The Irony of Gentrification

Photo by Darwin Bell
Photo by Darwin Bell

Recently I have dreamed about becoming extremely rich. I would buy a vacation house in Hampton Beach, Long Island and I don’t even have a great wish to visit that part of New York. I’m from California and I don’t understand exactly what the fuss is about. I wouldn’t have thought about it if I hadn’t watched an episode of True Life: Social Climbing in The Hampton’s on Long Island. I thought it might be funny being a black girl with untamed natural hair walking around the streets, showing up at parties, etc. Then I thought: “Who would buy a house ironically?” Immediately  I realized, white people do things like that all the time. Hipsters buy houses in the hood. Gentrification is ironic.

My neighborhood was something that brought me shame growing up. I went to a private elementary and middle school. Most of my friends’ houses were in nice upper-middle and upper class neighborhoods while I lived in a small house surrounded by the projects of West Oakland. My heart would start pounding at an accelerated rate at the prospect of my friends visiting. One time my soccer team had to practice at the field around the corner from my house. The team was very unhappy with the conditions, not up to par with what we normally practiced on. A transaction between a prostitute and her client took place around thirty feet from where we were running our drills. I tried to convince my friends that it wasn’t that bad, but they disagreed.

Another instance when my neighborhood impacted my self-image was my tenth birthday at the Port of Oakland. I invited all the girls from my grade and most of them showed up. We played games, ate food, and I got plenty of gifts. Rain was predicted that weekend but I ignored the forecast. Sure enough, on the day, it started raining. We decided to transport the party back to my house, which was not far away. I was riding in my aunt’s car with my grandmother and a few other girls. As we reached my neighborhood, one of the girls commented that it was cleaner than she expected. My grandmother retorted, “What?You think black folks can’t be clean?” My aunt hushed her and I brushed off the comment. I was embarrassed at what my grandmother had said to my ten-year old friend. But my grandmother was right, the girl didn’t think a poor neighborhood could be clean. She probably thought my house would be worse.

In the aftermath of WWII, people experienced a newfound prosperity and they began to buy houses outside of the city. These became the “suburbs.” Housing practices in our country allowed segregation – to keep these new neighborhoods white. Housing in America is a form of segregation and over the years, white people begin to move into neighborhoods that were predominately black. This means property values increase and neighborhoods supposedly become more safe. Theoretically, life in these neighborhoods would improve. The truth is that black people (along with other minorities and poor people) get pushed out and are forced to move away. This causes the population in cities and suburbs to change drastically. White people move into cities. Black people, in turn, move out to the suburbs. When white people decide that they want to move back to the suburbs they buy out properties and black people end up back in the cities. This is gentrification; the physical displacement of people who can no longer afford their homes and it continues the housing segregation that some insist does not exist.

I don’t have a problem with white people moving into my neighborhood. My problem is with the people moving in who obviously don’t care about the neighborhood. They don’t care that people are forced out of their homes or the only reason that the neighborhood is “safer” is because there are now police patrolling the streets to protect them and not the people who have lived there for years. They want to seem cool by living in the new trendy neighborhood. My parents were terrified for my brothers and I leaving the house at certain times or sleeping with our heads facing certain sides of our house. Yet when the white people move in, they get to parade around because the law protects them. And gentrifiers are then praised for making the neighborhood safer when the neighborhood actually no longer exists.

Little did I know that I was living in one of the most trendy neighborhoods in Oakland. What I thought was an embarrassment for most of my life, twenty and thirty something white liberals thought of as an accomplishment. That is what is hilarious about this whole situation. I grew up embarrassed of where I lived. Most of the people originally on my block moved away. The property value of my dad’s house has gone up. I see multiple cop cars each day I’m home so I guess the neighborhood is safer now. Thank goodness for white people. For the price of a house, they get this neighborhood they can show to their friends with pride and be pegged as trend setters.

Oh, irony.

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