption” to the space’s “historic ‘blackness’ … overwhelm[ing] any sense of its identity as a neighborhood on the way up.”  Bronzeville illustrates the arduousness of escaping cycles of racial stereotyping and, in turn, inequality. This unique species of gentrification in Bronzeville is as much about the upward mobility its lifelong residents as it is about the resistance white folks have about moving into a stereotypically black neighborhood.

Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly’s text, Gentrification, identifies similar patterns of change in New York City. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance transformed Harlem into a historical and cultural haven.  In the 1980s, Harlem was met with an influx of more affluent black folks who wanted to partake in the historical relevance of the space.  As a result, racial divides did not emerge, but class divides did.  The emergence of upper-middle class black folks “paved the way for accelerated gentrification by the wealthier, white middle class that followed…” While the same trends have not manifested in Bronzeville yet, the probability that they will in the future is quite high.

The gentrification of black neighborhoods by wealthier black residents is quite complex.  The issue calls into question notions of ethnic consumption and appropriation of black culture. While the article acknowledges that these Bronzeville gentrifiers are current or former residents that have achieved upward mobility, it does not illuminate the displacement of those that have not achieved similar economic success.   As gentrification continues to run rampant in Chicago as well as New York City,  it is necessary to preserve the affordability of neighborhoods while dismantling pervasive, racist perceptions.

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