What the Gentrification of Baltimore’s Chinatown Means

The remains of Baltimore’s once-thriving Chinatown are now so sparse that most who venture into the city might not realize it’s there. All but one Chinese restaurant along Park Avenue, the historic core of Chinatown, have closed, leaving behind deteriorating facades with the Eastern-architectural touches that have become synonymous with Chinatowns worldwide.

Yet after several decades of neglect, a renewed vibrancy has emerged: Many of the ornate facades have been supplemented with Ethiopian flags and Amharic lettering on storefront windows. A row of abandoned buildings is enveloped by a large mural of a Chinese dragon and an Ethiopian lion, signifying the neighborhood’s past and present communities. Over the course of a . “The Night Market proved that there could be something there that is more permanent.”

In January, the Collective made an agreement with an group of non-Asian developers who are planning a $30 million redevelopment of Chinatown. One of the developers, Vitruvius Co., plans to build an 80,000-square-foot apartment building on a vacant lot in the 400 block of Park Avenue, and with partners, has purchased nearby properties, some with existing historical buildings, for future projects. While a low-income housing shortage has led the state and city to commit to adding affordable units in Baltimore’s downtown, most of the units at the Vitruvius building will be market rate, with only 10 percent earmarked for affordable housing.

The Chinatown Collective’s partnership with the developers has drawn criticism from some who view the collaboration as an attempt to use the Chinatown brand as an engine of displacement, since, as part of its relationship with the developers, the Collective will consult on the design of the complex’s street-level shops and restaurants, ensuring that they hew to the neighborhood’s historical character.

“The ‘rebuilding’ of a Baltimore Chinatown would be an artificial attempt to conjure up some Orientalist exotic and Disneyfied fragment of what a true Chinatown community is,” said Andrew Leong, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies urban Chinatowns. As he views it, any attempt to rebuild Chinatown is inherently exclusionary of the Ethiopian community that currently exists. “The best way to honor what was Baltimore Chinatown is to allow for the growth, nurture, and protection of the current Ethiopian community. While there might remain certain markers of an earlier community, there might be now a new community that is worthy of fighting for its own existence.”

Stephanie Hsu, an organizer with the Chinatown Collective, doesn’t believe that the developments are negating the Ethiopian community’s claim to the space. She says that the ethnic transition of the area is in keeping with the history of Chinatowns: “The legacy of Chinatown is that they make space for more immigrant communities. We don’t like to say that Chinatown is dying or needs to be revitalized; there is very much an exciting commerce community that exists right now. Our effort to highlight the history of the space is by no means a statement of erasure of the community that exists there now.”

As to the Collective’s work with the developers, Hsu refused to define the relationship as consulting, saying that their role is only to ensure the project is in keeping with the Chinatown legacy. “We are not consulting. Consulting work would be if we got paid. What we are trying to do is find businesses that are culturally appropriate with the area.”

But Hsu also hopes that the Collective’s work will help to expand conversations about race in Baltimore. “The way we think about our place and our work here is largely in relation to the city: What does it mean to be not black and not white in a city that sees race in a very binary way?” she said. “I think it’s important to say that the conversations we hope to have are ones that … would add to the conversation and not detract from [it]. When we think about our future work in the city, what we are really thinking about is the sense of belonging, a sense of legacy in picking up where our elders left off.”

Since the development plans were announced, some of the Ethiopian business owners are feeling uneasy. Teklu is unsure how long his grocery store will be able to last. “When before, I first opened my store, the rent was $1,000; now it’s $1,200. Now I even hear that my landlord might sell the building.”

Yonis, a 29-year-old Ethiopian who owns a hookah lounge on Park Avenue, immigrated to Baltimore with his family when he was 16. He says he is proud of how the neighborhood has transformed in the past few years from a virtual ghost town to what it is today. However, Yonis can’t help but resent the recent development plans because as he sees it, it was his community that revived the neighborhood first. “Back in 2009, there was nothing here. You could not even walk out at night. We came through and opened businesses and fixed houses. So, I don’t know, but maybe now when they see what we have done they want to take it back and rebuild again.”

Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the Baltimore district that includes Chinatown, downplayed the worries about gentrification expressed by Ethiopian business owners, telling CityLab: “I can’t speak to that. There have been a number of Ethiopian business owners who have done some exciting things and I’m supportive of revitalizing the area. I’m going to be supportive of Ethiopian folks who are doing the work that they are doing and I’m also supportive of the work of the Chinatown Collective.”   

When asked whether he was concerned that the project includes so few affordable housing units, Costello replied: “It doesn’t concern me at all, considering there is a plethora of affordable housing that has been recently delivered or is in the hopper in that larger geographic area. We need mixed-income communities and that’s what we’re building in downtown’s west side.”

To critics, the entire redevelopment seems like an overt attempt to cash in on the Chinatown “experience.“ “The problem here is that Chinatown is being monetized for primarily affluent whites who want the authentic experience, and it’s a faux experience,” said Banks. “Most of the old buildings have been destroyed. God knows what they’re going to build, some kind of fake stuff, like a Chinatown gate?”

As Leong describes it: “Let’s string Chinese lanterns all over the street, and dragons to adorn the mailroom, and don’t forget the elevators could now have floor numbers in English and Chinese … how quaint and cultural. That will bring in all the hipsters and empty nesters since they, too, now can say that they are so cool that they are living in Chinatown.”

