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I met anti-gentrification activist Angel Luna, a subject of WORLD Magazine’s recent article on gentrification, at a local doughnut shop chain in Boyle Heights. A white man founded the doughnut empire, now the largest doughnut shop chain on the West Coast. But in the sugar-dusted store in Boyle Heights, the servers dishing out apple fritters and Boston creams were Latino, the customers were Latino, and the soap opera playing on a corner television set was from Mexico.
Outside, supermarkets, check-cashing agencies, and pharmacies all had Spanish signs and Spanish-speaking employees. Ice cream shops in the neighborhood sell flavors such as guayaba (guava) and tamarindo (tamarind), street vendors hawk raspados (shaved ice) and agua frescas (fruit drinks), and photo centers offer special deals for Latina coming-of-age quinceañera celebrations. At night, the air smells of grilled meats and jingles with Mexican pop music. It is, as one Mexican-American resident described it, “Little Mexico.”
That’s a characteristic of his neighborhood that Luna is fighting to preserve. Although Boyle Heights was once one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Los Angeles, it’s now predominantly Mexican-American, with families rooted here for generations. Luna acknowledges some of the problems in his hometown—gang violence, domestic abuse, poor education—but he also paints an idyllic picture: “This is a community where you can walk down the streets and see people who look like you, who share similar backgrounds and experiences. Your friends go to the same high school together. It’s a very beautiful feeling to have a neighborhood like this in 2017.”
Now gentrification—a term referring to the arrival of wealthier people into an existing urban district—is looming in Boyle Heights in the form of new amenities such as art galleries and coffee shops. Gentrification, Luna says, will change everything: It “directly attacks” the most vulnerable and poor through increased rents and erodes the long-existing culture and character of the neighborhood. That’s why Luna’s anti-gentrification coalition Defend Boyle Heights and other groups are protesting incoming art spaces and coffee shops.
Anti-gentrification activists recognize the need for neighborhood redevelopment, but emphasize that any changes must derive from the community itself, bottom-up. They observe that in most cases when gentrification and displacement take place, low-income residents typically are the “losers,” while middle-class homeowners and newcomers “win” from the inflow of fancier businesses, refurbished housing, and street beautification.
Can neighborhood revitalization happen in which everyone in the community benefits from much-needed investment in safer streets, better infrastructure, and higher-wage jobs?
But must gentrification always erupt as a class and racial conflict of winners and losers? Can “ethical” gentrification occur? Can neighborhood revitalization happen in which everyone in the community benefits from much-needed investment in safer streets, better infrastructure, and higher-wage jobs?
Luna says no. “There is no such thing as ‘ethical’ gentrification,” he told me. “Just like we don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘ethical’ colonialism, imperialism, or deportation.”
But Robert Lupton, a long-time community developer in inner-city Atlanta, says gentrification with justice is possible—it just requires a lot of heart and vision.
Lupton is the founder of Focused Communities Strategies (FCS), a community development nonprofit that invests in under-resourced neighborhoods. Through FCS, Lupton has helped create affordable housing for hundreds of families, and has helped start small businesses and diversify neighborhoods into mixed-income and multiracial communities.
Lupton himself could be labeled a gentrifier. In 1981, Lupton and his wife Peggy sold their dream home in a beautiful Atlanta suburb for a $5,000 burned-down boarding house in Grant Park, at that time a poverty-stricken, crime-infested neighborhood south of Atlanta.
The move was intentional: Lupton felt that in order to truly make a difference in inner-city Atlanta, he had to live in it. The Luptons enrolled their sons in a public elementary school so they could be actively involved in the local education system. Peggy Lupton spent hours tutoring other students and assisting in the classrooms. The Luptons, who are white, befriended neighbors in their mostly black community, invited them over for dinner, and recruited teams of volunteers to help rebuild homes for poor families.
Gentrification done well, Lupton said, should “be a blessing to everyone”—better schools, better sidewalks, better food options and prices. That kind of neighborhood revamping requires “a transfusion of fresh blood” with more spending power—typically young professionals—to expand the tax base, fix up old homes, attract businesses, and insist on better public systems.
Lupton says gentrification with justice occurs only as part of a mixed-income redevelopment strategy that protects the interests of low-income residents and includes them in the planning and implementation process and in the ongoing life of the neighborhood. Without the voices of the poor heard, the benefits of community development tilt toward the prosperous. A low-income neighborhood shifts into a middle-class and upper-class neighborhood instead of a mixed-income one.
Ever-shifting economic and social forces mean that neighborhood changes are inevitable: It’s just a matter of when and how. Lupton likens opposition against gentrification to holding back a rising tide: “It’s just coming. It’s happening in every city across the country. So the idea of resisting it is a very short-sighted strategy. The more fruitful strategy is to harness it—how to harness gentrification for the shared benefit of everyone in the community?”
Even anti-gentrification demonstrators acknowledge that gentrification is inevitable. But that doesn’t stop them from resisting it. As Luna told me at the doughnut shop, “This is a fight for our lives, and it’ll continue throughout our lives.”