Letís talk a little bit about gentrification.
Several months ago, my girlfriend and I bought a house. Since the day we moved in, weíve been struggling with our rear neighbors and the 10 or 12 stray cats that they refuse to stop feeding. After the latest encounter, there were two revelations made that continue to gnaw at me. First, they actually implied that maybe we wouldnít have a problem if my girlfriend werenít an American-born Latina. Second, and more disturbingly, they made it clear that the reason we arenít welcome in our community because weíre not poor Mexicans.
Say what? If my girlfriend were born abroad, then all would be well? Evidently, she and our neighbors would share some mystical Latin connection and everything would by sympatico. The neighbors would feel some sense of personal responsibility about how their behavior affected us. Well, surprise! My girlfriend wasnít born here. She didnít move to America until her teen years. Guess that throws a wrench in the works.
As for me, this is apparently news to some people, but you donít have to have brown skin to be disenfranchised. I grew up in poverty. I used food stamps, ate government cheese and got free hot lunch, just like tons of other poor white, brown, yellow, red and black kids. I started school at Del Pueblo Elementary, where our school song was in Spanish and the building was painted with Mayan and Aztec art. My best friends last names were Candelaria and Perez. But more importantly, what does the color of my skin or the size of my paycheck have to do with being an understanding neighbor or a decent member of the community? Because I want to improve my street, I must, by default, be an ignorant, well-off white guy thatís trying to drive people out of their neighborhood? Iím oppressing people by painting over graffiti (on my own house, mind you) and picking up trash and human feces from the street? Sorry, but I call bullshit on that mentality.
I donít see anyone harassing the Historic Filipinotown Improvement Association about being an engine of gentrification. Nor my Mexican neighbor to the north, with whom the rear neighbors have been sharing complaints. Which is interesting, because itís not Neighbor Bís long-term stomping grounds either. They bought their house and moved here the same month we did. They also spent quite a bit more money on that house than we did on ours. They followed up that pricey house purchase with a brand new car three months later and a giant RV parked outside. Obviously, when I ask that they not have an open bonfire and bone-rattlingly loud music in their front yard until 3AM on Christmas Eve, or that they not allow their four dogs to bark non-stop between 5 and 7AM every day, Iím not just asking them to be considerate neighbors. No. Iím doing my best to drive out those hard-working poor natives so us rich people can come in and take it all for ourselves. Fortunately for us, not everyone on the block shares the same narrow point of view. My problematic neighbors might be surprised to hear that weíve made friends with the man across the street, who has confided in us that heís glad he doesnít have to live next to the people that we do.
I feel bad that places like 33 1/3 have to struggle to find new ways to stay afloat and keep serving the community that theyíve championed for years, but affordable housing through ghettoization is not a solution to gentrification. Neither is racism, classism or intolerance, no matter which side it falls on. People have got to realize that when you spend a long time singing the praises of your community, eventually people are going to listen, and come. So where do you draw the line at whoís welcome? Can white people come, but only poor white people? What about Asians? East Indians?
Iím not claiming to have the answers to such involved problems, but I do think that pointing fingers and drawing artificial lines in the sand between those of us in the same community isnít doing us any favors. It is, however, doing big favors for the real villains: the developers, the slum lords, the Wal-Marts of the world. They want us to be too busy glaring at our neighbors through the fence to actually notice that giant conglomerates are running circles around our local politicians and driving small business out. Next time you want to bag on your neighbors, perhaps you should take a minute to stop and fully asses the honesty of what youíre about to say or do. Maybe you can redirect that energy into something that benefits your community instead of dividing it.