The gentrification happening in Baltimore’s Chinatown is not unique. Chinatowns across the country are under pressure from developers who exploit such neighborhoods’ rich cultural history as a marketing strategy, often resulting in the loss of either old or new communities. Yet, historians say, community support and strength were the elements that made Chinatowns so important in the fight against legalized anti-Asian racism and discrimination, and in the maintenance of Chinese immigrants’ beleaguered cultural heritage.

“The bottom line is that most gentrification battles taking place either in Chinatowns across the U.S. or other ethnic communities pits the developers, city hall, and gentrifiers on one side against the rights of those occupying that same space currently,” said Leong. “Food and music alone will not substitute for what was lost. Those two things are only superficial markers, since a true community speaks of and is defined by membership, belonging, and cultural celebration in all its forms.”

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CityLab Daily: How Go-Go Became Gentrification’s Kryptonite

What We’re Following

Power on: The showdown over go-go music and gentrification in D.C. is now local legend. In April, a resident tried to stop a neighboring store’s longstanding practice of blasting go-go music, the city’s native blend of funk. Thousands of people flooded the streets to turn the music back on, using the hashtag #DontMuteDC as a statement that black people would not be erased from Chocolate City.

That was one event that helped activists to see the music genre’s political potential. They also used the music-led movement in protests to protect a hospital and a high school that historically served D.C.’s black communities. As the D.C. Council moves to recognize go-go as the official music of the city, CityLab’s Brentin Mock documents how go-go is becoming a power source for a modern movement: Go-Go Is the Sound of Anti-Gentrification in D.C.

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How Go-Go Music Became Kryptonite for Gentrification in D.C.

On June 5, Washington, D.C. council member Kenyan McDuffie introduced the Go-Go Official Music of the District of Columbia Designation Act of 2019. Go-go is the heavily percussive music-culture begun by the inimitable musician Chuck Brown in the 1970s that quickly became the quintessential element of D.C.’s Chocolate City era, right alongside Ben’s Chili Bowl, mambo sauce, and Madness shirts. Why the district is just now officially recognizing it has everything to do with how it tried to bury the culture for decades due to a perception that it bred violence.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, D.C.’s city council passed curfew laws, levied heavy business property taxes, issued liquor board violations, and intensified law enforcement around go-go venues, which nearly eviscerated go-go culture from Washington’s landscape. But go-go stood its ground this past spring, when a resident of a luxury apartment building tried to stamp it out.

The story is already legend: In D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, Donald Campbell had been cranking go-go music from the speakers of his store at the corner of 7th and Florida Street since 1995, and it had been one of the few places one could still hear go-go in a public space in the city in recent years. But, in April, a tenant of a nearby luxury condo threatened to sue Campbell if he didn’t turn the music off. So Campbell let the streets decide, putting the call out to local media, social media, college networks—whoever would listen—that go-go was once again under attack.

The response: Thousands of people flooded Shaw’s streets and thousands more signed a petition (80,329 to be exact) demanding that Campbell be allowed to keep playing go-go at his corner, all done under the banner #Don’tMuteDC, which was to say “don’t mute—or erase—black people in D.C.” … which was to say, “don’t let gentrification have the final say.”  And it didn’t. Several forces converged—including the CEO of T-Mobile, which owns the Metro PCS cell phones and service Campbell sold at his store—to declare that “the music will go on,” which led to the condo tenant dropping the complaint and acquiescing to the will of the streets.

This was a win for go-go with a message for anyone working to declare it deceased: As T’Challa told Killmonger in the movie Black Panther: “I never yielded, and as you can see, I am not dead.”

Go-Go has undoubtedly been Chocolate City D.C.’s vibranium, the power source indigenous and exclusive to black Washingtonians, rarely shared with people outside of what the cultural critic Fred Moten calls “the undercommons.” However, in this holy war against gentrification, the culture’s leaders have decided that they are ready to share their power source with the world.

What that looks like: Go-go musicians and activists working on an oral history project with the Smithsonian, a Don’t Mute DC Call to Action Conference on November 16 that centered around using go-go culture to influence public policy, plans for a go-go museum, and the go-go bill introduced by McDuffie.

“Designating go-go the official music of the city signals to those who have been here and to those who continue to move here, that this music represents the lived experiences of native Washingtonians,” said McDuffie. “It codifies into law that go-go will never be muted in the District of Columbia.”

Howard professor Natalie Hopkinson, author of the 2012 book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, says that the legislation “can’t just be some symbolic thing,” but rather something that yields real material, intellectual, and financial outcomes. In a New York Times op-ed, she lists several ideas: a go-go culture archive, mandatory go-go curriculum in public schools—even a “Chuck Brown Endowed Chair in Digital and Cultural Studies” for one of D.C.’s local universities. Equally important, there has to be funding behind it, and a commitment from the council to fix what its policies broke in the culture, she says. It has to be reparations.  

“I feel like [ D.C. government] owes go-go after what they did, all the damage that the council has done, from the curfew laws to how the [Alcohol Beverage Control] board targeted businesses that supported go-go,” says Hopkinson. “I don’t want to limit what the ask is. I want to keep adding to the ask because I feel like there isn’t enough that they can do. In New Orleans, the music is not a secret, right? It’s integrated into its tourism and almost everything that they do. But here, go-go music has been criminalized.”

It wasn’t the Metro PCS protest event alone that led activists to realize go-go’s political potential. That was a critical moment, and one that launched the “Don’t Mute D.C.” hashtag, establishing it as a full movement. But another happening the following month helped show how powerful the movement had become when, in late May, go-go artists rallied in the streets again, this time to save the United Medical Center, the public hospital in southeast D.C. where most of the district’s lowest-income, African-American neighborhoods are concentrated. It is, in fact, the only general hospital in southeast D.C.

