Across the United States, we are witnessing an enormous shift in the socioeconomic framework of a number of major cities. Simply put, as rent prices continue to rise, the rich are moving in and the poor are moving out.
As Newsweek notes, when people are forced farther from the city centers, they find themselves dealing with higher crime rates, longer commutes and fewer amenities. Their quality of life drops exponentially.
Yet, as Salon highlights, the current minimum wage just isn’t enough to cover the costs of living in places like NYC, where a living wage is $22.32. Thus, most people have no choice in the matter.
It’s a process commonly referred to as gentrification, and it is apparent that it is drastically changing the culture of America’s cities.
At present, a wide number of Millennials are graduating from college and moving to cities instead of back to the suburbs that they likely came from.
Individuals with college educations are more likely to be able to afford the increased costs of rent in cities, meaning that individuals lacking the same level of education are being forced out.
Given the high costs of education in the United States, this essentially means that only a certain class of people are moving into America’s cities.
In essence, the astronomical gap in wealth that currently plagues the US, and much of the globe for that matter, is changing the very fabric of America’s urban centers.
As the Washington Post highlights, Census data shows that in 1980 a college graduate typically earned about 38 percent more than an individual who only possessed a high-school diploma.
By 2011 that gap had widened to 73 percent. This has led to the “geographic segregation” of America’s workers on the basis of level of education:
This effectively means that college graduates in America aren’t simply gaining access to higher wages. They’re gaining access to high-cost cities like New York or San Francisco that offer so much more than good jobs: more restaurants, better schools, less crime, even cleaner air.
This is a very delicate and contentious topic, and one that requires a great deal of tact to discuss. My favorite comedian, Dave Chappelle, perhaps explains it best.
In this clip from one of his stand-up routines, he describes the transformations that Washington DC has gone through over the course of the past two decades or so (Go to the 49 second mark.):
Indeed, gentrification is intricately tied to issues of race in the United States.
With that said, gentrification is not wholly about race, it is also about income and other socioeconomic factors.
As Next City notes in an article on this topic, it is impossible to deny the convoluted relationship between race and class in the United States, but they should not be confused as the same thing.
For example, as the article highlights:
Washington, D.C. has seen an influx of middle-class black residents whose presence has changed the economic landscape of certain traditionally low-income neighborhoods — or, to put it another way, black gentrifiers… Which isn't to say that gentrification is wholly about socioeconomic status to the exclusion of race, either…
In essence, this is a very complex issue, and one that cannot be completely explained by either race or socioeconomic status. Understanding and analyzing gentrification necessitates remaining cognizant of that fact.
Similarly, as Shani O. Hilton notes in an article on gentrification and race in Washington DC, the word “gentrifier” should not be viewed synonymously with “white person.”
As she highlights, “… Most poor people in this country are white (though it's definitely a numbers game; whites are still less likely to be poor than blacks and Latinos — there are just more of them).”
Likewise, as Hilton goes on to say, gentrifiers are inherently privileged people. They are well educated, have an extensive network of friends and the resources to help them achieve their goals.
I was born and grew up in the Washington DC area, primarily in Prince Georges County, Maryland, but also within the city itself. Accordingly, I have witnessed the process of gentrification in many parts of the city.
At one point, Columbia Heights was a DC neighborhood that I would never have stepped foot in due to crime rates. Ten years later, I was living there in a group house with other young people, but not without certain trepidations.
I never thought I would see the day where young women with yoga mats would be skipping down 14th Street NW, but it happened and it’s continuing to.
Thus, when I moved to Columbia Heights, I worried that I was contributing to the degradation of a rich culture and history that has defined the neighborhood for decades. Basically, I didn’t want to be just another yuppie that moved to the hood and thought it was the cool thing to do.
As a young white male with a college education, I am the epitome of privileged, and I feel strongly that I must remain aware of that. Without remaining conscious of our privileges, we risk extending the marginalization of the less fortunate.
Yet, I also knew that I wasn’t alone in my choice of move. Many other recent college graduates do not want to join the ranks of Millennials that have moved back in with their parents after college.
Hence, in order to afford the high costs of rent in many areas across major cities like DC, they have chosen to live in recently revamped neighborhoods like Columbia Heights.
There are simply more job opportunities for Millennials in cities. Furthermore, as Millennials make up 40 percent of the employed in the United States, it’s no surprise that they have opted to move to urban areas.
Moreover, gentrification is not unique to Washington DC, NYC and San Francisco, it’s a nationwide problem that is linked intimately to the history of this country.
In the United States, minority groups experience much higher rates of poverty than whites. This is tied directly the history of racism in the US. Systematically and historically, it has been much easier for white people to experience upward mobility.
Hence, when more white faces show up in historically black neighborhoods, and rent prices have gone up in tandem, many people simply assume that gentrification is fundamentally linked to race.
At the same, this is an incomplete analysis. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes for the Atlantic, “Whenever we talk about gentrification it really is a good idea not simply to understand who’s coming and who’s going, but precisely when the coming and going happened.”
For example, the current perception in Washington DC might be that white people have taken over African-American neighborhoods as a consequence of gentrification.
Yet, Coates notes that African-Americans have been leaving the city far before the arrival of “hipsters, interlopers, and white people in general.”
In 1970, the black population of DC was just over half a million. Today, it is somewhere around 350,000. White people were also beginning to leave around that time, but not as quickly.
As Coates goes on to say, they only started to return in the 90s, while African-Americans have continued to leave at relatively the same rate. It is also notable that African-Americans still comprise the largest ethnic group in DC by far, despite perceptions that white people are forcing them out.
Therefore, gentrification is an extraordinarily complex issue that cannot be explained or defined by any single factor. If people are truly disheartened by the current trends in America’s cities, they should make a greater effort to pressure politicians to address poverty across the nation.
Yes, the impact of gentrification is extreme in some places, and deeply concerning. At the same time, it’s a product of a much larger problem; the plague of inequality.
Moreover, we have habitually and systematically avoided talking about class divisions in this society. Ergo, when people blame gentrification solely on race, this trend is perpetuated.
The powerful do not want to admit that poverty and inequality permeate the nation because it would require acknowledging the privilege that placed them in their positions. It would also require recognizing the fact that the United States often resembles an oligarchy more than a democracy.
As Gandhi once stated, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
Hence, it’s time that we stop telling ourselves lies about the impoverished. Fundamentally, we need to address the fact that we condemn the poor yet celebrate the rich, or we will never progress as a society.
What kind of society do we live in if we ignore our most marginalized members? Accordingly, perhaps the debate surrounding gentrification will finally lead to the type of meaningful self-reflection that the United States desperately requires.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
As the president who saw the United States through the greatest economic calamity it has ever seen, we would do well to heed his advice.
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