Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The "G" Word

Alongside “hipster,” “carpetbagger,” and “urban planner,” it is a dirty word in New Orleans right now: gentrification. It is a complex term and it brings up myriad issues that relate to changes in local land use policy. But unfortunately, endless inarticulate complaints about the concept have rendered the word almost without meaning within our local vernacular. Nowadays, when I hear or read the g-word, it takes a moment not to dismiss the author wholesale the way I did when loud but inarticulate Tea Partiers spent years falling all over themselves in confusing the terms “fascist,” “communist,” and “socialist” to describe the President; or when loud but inarticulate gun nuts brandish the term “unconstitutional” in relation to firearms regulations because they refuse to read the Supreme Court’s Heller decision.

Words have actual meaning, and the g-word has one too. That is true no matter how many of our local self-styled progressive activists would like to define the term as “stuff we don’t like.” But if you’re one of those who use that definition of the word, all you’re doing is confusing the issue and promoting the false choices that are sure to undermine your own position. Because once you’ve successfully confused the g-word with the concept of “neighborhood revitalization,” you’re going to lose hearts, minds, and any chance you had to stop the things you don’t like from happening. If you aren’t careful, you end up talking yourself into a rhetorical corner in support of blighted properties and crack houses.

If you aren’t careful, you become one of these incoherent professional liberals who complain about how “white flight” eroded the property tax base in your city, contributed to economic decline, deteriorated your housing stock, and wrecked the schools; who then turns around to gripe about how bad it is for the children of suburbia to move back into the city, participate in the economy, renovate houses, and raise property values.

Moving away from such incoherence, gentrification is an actual thing that has actually been studied by actual people who have proposed actual solutions to the actual problems gentrification creates. What the term actually describes are the market dynamics that affect real estate and land use in an area where the value of property is increasing due to a localized demographic change caused by the ingress of a more affluent population (usually) coupled with the egress of the less affluent population that already lived in the area. The negative connotation of the term comes from the very real problems usually experienced by that less affluent population as the demographic change occurs.

Therein lies the rhetorical catch where complaining about “gentrification” is about as effective as complaining about “rain.” There are a variety of specific problems varying in scope and degree that may or may not come along with either when they happen in your neighborhood. Do you get too much “rain,” and the streets end up flooding? Or do you get too little “rain” and the plants are all dying? That distinction matters. If you aren’t specific about what type of “rain” you’re complaining about, or the specific problems and solutions associated with that rain, you may find yourself paying for improved drainage infrastructure you don’t need because you live in the middle of a desert.

People can’t read your mind. That’s why when you hear anyone ask “what about gentrification?” the most appropriate response is, in fact, “what ABOUT gentrification?” The time for generalizations has passed. We know we’re looking at gentrification in New Orleans, but we can’t win a “war on gentrification” any more than we can win a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror.” Things don’t work that way, no matter how many high-fives you get at the community meeting for “sticking it to the man.”

If you really want to address the actual problems caused by actual gentrification in your city, the first thing you do is identify the specific problems you’re looking to address. Then, you have to articulate those actual problems in a more accessible way than sweeping general statements. After that, you have to explore actual solutions to those problems based on conditions on the ground and the realities present where you live. Finally, you can begin to advocate for specific solutions to alleviate demonstrated and well-articulated problems facing your city. Because gentrification is real, it is taking place in New Orleans, and it is time the local conversation moved past simply complaining about it.

Some places to start:

Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices

Health Effects of Gentrification

In the Face of Gentrification: Case Studies of Local Efforts to Mitigate Displacement

Tired of looking at gentrification studies from San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.?

Perhaps there is another Southern port city with historic housing stock, traditional neighborhoods, and recent economic developments that might be a driving force behind gentrification at the local level? Maybe such a city has already started looking at just the issues facing New Orleans today? Maybe they've been doing it for some timeDo you think any place like that exists, or do you want to keep comparing New Orleans to Houston and Atlanta?

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