With the United Medical Center (UMC) hospital hampered by dwindling patient volume, nearly bankrupt, and suffering a scandal concerning a patient death, the district council proposed earlier this year to slash its funding to $15 million—far from the $40 million the hospital needed to stay open. The council has proposed permanently shutting the hospital down by 2023. But go-go activists, many of whom live in the often-marginalized “east of the river” neighborhoods where UMC stands and who had been born and treated at that hospital, mobilized in its defense.

On May 25, they held a daylong go-go concert rally in front of the hospital featuring artists and community members telling the crowds about the various ways the UMC served them and their family members. The Washington Post reported that only “two dozen demonstrators” turned out to discourage the council from slashing the hospital’s budget. It left out that, according to the organizers, several thousand demonstrators were at the May 25 rally to save UMC that was conducted under the banner of “Don’t Mute DC.” Ultimately the council members, some of whom appeared and spoke at the May 25 rally, voted to increase their budget allocation to $22.1 million dollars—still short of what UMC needed, but enough to give it a little breathing room.

Hopkinson, who helped organize the event, spoke to Ivory Logan, one of the disabled residents of the UMC, at the event. He expressed dismay that the district was prepared to essentially render him and hundreds of other disabled residents homeless by closing the hospital, saying that “for them [the council] a dollar is more important than a human life.”

“This used to be unheard of in district politics: That they would defund the only hospital in Southeast is completely unheard of,” says Hopkinson. “But even if we didn’t get the vote, the outpouring from the community and the sort of solidarity we saw—like we had the nurses giving these amazing speeches about trying to serve these patients and not having the resources to properly serve them. And the janitors and the patients came out. It was just a beautiful event.”

Hopkinson found out about the hospital crisis through her teenage daughter, who was helping lead her own protest action against the council to save her high school, Banneker—a storied school that also historically served D.C.’s black communities—from budget cuts. Go-Go artists included the “Save Banneker” cause in their rally in front of the hospital. The council ultimately voted to grant Banneker a new, expansive site, again, swayed in part by the go-go rallies. The proposed closure of the hospital and the budget slashes to the school were both part of a narrative that these were efforts to further “mute” or erase black D.C.

“The rally for the hospital and the possible school closings—this is something that has happened before in history where go-go was used as a primary vehicle for organizing and getting policy demands met,” says Ronald “Mo” Moten, a political fixture in the go-go arena who helped organize some of the rallies. “We’ve used it for peace marches and things of that nature, but I don’t think it’s ever been used to this magnitude where we got instant results. It put the world on notice.”

The “Don’t Mute D.C.” Call to Action Conference this past weekend was created to build off the political momentum from the efforts to save the UMC, Banneker High School, and go-go music itself, in the wake of the Metro PCS controversy. The participants brainstormed and planned around how to make the go-go legislation as effective as possible, and how to save black anchoring businesses and institutions from getting deleted by gentrification.

For his own efforts, Moten is working to purchase buildings in his neighborhood to preserve black businesses there including his own Check It Enterprises. Fellow D.C. activist Justin “Yaddya” Johnson produced a few of D.C.’s largest go-go gatherings this year, including the Million Moe March in September and the Moechella rally in May, which brought thousands of people to the historic 14th and U Street intersection, in front of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center after the Metro PCS controversy. Hopkinson has been conducting trainings with companies such as Google and Nextdoor to develop ways that new and indigenous residents can better get along as neighbors.

The trainings are part of the development of a project called “Communicating Across Cultures in a Changing City,” which will be a toolkit of sorts sent to other cities to help people manage gentrification in their communities. It will be released next year and is based in large part on Hopkinson’s experiences helping to politically mobilize the go-go community and her own research as a professor in Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies.

“Anybody can use this toolkit, but the thing about D.C. is that there are some universal themes that spring from, like, the conflict over the Metro PCS store,” says Hopkinson. “The very first video that we produced and the toolkit dealt with that directly, because it was just so on the nose for clashing black history and gentrification. Different people can look at the same corner and see different things. So the whole crux of it is that people coming from different cultural perspectives have different cultural lenses and also different ways of communicating.”

The collective “Don’t Mute” successes are already making impressions on places outside of D.C. In New Orleans this past summer, when word spread in about police harassment of black brass band player Eugene Grant, local music cognoscente Melissa “DJ Soul Sister” Weber rallied the brass band community together via social media to come to Grant’s defense. Grant was apprehended by police, based on a noise complaint, from his band playing on Frenchman Street, where many of the city’s jazz clubs are clustered. The rally led to Grant’s charges getting dropped. Weber made the call under the banner of “Don’t Mute NOLA” and cited D.C. as her inspiration. Organizers officially joined forces in September for a “DontMuteDC meets DontMuteNOLA” event in DC which featured a friendly battle of the bands between go-go and brass band performers.

“People initially thought it was just about being out in the streets, but people were coming together to address an issue that is affecting the whole world,” says Moten. “People are watching us and studying what happens to us here, so for us to stand up, that’s great because the whole world will try to do the same thing. If we were out here doing something crazy in the streets, then they would be focusing on how go-go is bringing the city down. But we are changing the whole lens on gentrification.”  

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How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

The term gentrification, as many urbanphiles know, was coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the influx of professionals into working-class areas of London. It is less well known that the backlash to gentrification in the United States began just a decade later.

