Grerp is back for a post on gentrification. The warfare by other means is alive and well in even the nice Midwest. Tribalism pops up in every realm.
Recently a website specializing in local news ran an opinion piece about the changes going on in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s west side, questioning whether what is happening is revitalization or gentrification. The author of the piece characterized one of these terms as a positive and the other as a negative, which made me frown. I can only assume that gentrification is the negative term, but I don’t view it as such. The fact is, gentrification is a code term for what in America is whites taking back urban spaces that for the past several decades have been occupied by blacks, latinos, and other ethnic groups.
The area in discussion here is not particularly high class. The west side of the city was settled by immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Furniture factories and the gypsum mines employed what were primarily Dutch and the Polish populations, although there were Irish, German, and Lithuanian immigrants too. There was an Irish Catholic church, a German Catholic church, a Lithuanian one, and at least three Polish ones. The Dutch were mostly reformed. They shared a similar standard of living, but the Dutch frowned on unionization or striking, and the others embraced it.
These groups worked together but lived separately. An anecdote I once read about a mailman who delivered in the Sacred Heart area in the 1920s mentioned the time he had to deliver a letter that went out to all of the families in the parish. He only skipped one house during his rounds that day. The neighborhoods were that segregated.
The housing on the west side of the city is not particularly fancy. It’s mostly plain wood-framed two story houses where large or multi-generation families lived. The yards are small. The streets have trees but no garages. Those are in the back allies. People walked to the factories. They walked to mass. They walked to the Polish halls after work or on the weekends to blow off steam. After World War I and then World War II, more housing was built, and that was fancier - brick bungalows and ranches with bigger yards, but most of the people still lived in the old neighborhoods. They weren’t fancy, but they were safe and people looked out for each other.
After the highways went through in the 1960s, the neighborhoods slowly died. Families headed for the suburbs, and eventually the ethnic composition changed from entirely white to some black and now significantly latino. The area around my church is mixed and poor. This church was built by Polish immigrants one-hundred years ago and is magnificent. Across the street, a man murdered his toddler a few summers ago. A block and a half away a prostitute had her nose bitten off at a house party. To say the area went downhill is not an exaggeration.
However, in the past decade Grand Rapids has experienced a resurrection of sorts, the opposite of what’s happened to many midwest Rust Belt cities. Business has diversified, the medical community has expanded, restaurants and breweries have cropped up everywhere, and, because of this, housing is now at a premium. There’s very little rental property on the market right now. The west side of the city has additional housing demand because Grand Valley State built another campus downtown, and those students need a place to live.
As a result, people are interested in the west side again. It’s adjacent to downtown and the houses there can be renovated without much difficulty and then rented or sold for a profit. Already many of the empty factories and schools have been renovated into apartments or condos. The houses are next.
Obviously, many of the locals are not happy about this. Renovated properties price them out of the market, and residents with condo budgets tend to be intolerant about getting their cars burgled. They begin to demand safer streets, more patrolling, and they get excited when they see new asphalt, pallets of construction materials, and delis with high priced sandwiches.
Whatever you want to call it, gentrification is a takeover. People - mostly white people - from the suburbs come in, buy and renovate properties and then sell or rent them to people with their values and lifestyles. These people are intolerant of crime. They don’t like trash in the streets or glass on the sidewalks. They want to be able to walk their dogs at night, and they like to stroll farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings. They’ll willingly pay more not to have to live in neighborhoods where people noses are bitten off at house parties.
The families that currently live in the neighborhood do not want to cede a single block to these invaders because they know they’ll be pushed out. Gentrifiers cannot come in and say, “This is a white neighborhood now,” or they will be fined or arrested, but they can buy up property and sell it at prices only the affluent can afford to pay. They don’t bother to do it in places without geographic advantage, but when a downtown has a new nightlife, the rules change. It’s very similar to what happened after desegregation. The government can make rules about what you can say and who you can choose to be with in the public sphere, but people find a way to maintain boundaries to they can be with their own kind. If they can’t make ethnic claims, they’ll make other ones. All over the world people control access to certain spaces with higher prices. It is what it is.
This is not the first takeover. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many of these neighborhoods began to be occupied by blacks and latinos, plenty of white families didn’t like it either, but no one cared what they thought. Here was property that other whites were selling or abandoning that could still make money, so if the character of the neighborhood changed, that was tough. The landlords’ interests trumped all. The story is merely playing in reverse now, with blacks and latinos unhappy and whites taking over (but feeling somewhat guilty about it).
The revelation of the last half decade for me has been: everything is tribal. Once you recognize that, things make so much more sense, including gentrification. It’s not personal, and yet it is. If you haven’t figured out who your tribe is, better hop to because all the other people? They definitely know and act accordingly.