“Gentrification” is one of those provocative terms that receives ample attention in the Black community. The mere mention of the word incites animated discussion and resentment among Black folk. And well it should, given the disruptive cultural impact it has on traditionally Black communities.
Typically however, we give far less attention to the damaging political and economic consequences that gentrification has upon Black communities throughout the United States. I argue that it is precisely these political and economic consequences – over and above the cultural concerns – that are far more damaging to Black people and they compel us to mount a collect strategy in response!
Wickipedia defines gentrification as:
A trend in urban neighborhoods, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses. This is a common and controversial topic in urban planning. It refers to shifts in an urban community lifestyle and an increasing share of wealthier residentss and/or businesses and increasing property values. Gentrification may be viewed as “correction” of blockbusting and urban flight, as many gentrified neighborhoods of the present were once affluent neighborhoods of the past.
Let’s examine the case of Harlem. Though not representative of all urban areas nationally, it is nonetheless instructive for our purposes. A 2010 New York Times article noted that by 2008, Blacks represented only 40% of the Harlem population, down from 98% just fifty years prior.
The increased white presence in Harlem is becoming more conspicuous (the white population in Central Harlem alone, increased five-fold between 2000 and 201o). Latinos however – in terms of population – represent the most significant demographic. They are both the fastest growing population, and they are currently the majority population in Central, East and West Harlem (the entire neigborhood).
This increased diversity (particularly that created by new white and middle class residents) arguably brings certain advantages. Some Harlem natives and long-time residents appreciate the chic bar lounges, national retail establishments and more desireable supermarkets now available. Some note that gentrification introduced safer and more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods and entertainment options.
These “gains” however, come with conficts in the forms of cultural displacement, white entitlement and Black disempowerment.
In 2008 for example, we learned of a growing feud between Black and recently relocated white residents in the neighborhood surrounding Marcus Garvey Park (formerly known as Mount Morris). For more than 30 years, brothers gathered at the park to play African drums every Saturday evening in the summer. Other musicians would join in followed by dancers.
This longtime tradition lent cultural “flavor” to the neighborhood and attracted appreciative residents from the surrounding area. By 2008 however, a wave of affluent white professionals bought newly erected condominium apartments at price tags of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Many of them began to make formal complaints to the police. Long tradition aside, the drumming disturbed their sleep, television viewing, and phone conversations, they argued. Ugly verbal exchanges sometimes ensued, and a racist email emerged from one resident of the residential building which read in part:
Why don’t we just get nooses for everyone of those lowlifes and hang them from a tree? They’re used to that kind of treatment anyway!”
There are also stories of new white residents treating longtime Black Harlem residents like outsiders: “Looking for someone?” Can I help you?” “Do you live here?”
These are important considerations. However the conflicts stemming from gentrification go far beyond the transformation of Harlem’s cultural landscape or annoying feelings of white arrogance. When a traditionally Black working class neighborhood loses 30%-50% of it”s Black population and simultaneously experiences a significant increase of Latino and white residents:
- The business infrastructure changes to meet new cultural demands and sensibilities.
- Traditional Black “Mom and Pop” stores gradually disappear due to changung consumer tastes/preferences and increasingly unaffordable leases due to increased property value.
- Larger corporate retail chains emerge, often with little empathy or incentive to hire longtime Black residents who ironically comprise their largest and most loyal consumer base.
- Corporate interests begin building upscale commercial properties (condominiums, retail business spaces) to attract and satisfy middle class and affluent white residents and consumers. Black people who have been residents for multiple generations are forced to relocate due to escalating housing costs and scarce affordable housing.
- Whites and corporate interests hostile or indifferent to the Black poor and working class, begin to dominate seats on trustee boards, community boards, parent associations and school boards, which redirects community conversations, priorities and resources in ways that hurt Black residents.
- As whites and (in this case) Latinos grow in number and influence while Blacks decrease, Black residents find themselves excluded from pivotal conversations, and with reduced access to property and power and decision-making in their neighborhoods.
- Shifting demographics change traditional public school populations as well, which results in altered educational and hiring priorities. In this process, Black students and families become increasingly “invisible” and our unique needs and issues are neglected.
- Gentrification directly affects Black political power. Formerly all-Black or predominately Black areas allowed Congressmen like Adam Clayton Powell to take strong political stands and write empowering legislation. Blacks formed powerful voting blocks in days past. A committed Black community board member, councilmember or representative derrived great power from representing majority Black districts or councils. This is near impossible when neighborhoods become significantly “multicultural,” because hundreds of various and often competing economic, educational and cultural interests compete for scarce resources and attention.
“Gentrification” therefore is more than a trendy word. It is more than just a Harlem occurrence. It represents more than population shifts and cultural conflicts or changes. It involves issues of property ownership, housing, political voice/representation and municipal priorities.
In summary, the gentrification of Black communities (as it currently manifests) represents the political, economic and cultural fragmentation of Black people, Black culture and Black power. No more, no less.
This being the case, how do we as Black people collectively respond to this challenge?
We must reject the multicultural trap entirely. Respect and appreciation for other peoole/cultures is fine. But always we must think of ourselves as a Black collective or dormant nation and operate in that manner with respect to economics, politics and education. We must teach and embody the principles of Black solidarity, self-determination, and Black power.
Failure to do this will leave us vulnerable and deprived compared to other “people of color” and white folk who advocate, advance and defend their unique interests without apology.
This implies that we form associations to buy property and create our own community cooperatives, and distribution networks. We can’t stop there. It is in our interest to identify businesses that overcharge, disrespect and mistreat us and boycott and picket them to draw attention to the issue and win some basic concessions. In addition, we should conduct a survey to determine how many Black folk have bank accounts and the amount of money we have in tied up in banks.
We should then launch a campaign to withdraw our money unless these banks begin lending business loans to Black people. Naturally, these efforts must be combined with campaigns to build our own credit unions and banks. We must take our communities back culturally, economically and politically and we need large infusions of capital to create the institutions needed to do so.
Politically, we must create community organizations, coalitions and initiatives that identify, advocate for and create the outcomes we desire.
We also must begin to join and exert influence on school boards, community boards, city councils other local political sites of power. This is no different from how whites, Arabs, certain Asians and Latinos operate in our neighborhoods. Because they take advantage of such opportunities, they have access to information and resources we do not. Because they work as a collective, they generate power and influence.
This is no time for illusions or sentimental politics. This is no time for us to fear being seen as “reverse racist.” The people currently running our communities do not have such hang ups. Simply observe who owns the grocery stores, laundries, dry cleaners, hair salons, barbershops, banks, supermarkets, eateries and other businesses in your community.
Notice the people that work in those establishments. But don’t stop there. Take note of the contractors and construction workers in our neighborhoods.
Look at the movers and shakers on your community boards, in your schools and who sit on trustee boards. Who runs the nonprofits? Who do they serve and employ? Listen closely to the issues they discuss, decisions they make and the people they impact. Observe the people that are landlords, “supers” and custodians in your apartment buildings.
Who are the principals, superintendents, guidance counselors, public librarians, etc.
Who opens and profits from the franchises popping up around you? How many Black people do these establishments employ? How many businesses are Black-owned? Who owns the homes? Who runs the realty companies? Where is the affordable housing?
Who works in the community centers, and what populations are served? What people in your neighborhood have access to resources and support, and who runs these programs?
After completing this research, let us have a conversation about who in fact controls and “owns” our neighborhoods and who works together to empower themselves and advocate for their interests! Like them, we must support those who support us and withdraw support from those who do not!
Wake up Black people! Gentrification is simply another form and name for the continuing agenda to keep us powerless, pitiful and penniless.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.