In the mid-1970s, while the back-to-the-city spirit was still young, an early anti-gentrification counter-movement emerged. National organizations issued position papers; a Senate committee held hearings; HUD even came up with an official policy statement outlining limited interventions. And then, poof! HUD’s efforts all disappeared, until just a few years ago.

Even though they have been largely forgotten, the struggles with gentrification during the 1970s form a chapter in the history of urban transformation that has much to teach us. It has much to teach us because it has been forgotten. If policy leaders had taken some of the suggestions back then to heart, urban areas would be much better equipped to prevent the wholesale disruption we are seeing in superstar cities today.

It began in October 1973 with the Arab Oil Embargo, which made gas prices a national obsession. More expensive commutes, double-digit mortgage rates, and the growth of two-income households made city living more attractive to middle-income professionals. One survey in the mid-1970s by the Urban Land Institute found that three-quarters of large cities were experiencing “revitalization.”

Even Carla Hills, President Gerald Ford’s housing secretary, recognized the phenomenon. “Already some children of the generation that fled to the suburbs are returning to the cities,” she said at the 43rd Annual United States Conference of Mayors in Boston in July 1975. “Areas that were once heading for abandonment are now being restored by families no longer willing to bear the costs and inconveniences of suburban life.”

As gentrification caught on, a few prescient beings saw that there might be some ugly side effects. Chief among them was Conrad Weiler, a Temple University professor who became head of the Alliance for Neighborhood Government, an organization that lobbied on behalf of neighborhood associations. “It has been such an exhausting and overwhelming struggle to reverse the trend of urban decline,” Weiler told a Senate committee in 1977, “that we never dreamed that our success might generate even worse problems.”

A key ally, National Urban Coalition President M. Carl Holman, chimed in, “We’re all for constructive change. But we also believe that it should be possible to stabilize, conserve, and revitalize urban neighborhoods without dispossessing or dispersing all of the residents already in place.” At another hearing a few months later, a New York City housing activist named Robert Schur asserted that private reinvestment was wreaking as much havoc on African American communities as urban renewal had two decades earlier. “Short-term leaseholds are not renewed, statutory tenancies are terminated, and the poor, the minorities, and the elderly are forced to move,” he said.

These Cassandras faced several obstacles. Public interest groups had been battling redlining—the practice of banks refusing to make loans in non-white and inner-city neighborhoods—and saw reinvestment as an unimpeachable good. And then there were plenty of policy makers who simply pooh-poohed the idea that gentrification could become so big as to threaten the stability of urban neighborhoods. Federal aid to cities had died out during President Richard Nixon’s second term; leveraging the private sector was about the only option for local economic development officials.

Still, Weiler and his allies won several victories. In the late 1970s, he produced the first-ever full-length report on “reinvestment displacement” in the U.S. Skeptical that mayors, hungry for tax revenues, would do anything to protect the poor from being pushed out of their homes, Weiler argued that alleviating displacement was a federal responsibility. He prescribed rent control, community land trusts, home ownership programs—all of which, paradoxically, still appear on lists of “solutions to displacement” being published 40 years later. Above all, Weiler wanted government to begin keeping track of displacement, anticipating and addressing it before it got too late. “The time to act is now,” he wrote in the report that was finally published in 1978.

That same year, the National Urban Coalition released the results of the first national survey on displacement, based on responses from leaders in 65 neighborhoods across the country. The survey found that “rehabilitation” significantly reduced the number of blue-collar workers, minorities, and elderly residents in a community. “People who are dislocated from improving neighborhoods do not vanish into thin air,” the report stated. “Those who are poor take their poverty with them when they move. An improving neighborhood in one part of a metropolitan area will probably mean declining neighborhoods elsewhere.”

The survey had obvious defects, principally that it was based on the impressions of city officials and community leaders rather than hard data. But it made the point that displacement, just like gentrification, was not restricted to a few northeastern cities, and that government, in Holman’s words, had failed to heed “the needs, the frustration, and anger” of the displaced.

Some of that frustration and anger was already surfacing in the African American media. Baltimore’s black paper, The Afro-American, called gentrification “The Re-invasion.” An editorial declared, “White families . . . know this city is a good place to live and know the name of the game is to move us out and themselves back in.”

In September 1978, Ebony magazine quoted the head of a Philadelphia affordable housing organization who called gentrification “a conspiracy” to reverse the city’s growth from white to black. “This is the story of our life since slavery,” the director, Shirley Dennis, said. Titled “How Whites Are Taking Back Black Neighborhoods,” the article highlighted the huge demographic shift that occurred when Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown became restored: In 1940, it was 90 percent black; by 1978, it was less than 5 percent.

“The descendants of former slaves and slave masters are exchanging residences in downtown Savannah,” the author wrote—even though Savannah is often considered the paragon of equitable historic preservation.

Yet mainstream civil rights organizations, with a largely middle-class membership, were keeping their distance from the displacement debate. They had made integrating the suburbs their number one priority and were therefore trying to move minorities to the suburbs, not keep them in the city.

Weiler offered different counsel: Blacks should buy property in their neighborhoods and hold onto it. Once whites moved back into those inner-city neighborhoods, he argued, those African American homeowners would see their wealth rise substantially. “Sometimes the suburbs just become a false symbol that all problems have been solved,” he once said. “As energy becomes more expensive, it might be more wise to hold onto energy efficient inner-city housing.”

But Weiler also recognized how untrustworthy he must have seemed in the eyes of his intended audience. He was, after all, a white man telling blacks to stay in ghettos. Nonetheless, Weiler continued to raise red flags about reinvestment in any forum that would have him: at a National Urban League conference in Chicago in November 1977, numerous church meetings, even a conference held by the Back to the City organization in Hartford in October 1978 that had been founded, essentially, to encourage gentrification.

