Gentrification Nation

The word gentrification spray painted on a wall; the full image says As a budding young animator living in a small northern city, freshly divorced and with a reinvigoration to live that can only come from years of spousal depression and exile to an aging, dying city along Pennsylvania’s shores along Lake Erie, I found myself introduced to a wonderful-to-pronounce little word: gentrification.

Nevermind that at the time I thought the word was regentrification, I was gun-ho on trying to get my little town of Erie to hop on the train. In my mind, gentrification brought to mind starving artists, poor young hipsters and liberal hippies looking to make an impact moving into run down neighborhoods only to plant trees, paint fences, mend bridges, etc. I saw the process as being natural to the evolution of human progress. A city neighborhood begins to deteriorate over time for whatever reason, and it can either remain a dying piece of tatter or be reborn into a new neighborhood. I’d heard of and seen for myself this happening in Pittsburgh’s South Side, what was once a crusty edge of town full of bars was being reborn as a haven for tattooed artists and youthful hopefuls who came in and contributed until — what is now the present but for the timeframe of my story would have been a few years into the future — it bloomed into the modern day beautiful neighborhood that it is.

Neighborhoods came alive to me, living and breathing as a collective of their residents, and could be “fixed” if ill, simply in need of a hot shower and a bowl of soup. When I later moved to Pittsburgh I saw it happening all around, but most prevalently in the midst of my own neighborhood between Shadyside and East Liberty. But more on that later.

Recently I’ve heard the word gentrification used in a much different light. There seems to be a belief amongst many poor, often predominantly black, communities that this is not a natural process of neighborhoods, but a master plan by those in power who are eager to grab land to displace them from their own communities. That the government and developers are intentionally forcing them out to build high rise lofts and whatever else the upper upper middle class would find itself desiring. Gentrification is no longer a beautiful evolution of a city as a living thing, but just another stain of our modern society where every decision greater than tossing a frisbee around with your dog is a plot by some insidious secret alliance to run our daily lives as their will would have us submit.

I can’t say that I don’t see it, “their” point. The conspiratists who might be seen as only a few clicks away from UFO abductees or those who believe they’re actually vampires even though they bought the teeth themselves. But even as I see homegrown murals coloring the sides of old warehouses and grassroots efforts to get more parks and gardens and playgrounds into these areas, I see the lofts, the high end stores, the endless parking lots all filling in the spaces around the local businesses, almost like they’re circling them in an effort to keep any natural neighborhood traffic in while diverting any outside traffic from ever reaching the neighborhood itself.

On the other hand, there were concerns that the continued efforts to “revitalize” East Liberty, if it indeed even needed revitalizing, would more or less mean expanding Shadyside — along with its high end boutiques, salons and clientelle — into East Liberty, effectively eliminating the local businesses and the locals along with them. Even with Shadyside’s nod to diversity not seen in every Pittsburgh neighborhood, likely thanks to it’s population of CMU students and employees – it’s still fairly easy to distinguish someone from this side of the tracks from that; light skin here, dark skin there. Whatever that means to you, I can tell you that from my personal experience venturing through both neighborhoods on a daily basis, I see as many East Liberty residents wandering into Shadyside as I do the other way around. Fears of the Shadysidese pushing out East Libertarians seem largely unfounded. A year ago, South Highland Street — the primary connection between Shadyside, East Liberty and their half-breed, contrived East Side neighborhood (which is actually just a shopping mall) — was visited mostly by people reflecting it’s stores: high-priced restaurants, furniture and antique stores. Now you can see a very healthy mix of urban lifestyles; young black girls pushing their babies around in strollers are given way by beer guzzling frat boys sitting next to those of a more baggy pant and gold tooth persuasion. The Highlander Pub in particular is a great example of blending the two neighborhoods.

Cross the tracks, though, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a fair-skinned Shadysider farther north than the bus stop across from Whole Foods. What this all means on housing costs, redevelopment and the like I have no idea; crunching numbers and believing you’ve got the whole final figure in that area is better left to the conspiracy theorists and conspirators. All I know is what I can see on the street, and it’s a beautiful picture at this point. Let’s just hope that the conspiracy theorists are as unfounded as the conspirators they speak of are devious.

For some more input on “The Plan”, that is the grand scheme to drive poor locals out of their neighborhoods in favor of buying up the land for the richer possibilities, have a listen to this podcast from This American Life.

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