Friday, July 20, 2018

Report on WPFW Town Hall on Gentrification

WPFW hosted a remarkable town hall, which brought together such interesting people and wonderful hosts. The concrete focus of the town hall was about a development planned for Takoma Junction, but the discussion expanded from this focus to include gentrification, displacement, and development more broadly. You can watch the town hall here.
WPFW Town Hall, High School Student Emily Kombe speaking.
Here is my report on some of the main issues that came up:

1) Definition of Gentrification.
There was a great interest in having some clear definitions. Here a composite definition:
Gentrification is the influx of capital (business and housing investments) and new middle-/upper-income residents (the 'gentry') into disinvested urban neighborhoods. 
According to this definition, gentrification depends on previous disinvestment in order for investors to make money and depends on disinvestment in other parts of the city in order to concentrate investment funds. Gentrification is part of a broader restructuring of cities for a new middle/upper income class, transforming low-status neighborhoods into upper-middle-class playgrounds, thus it is a kind of class conflict. Gentrification involves both physical and cultural/symbolic displacement, so that people may be made to feel displaced even if they still in the neighborhood. Finally, as many social scientists have discovered through interviews with those displaced, displacement is devastating and terrifying (See Atkinson's "Losing One's Place: Narratives of Neighborhood Change, Market Injustice and Symbolic Displacement")

2) Commercial Gentrification.
Gentrification can also happen to businesses. At the town hall, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, Andy Shallal, reported that his K St branch had recently been gentrified out because the rent had been raised 30% (the branch is moving across the street to a lower-rent building). The owner of Bikram Yoga in Takoma Park and elsewhere, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, also said that she had been gentrified out because another business bought her building. Shallal complained that all the new restaurants and developments "look identical" and are making DC look like everywhere else. Jane Jacobs called these new developments "the great blight of dullness." These developments, like the proposed Takoma Junction, signal to investors and potential new residents that Takoma Park is ready for more investments, but they do not necessarily provide much for low-income residents. Such gentrification can also crowd out businesses catering to working-class residents.

3) Does economic development necessarily cause gentrification and displacement? 
No, not necessarily. In the late 1970s, DC Mayor Marion Barry sought to transform DC into a cooperative city. He brought in Cornbread Givens, who had a vision of a city-wide cooperative system of producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, housing cooperatives, and community cooperatives that would use the profits from the other cooperatives to provide services (health clinics, schools, etc). Here is a discussion of his vision (see from p. 71). This cooperative system would keep profits in the District and collectively owned by District residents. I highly recommend UDC professor Amanda Huron's new book, Carving out the Commons, which also captures this alternative economic development alive in DC today. Takoma Park is in a wonderful position for this kind of economic development because it has the amazing TPSS Co-op.

One of the town hall participants, Sue Katz Miller, had earlier talked on WPFW and called for another kind of transformational economic development that might bring people together without having to buy things. Sociologists have found that the plans for mixed-income development do not result in the social mixing assumed by them. Places such as retail businesses, cafes, and restaurants are not conducive to such mixing, but schools and rec centers are better for such mixing.

4) Put renters first! 
Georgetown University sociology professor Brian McCabe has shown in his book No Place like Home that homeowners often physically and symbolically keep renters out of their neighborhoods and out of public discussions. Renters are often seen as not committed to the community. McCabe finds that civic and political engagement is driven much more by residential stability -- living more than 5 years in a community -- than by whether or not one owns a home. Takoma Park is majority renters, so renters should drive the discussion, since homeowners have had their say.

Well, there was so much more talked about by such inspiring people (including the amazing Emily Kombe, high school student in Takoma Park, and the TPSS workers)!

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