Two words best explain why these efforts died out: Ronald Reagan. The 40th president eviscerated HUD and his appointees reversed the federal policies being shaped to curb displacement. Even mainstream urban problems struggled to get attention, let alone emerging concerns like gentrification. Weiler became discouraged; he turned his energy toward family and academics. Like-minded organizations dissolved or changed their focus.

Today, debate still rages over just how damaging gentrification is. But it is hard to say that urban transformation has not accelerated since the 1970s, and that it won’t continue to accelerate. Cities like New York and San Francisco are now spending up to half a million dollars per apartment for affordable housing. Those units would have been much cheaper to build or preserve back then, largely because land prices were much lower. A combination of denial, doubt, and self-interest kept public officials from acting sooner.

Today, in cities where gentrification is just emerging, such as Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, there are still good deals to be had. Private speculators know that and are buying up parcels. If the public sector wishes to compete with them in the future, it needs to start investing as well. As Conrad Weiler wrote 40 years ago: “The time to act is now.”

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, by Matthew L. Schuerman, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by Matthew L. Schuerman. All
rights reserved.

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What One Chicago Magazine Reveals About Gentrification

When you leaf through the thick matte pages of North magazine, you’ll discover beautifully photographed and carefully curated scenes of 21st-century urban life. The opening pages of the third and most recent issue set the mood: A woman in a hijab crosses in front of a jazz-themed mural. A tamale vendor flashes a smile. A low-rider bike leans against a street sign.

North, which launched in 2016, may seem like another Kinfolk or Monocle, seeking the same kind of jet-setting, high-income global readership so it can serve them ads for Shinola watches and Land Rovers. But the reality is stranger: North is actually published in Chicago by FLATS, a local real-estate company, and distributed for free via stores, restaurants, and cultural centers.

The magazine celebrates the diversity and history of city neighborhoods, even as its publisher reshapes their demographics.

FLATS is the residential arm of Cedar Street Companies, and it manages more than 1,500 units in five neighborhoods and one Chicago suburb. Cedar Street was founded in 2009 by the late Jay Michael and his childhood friend Alex Samoylovich. Before his death from cancer in 2016 at the age of 34, Michael made design central to the company’s mission, arguing that a “positive lasting impression is achieved by the perfect curation of all our senses.”

In practice, that meant top-to-bottom renovations of historic Chicago apartment buildings. FLATS has undertaken adaptive-reuse projects of abandoned structures, including a landmarked former piano factory in downtown Chicago. It has also redeveloped occupied buildings in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

The company’s flagship property, the Lawrence House, is an instructive example of the latter approach. Prior to its purchase in 2014, this Jazz Age building housed 183 tenants living in Single Room Occupancy-style housing. The subsequent $18 million conversion into market-rate housing sparked controversy among community groups, who have fought multiple purchases of SROs by FLATS in the Uptown neighborhood. Most recently, the company purchased the Bridgeview Bank building, home to a number of service-provider nonprofits that aid local immigrant residents. These groups are relocating and some will leave the neighborhood thanks to price increases.

Pressed on his company’s impact on the community in 2014, Michael told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think gentrification is a bad thing,” adding, “we’re not gentrifiers as much as we are Brooklynizers.”

If FLATS and North both represent a form of “Brooklynization,” Chicago sociologist John Joe Schlichtman notes that North nevertheless eschews many familiar “urban pioneer” tropes, instead focusing on people and groups with deep roots in Chicago. For instance, the magazine’s latest issue showcases the work of a number of mission-driven nonprofits, while the second issue profiled a retired cop who became the caretaker of the historic Uptown Theatre.

Using language that puts old-timers and new city residents on an equal footing (“Some are born and raised, others are freshmen,” reads the introduction to Issue One), the magazine suggests that authentic urban living is a state of mind, available to those who know how to find it.

“There’s a story in each of these photos of people that have paid their dues,” said Schlichtman, who is a co-author of the book Gentrifier. “This whole thing is like, ‘We belong. We may not be from here, but we belong.’”

Cedar Street’s public-relations team did not respond to CityLab’s request for an interview, and FLATS employees who work on North did not answer emailed questions including whether there will be a fourth issue of the magazine. They did say by email that they hope to help residents connect with the city’s rich history and unique businesses. (Much of the magazine’s content is writeups of local stores and service providers; one way to look at it is as a very high-concept Yellow Pages.)

“Our goal is to engage anyone who’s excited about the projects we’re working on, whether it’s the people that live in the building or the people who have lived there forever,” said Liz Peterson, who edited the third issue. Editorially, “we choose things we feel strongly about, that have an important story to tell,” she said.

“It gets you a little closer to the humanity of the place,” said creative and marketing director Heather Fritz. The publication has hosted events that are open to the wider community and not just the residents of FLATS buildings.

But does it entrench a power imbalance to describe working-class Chicagoans, shown in one photograph sitting on milk crates, as “your back brace when yours is packed away”? While the magazine’s reverence for many classic Chicago haunts comes across as sincere, the language of gentrification still creeps in. “Abandonment is opportunity, and opportunity is wonderful,” crows one editorial.

North and the FLATS website boast about the company’s tenants, sporting appropriately creative-class jobs: actress, photography instructor, interior designer. One issue highlights Matthew Hoffman, creator of the ubiquitous (and banal) “You are beautiful” slogan, which has allegedly been printed on 4 million stickers worldwide, and features prominently in the Lawrence House and other FLATS properties.

