At least that’s what I found out recently, when I spoke to a longtime area resident who informed me that “the damn hipsters came in and ruined everything.”
He didn’t consider me an invader, even though I moved into the neighborhood just two years ago. I presume my Latino status prevents me from being one of those evil hipsters (well, that and the fact that my iPod doesn’t have a single Belle & Sebastian song on it).
Still, I was surprised to hear that my neighborhood used to have a golden age of authenticity. You see, I have a friend who grew up in my neighborhood, and he said that when he was a kid, “it was nothing but junkies and porno theaters.”
So has gentrification ruined my neighborhood or saved it? For that matter, how does an area get gentrified in the first place?
Well, the term refers to an “influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” In essence, a humble, or even seedy area transforms from someplace that upscale people avoid to a neighborhood that they covet.
In theory, only white people can gentrify a place. Their motivation is either a sincere desire to improve a neighborhood, an insidious drive to ethnically cleanse an area, a misguided attempt to go slumming, or a simple craving for cheap rent – depending on whom you ask.
Many traditionally Latino neighborhoods have become gentrified in recent years. This is problematic for Hispanic residents who have built lives in these neighborhoods, only to be forced out by skyrocketing rents. In gentrification’s final stages, your local pupuseria becomes a Starbucks.
However, people who slam gentrification sometimes glamorize a neighborhood’s character. To such individuals, graffiti and crumbling buildings are not signs of blight. They are symbols of “authenticity.”
Hence, conflict erupts between those who want to sanitize and even anesthetize a neighborhood, and those who want to keep things unchanged, even if the place is a grimy dive.
But is this a false choice? Are our only options to either let urban areas dissolve into squalid pits, or to morph into rows of Disneyfied coffee shops?
Surely, just a modicum of urban planning can help preserve a neighborhood’s character while improving the quality of life for people who live there. To engage in black-or-white thinking (an American pastime) is to believe all newcomers are out to destroy a neighborhood, or that longtime residents are ignorant savages who must be saved.
It doesn’t have to be a war. Putting aside our prejudices and suspicions of other people’s motivations is the key to resolving the issues that gentrification creates. But then again, ditching our prejudices and suspicions is always good advice.
In any case, when I moved into my neighborhood two years ago, I thought it was a beautiful place. I still think that, and all the invading hipsters in the world haven’t changed my mind.