Gentrification. WTF?

We hear a lot these days from all kinds of folks who are upset about “gentrification” in our City.

Currently some people are associating the term gentrification with the development proposed by Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) in the Takoma Junction as reason to kill the project. It’s clear that those employing this tactic don’t understand the terminology or are misusing it. So the question arises, what do we mean by gentrification? And why doesn’t it fit the situation under review by the Takoma Park City Council?

British sociologist, Ruth Glass, first used the term in a 1964 study on the occasion of middle class people moving into London working class neighborhoods. These days gentrification is almost always used as a pejorative in the context of poor Black folks being priced out of their own neighborhood due to rising rents. 

The web’s Urban Dictionary cites a colorful quote to illustrate one idea about gentrification:

“When uppity white people move into a ghetto and take over the real estate, which f**ks over the current residents. Usually followed by the opening of a sh*t ton of Starbucks, Nordstroms and Whole Foods.” 

The fact is gentrification refers to one thing: the displacement of lower income people by higher income people. Gentrification or displacement is not perforce a negative thing. It may or may not involve the displacement of racial minorities. 

Gentrification is essentially about neighborhood change. When lower wealth people face rising rents, it’s indeed unfortunate. But it also happens in reverse. Take Langley Park as an example. Today it’s home to one of the largest immigrant neighborhoods in the Greater Baltimore-Washington area. Langley Park was developed, according to Wikipedia, post WWII and became a middle class, predominantly “European-American, Jewish residents.” 

When we moved into our Ward 6 home 32 years ago, there was a Safeway supermarket (closed in 2009), a McCrory’s variety store, a Lerners women’s clothing store (later known as New York & Co.) and an aquarium store where Starbucks is now. Across University Blvd Langley Park S.C. had the Langley movie theater, a major chain grocery store, and a Hot Shoppes (Marriott-owned) sit-down restaurant that was replaced by a Taco Bell. There was a popular Hanover Fabrics shop. 

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Langley Plaza on the other side of N.H. Ave. opened in 1955 with a 3-story Lansburgh’s Department Store that closed in 1973 (per Wikipedia) followed in turn by EJ Korvettes, K-Mart and Toys R Us. Other big spots were a People’s Drugstore and Giant Food (closed in 1998). 

Today most of the businesses (numbering probably 300 to 400) around the intersection of NH Ave and University Blvd serve the Latino population and other immigrant groups such as from Haiti, Africa and South Asia. These enterprises simply reflect the modern demographics of Langley Park. 

The point is, Langley Park changed. No one has complained. Thus to the chagrin of Takoma Park residents, what was once a popular place to shop disappeared over a period of 30 to 40 years. Was this de-gentrification?

But, of course, history tells us it will change again. Why? Because the area sits well inside the Beltway within the hot Washington DC real estate market and it is, by any measure, one of the largest underdeveloped commercial real estate districts so close to the DC core. When this happens — and it will take many years — I expect there may well be concerns about the displacement of the residents and the businesses that rely upon them. 

Another example, one unfamiliar to most readers, is the Remington-Hampden-Charles Village area near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Last week my wife Nancy and I were in Baltimore visiting old haunts. Two neighborhoods quite familiar to me are Remington and Hampden (pronounced “hamden”) lie south and west of the JHU campus. In the 70s and 80s, these were ironclad white, working class, rowhouse neighborhoods. (In Baltimore, the term of art is rowhouse, not townhouse.) Blacks were not especially welcomed there. The storefronts were drab, rundown and many were empty.

In 1970 my ex and I bought a house in a nearby mixed-race area that had just anointed itself “Charles Village,” paying $6,500 for a 3-story, 6-bedroom, porch-front rowhouse that had been vacant for several years. The roof leaked to the first floor. It had almost no electrical power; gas lamps lit the interior. No bank would provide a mortgage. We saw ourselves as pioneer rehab-ers. In modern parlance, we were gentrifiers. 

The neighborhood public schools my sons attended were about 90% minority (today about 80%). The local middle school was Robert Poole, virtually all white, in Remington. Parents in Charles Village were terrified of having to send their children to Robert Poole where they might  be beaten up and bullied. As an activist I knew all these things. I was president of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation that, with the help of JHU, organized and provided social services to these neighborhoods.

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Remington’s new signature sculpture

48 years later these areas have become gentrified in a positive way. Remington and Hampden are now mixed (about 75% Caucasian). Many houses have been renovated and remain extremely affordable running $150 to $350 thousand. In Charles Village, which is majority minority, they are a bit higher. The two K-8 public schools represent a multiplicity of nationalities. There’s been an explosion of new small businesses and eateries, some really notable. Check out “R House” in Remington and Cafe Hon in Hampden. Unlike the old days, these communities are cosmopolitan and interesting.

The key message here is these areas have kept their physical character and affordability, but underneath their social character and spirit have been transformed. What some people call gentrification, I call renaissance. 

Let’s get back to Takoma Junction. The proposed NDC development has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called gentrification or even for that matter, racial equity. I know what racial equity means. As part of the previous City Council I strongly endorsed the unanimous vote to view all City Council actions through the racial equity lens.

NDC’s project will not displace anybody. The site is a parking lot. Will the cost of housing in the City go up? Yes, certainly. But not because of this project. The cost of housing will go up the same if no improvements were to be made to the site. Housing costs are a function of where we live, and the powerful DC economy that is driving up prices everywhere in the greater Washington and Baltimore region. Compared to the recently built and planned developments near the Takoma Metro, this is a very small project. Skeptics feel the project will change the face of Takoma Park. It won’t. 

Will racial minorities be affected by this project? Yes, in a good way. The project will provide new, local jobs in Takoma Park, many of them basic service jobs. The project’s 2-year construction phase will create lots of much sought after construction jobs. NDC itself is a minority-owned local development company.

Will the local retailers and offices that occupy the new structure be too chi-chi for racial minorities to shop there? I don’t know; no one knows yet. I do know this: no one raised a hue & cry about racial equity when the higher-priced Republic Restaurant opened a few years ago. Strangely, however, some folks did scream & holler in opposition when the affordable Taco Bell opened last summer providing about 50 low wage jobs for area residents. How does that compute?

Finally, in my time on the City Council I heard a fair number of people say the Co-op was a main reason they moved here. So, it seems supremely ironic that many of those who rally around the dreaded issue of “gentrification” in reference to NDC’s proposed site plan are not only white and middle class, but also often vigorous supporters of the TPSS Food Co-op, whose products appeal to those having a distinct preference for organic (whatever that means) foods and the disposable income to afford to shop there. I realize that some shop there for other reasons such as proximity and the spirit of neighborliness. But, if the Co-op doesn’t represent a quintessential attraction to the so-called gentrified types, I don’t know what does. 

Let’s lay to rest non-sensical assertions about gentrification and racial equity. RENAISSANCE is what is happening to Takoma Junction.

For more information on the subject of gentrification, I recommend this 2015 article in Governing magazine: http://www.governing.com/topics/urban/gov-gentrification-definition-series.html

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