Despite its attention to neighborhood old-timers, North is nevertheless “not locking arms with longtime residents, trying to accomplish some of the same goals; [it is] celebrating longtime residents as wallpaper,” Schlichtman argues. “That’s what allows you to say, ‘Abandonment is opportunity,’ and at the same time celebrate all of these things that are already there.”

The magazine’s name refers to the company’s origins in North Side neighborhoods. It also connects to how gentrification has reshaped Chicago. Just a few decades ago, the North Side had many of the same low-income communities of color as other parts of the city. Today, the affluent North Side has seen a near-total loss of the poor, while the city’s South and West Sides have seen mass disinvestment and depopulation. One issue of North highlights the musician ProbCause, who grew up in the nearby suburb Evanston but says he was “born and raised on the North Side.”

Like the city itself, North magazine isn’t just one thing. It’s simultaneously an aesthetic representation of a living, breathing place, a promotional vehicle for expensive apartments, and a unique cultural artifact in the unfolding narrative of gentrification.

CORRECTION: The original version of the article misspelled John Joe Schlichtman’s name and has been updated.

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CityLab Daily: The Housing Shortage and Gentrification Aren’t the Same Thing

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***

What We’re Following

Staying on target: Today’s high-priced cities face two overlapping crises that are often seen as the same thing. There’s gentrification, which mutates particular neighborhoods, and there’s a housing shortage, which is squeezing entire regions.

Both issues raise prices, strain families, and reallocate wealth to the already privileged. But it’s worth untangling how each is changing neighborhoods and cities, because the tactics for solving one crisis won’t solve the other, argues Devin Michelle Bunten, an urban planner and economist at MIT. While gentrification reshuffles who lives where in a city, the housing shortage is “like a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped.” On CityLab: The Housing Shortage and Gentrification Aren’t the Same Thing

Andrew Small


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The renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art looks to connect the museum to New York City while telling a fuller story about modernism.

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A Police Department’s Difficult Assignment: Atonement

In Stockton, California, city and law enforcement leaders are attempting to build trust between police and communities of color. Why is this so hard to do?

Michael Friedrich

Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

Terenig Topjian



What We’re Reading

2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990 (New York Times)

Exxon is on trial, accused of misleading investors about the risks of climate change (NPR)

Air pollution is getting worse and data shows more people are dying (Washington Post)

Letter of recommendation: mandatory blackouts (New York Times)

Maryland AG sues Kushner apartment company, alleging thousands of violations while renting rodent-infested units (Baltimore Sun)


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Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

To a great extent, America’s urban housing troubles can be summed up by one fact. In 1980, homes more than 10 miles from city centers were more expensive than those closer than 10 miles; today, that situation has reversed. “The ascendancy of housing prices in the city center forms the set piece of what is loosely referred to as gentrification,” noted the economists who wrote the study from which this data point is drawn.

But casting an arbitrary 10-mile radius around American downtowns means we’re going to miss a lot. Take, for example, the San Francisco Bay Area. West Oakland (median home value: $647,400) is expensive and eight miles from San Francisco ($1.35 million). It’s gentrifying: It was home to 15,864 black residents in 2000, and the ensuing decade saw this figure decline by one-fifth. Sausalito ($1.33 million) is seven miles from downtown. While it’s as expensive as ever, Sausalito is not gentrifying.

West Oakland and Sausalito demonstrate twin, overlapping crises facing high-priced American cities: gentrification, which mutates particular neighborhoods, and a housing shortage that squeezes entire regions. Both crises raise prices, strain families, and reallocate wealth to the already privileged. But the problems are distinct. Solving both crises at once requires us to get the details right.

Gentrification is the territorial expansion of a wealthy community into a disinvested neighborhood, the installation of the social and legal regimes of the newcomers, and the deployment of new physical capital, both on a small scale—by homeowners undertaking renovations—and on a larger scale, by landed capitalists and public-sector officials keen to raise revenue. It is the disruption and displacement of the original residents and their spatially realized social networks.

Understanding gentrification requires understanding the neighborhood, which is two things: first, a community. The assemblage of people who call a place home collectively shape the types of shops and restaurants the neighborhood hosts, its religious institutions, its clubs and activities. These in turn attract new residents for whom the community is a good fit.

Second, a neighborhood is a geographic place. It has a physical climate, maybe streams and hills or perhaps a beach, subway stations, museums established long ago. Perhaps it has a freeway cutting through the landscape, or manufacturing facilities or oil wells, poisoning the air.

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods.

Open land around cities is in scarce supply. Construction at the fringe—sprawl—once represented a release valve for high-pressure urban markets. But our cities are large enough now that the urban fringe is often hours from the center, making it less attractive to live there, and financing conditions since the recession have further crimped this pipeline. The land shortage is especially acute in coastal and mountainous areas like those around San Francisco and Seattle.

True, a few urban neighborhoods are being built (or rebuilt). New apartments are rising near downtowns, along waterways, on parking lots, and at the sites of public housing projects. The common thread? Places that build don’t have residential neighbors—or at least none with sufficient power to resist change. Playa Vista, a shuttered aeronautics facility in Los Angeles, has added thousands of homes since 2000, when it had eight residents. Boston’s Seaport and NoMa in D.C. have also shot up fast. Even this questionable strategy is near its end, though, because we are running out of those kind of sites.

Nowhere in this country is a sizable multifamily building boom taking place in an existing neighborhood. And at no time in this century have we added units to backyards at such a pace that the alleyway becomes a de facto street. Almost everywhere, renters with stagnating incomes are forced to compete with one another in a Hunger Games of housing.

