Gentrification and the African American Community
Author’s note: After taking a hiatus for about nearly 7 months to run for city council, it is good to be back lifting my voice and sharing my truth. As a candidate who had not been on a ballot since 1993, it was intriguing to see how much the city of Atlanta has changed, but how much it remains the same. My council race, according to many, was significant because it encompassed areas where such developments as the Mercedes Benz Stadium, the Westside Beltline, and new public and private investments in Vine City and English Ave. (the Bluff) on the west side of the city are occurring at a rapid pace.
Based on the current rate of development and speculation, we will witness within a 5-year span, a radical transformation of population, commercial and public amenities, and a huge shift in the body politic, not just on the historic west side of Atlanta but in the city as a whole. The chocolate city is undergoing a metamorphosis from chocolate to vanilla before our very eyes. Black Atlanta is experiencing gentrification unlike it has ever seen. Leaders are at a loss as to what to do about it, whether to slow it down or speed it up. The black bourgeoisie is conflicted and confused.
About 25 years ago in Atlanta we watched with astonishment as Kirkwood, then a dangerous and impoverished neighborhood, change into one of the most affluent and trendy neighborhoods in the city. The once predominately black neighborhood within a decade had become mostly white with coffee houses, boutiques, and million dollar homes sprinkled throughout. This phenomenon, like a cyclone, then swept through East Atlanta, Old Fourth Ward, Reynolds Town and elsewhere.
Now it is at the foot of the area that gave birth to the modern day civil rights movement. This area’s most visible and busy intersection is Martin Luther King Dr. and Joseph E. Lowery Blvd. Old West Hunter Street, (now MLK Dr.) at one time was one of two bustling black commercial districts in a segregated town proclaimed to be too busy to hate. Now Atlanta is changing into something that resembles the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn rather than the heart of King’s beloved community.
Along with the benefits of gentrification are evils: displacement, rising property values, sometimes to a degree that many legacy residents lose their homes to high taxes; and a colossal loss of history. High taxes particularly affect senior citizens and others on fixed incomes. The stories of how neighborhoods formed, evolved, and contributed to the rich fabric of our city is worth telling, preserving, and honoring by all who call these neighborhoods home.
For many African Americans, especially those 50 or older, there exists an historical reason gentrification is difficult for them to embrace—or reject.
First, they remember a time in America when Blacks could not live in certain neighborhoods. It took fair housing policies and laws to breakdown this practice. Later, when African Americans were allowed to move into segregated white neighborhoods, Whites responded by moving farther away to the suburbs and exurbs. Along with this white flight went services and resources upon which the community depended. Now that African Americans can live wherever they can afford, it would be hypocritical for them to say that, based on race, Whites should not move into historically black neighborhoods. In a free society residents live wherever they please.
Another problem for older and younger black homeowners is gentrification creates a classic conflict of interest. The conflict resides in the fact that when Whites move into historical black communities, property values often skyrocket, doubling, tripling or sometimes quadrupling. Since homeownership is one of the main methods of wealth accumulation for African Americans, it is contrary to their financial interests not to want the appreciation in home values that accompanies gentrification.
Further, gentrification often brings with it other investments such as restaurants, shops, parks, and other community facilities like YMCAs. These amenities are highly desirable by all, including black homeowners. Black middle class homeowners, who have not escaped to the suburbs to distance themselves from the ills of inner-city living, welcome these quality of life amenities that precede or follow gentrification.
Finally, deep within the psyches of many African Americans are feelings of guilt for not being able to elevate the black communities where they have remained for generations before Whites discovered the new frontiers of in-town living. Many black home owners have made significant improvements to their homes, yet still they have not seen the light of day for their efforts and investments insofar as community development is concerned. Now that whites are moving into once black neighborhoods, property values are escalating, new shops and restaurants are cropping up everywhere. Enhancements in infrastructure closely follows.
The irony in all of this is many African Americans followed the suburban trend; they left cities and properties once owned by their ancestors resulting in a loss of wealth and a shift of power to the majority population. Even sadder, many African Americans cannot afford to return to neighborhoods they once inhabited because they cannot afford the cost of the homes.
Oops! There goes the neighborhood.