Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gentrification in Highland Park

It’s the subtext of many community meetings; the Lexus XL in the room. Sometimes the accusation is direct: “It’s all the new people moving here who are creating parking problems”. Its indirect form usually begins, “Well, in the 20/15/50/10 /60 years I’ve been here, I’ve never/always/sometimes…” But the message is not only about commitment or dedication to a neighborhood, it’s the expression of fear – fear of new things, fear of change, fear of gentrification.

There. I wrote it. But the G-word is rarely, if ever, uttered in meetings and I’m not sure why. It could be out of civility or from an understanding of how volatile a discussion of gentrification could be.
What bothers me is that I, as a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, am probably considered by the Old Guard to be gentry. (pause on my part for belly shaking laughter). The criteria for this assessment? That I’m new, that I’m white, and that I bought here after the era of stunning affordability that a neighborhood this beautiful, historic, diverse, and in such close proximity to downtown provided. Although my house was a good deal, it was no longer a steal.

Steal. Gentry. Gentry steals. They steal history, they steal community, they steal property and and increase property values forcing the folks whose families lived through disinvestment, neglect, arson, and urban blight to move away. This is the fear – some of it based in the reality of dislocation experienced by people when the South End was gentrified.

I am not gentry. I’m proud of my blue collar roots although I’d like to rise above the tedious restraints of its income levels. And I tend to be ultra sensitive to the fears of the Old Guard. Maybe too sensitive.
At one recent meeting, the usually quiet Lexus in the room revved its engine. An Old Guard member insinuated the G-word when she argued that “In the 24 years I’ve lived here…”

A New Guard retort from a very active community member brought her up short. “Does my opinion count less cause I’ve only been here two years?”
Old Guard, New Guard, black, white, rich, poor – there’s really only one Guard: a combined community effort to guard the humanity of the people in the neighborhood with respect for both the wisdom of the people who have been here a long time as well as the energy and insights brought by newcomers.

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