Rent burdens are rising in suburbs, in exurbs, in small towns. In Kansas. There is a straight, and short, line pointing from the shortage to housing unaffordability at this broad level. Yet plenty of middle-class and even working-class families could afford the lumber, nails, and labor required to put a house together in their preferred neighborhood. So what stops them? It would be illegal.

Housing policies are designed to ensure that new neighborhood entrants are as rich or richer than those who arrived before them. The typical resident of multifamily housing in the U.S. earns half as much as the typical resident of a detached single-family home. A ban on apartments is a ban on these families.

Within single-family-home neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes are wealth sieves. You can only enter such a neighborhood if you have enough wealth to hold 5,000 square feet of land (the baseline Los Angeles minimum), or even an acre and a half (most of Weston, Massachusetts, which happens to be the second-richest town in the state).

These wealth filters create a shortage at the local scale. Aggregated over the vast suburbs and suburb-like areas within cities, they’ve cut off our ability to build enough units anywhere.

Abolishing these filters would be a good start for resolving the shortage. This would likely ease gentrification pressures. Some people who might otherwise move to a gentrifying neighborhood would move elsewhere; more housing all over would slow rent growth in some neighborhoods and provide more options. But ending the shortage would not mean that neighborhoods don’t change. Cities change. Seas rise, hillsides burn, transit opens, freeways close (or are widened).

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Gentrification and the shortage are not the only housing crises in our cities. An increasing number of people are experiencing homelessness, and much of the U.S. has no official right to shelter. Official point-in-time counts miss a large share of the unhoused, especially women and children. Brushes with homelessness disrupt families, health care, education, and employment.

Rent control may keep some people from sliding past precarity into homelessness, and more homes will be necessary if we are to house everyone. But preventing homelessness requires more direct action. The same truth applies to other housing inequalities and insecurities—for instance, the fact that so much existing housing is not accessible to those with limited mobility.

Housing is on the agenda of presidential candidates, who are proposing funds for rent vouchers and new construction, incentives to abolish wealth filters, and even nationwide rent control. The abundance of plans reflects the urgency of the moment. But particular crises require particular solutions. Planning for transformational change requires getting the details right.

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How and Why Parks Spur Gentrification in Cities

There is no hotter hot-button issue among urbanists than gentrification. It’s a subject we cover often at CityLab, busting myths and misconceptions about what drives it, where it occurs, and its effects on people and neighborhoods (which can be more positive, even for lower-income residents, than commonly thought).

Most urbanists and economists have long thought that gentrification is driven, in large part, by the desire of more affluent and educated people to reduce their commutes and be close to the offices and workplaces of the central business district (that’s why the term is often used synonymously with the back-to-the-city movement).   

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that more is at work. Gentrification is also driven by a desire to be close to unique urban amenities like restaurants, galleries, museums, or even fitness facilities. In some cities, gentrification is associated less with proximity to the workplaces of the central business district and more with the desire to access the amenities and park spaces of what has been dubbed the central recreational district. The pricey condo and office towers that line New York’s High Line park stand as physical exemplars of just this.

Locations of gentrification-eligible (GE) tracts in 2008 and gentrified tracts between 2008 and 2016 for five of the largest cities in the U.S.

(Alessandro Rigolon and Jeremy Németh, Urban Studies © 2019 Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.)

Now, a study by Alessandro Rigolon of the University of Utah and Jeremy Németh of the University of Colorado takes a close look at the role of urban parks and green spaces in gentrification. Published in the journal Urban Studies, their research unpacks the roles of several elements of parks in gentrification.

The study covers 10 cities (not metros) in different regions of the country. This group includes five of the very biggest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia—and five somewhat smaller cities that have also seen significant gentrification: Seattle, Denver, Austin, Albuquerque, and Portland, Oregon. It tracks the role of parks in the gentrification of the cities over 15 years, from 2000 to 2015, a period during which the back-to-the city movement accelerated gentrification. It breaks this longer time frame into two shorter periods—2000-2008, before the crisis, and 2008-2015, after the crisis, when gentrification took off even more.  

The study pegs gentrifying neighborhoods in these cities with a fairly standard definition that tracks changes in median income, housing values and rents, and college graduates. The authors dub neighborhoods or census tracts that start out with median incomes lower than that of the city as “gentrification-eligible.” Under this definition, about half the tracts in these cities were gentrification-eligible in the year 2000 (ranging from 43 percent in Seattle to 56 percent in Chicago). About a tenth to more than a quarter of these gentrification-eligible neighborhoods actually gentrified, depending on the city, from a low of 12 percent in Houston to a high of 27 percent in Denver.

The study goes beneath parks as a broad category and focuses on several key characteristics of parks and their effect on gentrification. These are: size, overall quality, whether they are new, proximity to downtown, and whether or not they are linear “greenway parks,” longer than a mile, that include an active transportation component like bike lanes.

More new parks (381) were built in the earlier pre-crisis period than in the later post-crisis period (215), likely due to the impact of the Great Recession on local park finances. To test propositions about the role of parks in gentrification, the study develops a series of advanced statistical models which also control for factors including income, density, race, housing, proximity to downtown, and accessibility to transit, among others.

Locations of gentrification-eligible (GE) tracts in 2008 and gentrified tracts between 2008 and 2016 for five medium-sized cities in the U.S.

(Alessandro Rigolon and Jeremy Németh, Urban Studies © 2019 Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.)

The upshot of the study is that it is not parks or green space per se that spur gentrification: Certain types and characteristics of parks play a much greater role than others.

The first big finding is that long greenway parks, like the High Line or Atlanta’s BeltLine, are the biggest culprits in gentrification. According to the study, being located within a half-mile of a new greenway park increases the odds that a neighborhood will gentrify by more than 200 percent (their actual estimates range from 222 to 236 percent). Five of seven new greenway parks in the study spurred significant gentrification in their surrounding neighborhoods, including New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606 trail, and Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park.

The reason for this is likely the simple fact that long linear greenway parks provide ample opportunities for new real estate development along their lines. The study also finds that greenway parks were much more likely to spur gentrification in the latter 2008-2016 period, but not in the 2000-2008 period. There are likely two reasons for this. On the one hand, as the study notes, even though fewer parks opened during this latter period, it is the time during which many of the most well-known greenway parks like the High Line and the 606 trail opened.  

Second, parks located closer to downtown also play a larger role in gentrification (though not as big as greenway parks), increasing the odds that a neighborhood will gentrify by about 90 percent. Here the study points out that for every one-mile increase in distance from downtown, the odds of gentrification for a gentrification-eligible neighborhood decline by about 20 percent. This effect was especially large in downtown L.A., in particular along the Los Angeles River, and also in Seattle and New York City.

A couple of things matter considerably less. For all the fuss made about big parks driving gentrification, the variable for park size fails to show statistical significance with gentrification. In other words, there is no evidence that larger parks are bigger drivers of gentrification than scattered smaller parks. Parks of any size trigger gentrification when they are located close to downtown.  

Furthermore, it is the very existence of parks and not their quality that is bound up with gentrification. In fact, the study finds that there is less gentrification on balance in cities with higher-quality park systems.

Ultimately, gentrification is tied to the particular location, type, and function of urban green spaces. Linear greenway parks and parks located close to downtown are most closely tied to gentrification; these are also the parks that are most closely tied to the creation of central recreational districts, another key driver of recent gentrification.

This has a couple of useful implications for mayors, urbanists, park planners, community developers, and neighborhood groups concerned with managing the gentrifying effects of parks and green space. The authors suggest that cities steer a good chunk of park development to building and refurbishing parks and green space, including large parks, in less advantaged areas outside the downtown core.

They write: “[A]s we find that large parks do not foster gentrification more than small parks, planners and policymakers should strive to address deep rooted inequities in accessible park acreage by adding substantial amounts of new green space in park-poor, low-income communities of color, while also providing and protecting nearby affordable housing.”

On the other hand, cities should make concerted efforts to proactively address gentrification around new greenway parks and downtown adjacent parks. This can include policies and provisions for more affordable housing in neighborhoods surrounding these parks and efforts to create employment for less advantaged residents in the parks, or in developments that appear alongside them. Or, for developers who take advantage of the park amenities, cities could assess fees or taxes that can be used for affordable housing and neighborhood development, or mandate that the developers set aside a percentage of their units, say 20, 25, or even 30 percent, for affordable housing.

Great parks and open spaces help to make great cities. They provide areas for recreation and burning off the stresses and strains of everyday urban life, and their tree canopy helps communities mitigate pollution. People feel more attached to their cities and their neighborhoods when they can access nature, and green space contributes to the physical beauty of their neighborhoods.

Parks are a central piece of the civic infrastructure that helps bring people and families together in large, anonymous cities. What cities need to do is ensure that their initiatives for parks and green space are fully integrated with their broader strategies for more inclusive development for all neighborhoods and residents.

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CityLab Daily: Obama’s Gentrification Debacle

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***

What We’re Following

Obama says the G-word: Barack Obama found himself in an awkward spot Tuesday at a community meeting for his proposed presidential library on the South Side of Chicago. A video from the Hyde Park Classics Facebook group shows Obama’s answer to an audience question about gentrification, where he says:

I know that I heard a couple people saying, ‘Well, we’re concerned about maybe rents might go up.’ Well here’s the thing. If you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses and nothing’s going on, in some cases the rent’s pretty cheap. But our kids are also getting shot on that block. So what I want to do is make sure people have jobs, kids have opportunity, the schools have a better tax base and if the rent goes up a little bit, people can pay it because they’ve got more money. If they’re seniors, if they’re on fixed incomes, if they’re disabled, then we need to make sure there’s a process in place to encourage and plan for affordable housing to be constructed there.

But here’s the thing I will say, I think a lot of times people get nervous about gentrification, and understandably so. … It is not my experience … that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced…

It’s worth watching the video to get the mood of the room; the crowd laughs with him as he makes some of those points. But Obama’s longer answer to why he didn’t want to sign on to a community benefits agreement met a more muted response.

What do you think? We know this is a sticky subject that elicits strong feelings. Does Obama have a point, or has he got something wrong about gentrification? Send us your thoughts to hello@citylab.com and we’ll highlight some of the best takes.

For context:

  • The Obama center and the promise of a South Side turnaround (Chicago Tribune)
  • The community development case for the Obama Presidential Center (Chicago Tribune)
  • Why the South Side is wary of Obama’s presidential library (CityLab)
  • The library proposal misses an opportunity—and sets a bad precedent (CityLab)

Andrew Small


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Shaping Up

(Atlas Obscura)

Our friends at Atlas Obscura have a delightful Facebook video based on a simple concept: Spotting all the rectangles in Grand Central Station. It’s got a great beat too. Enjoy.


What We’re Reading

The design bible that changed how Americans bike in cities (The Atlantic)

Uber: We’re moving away from our ‘antagonistic relationship’ with cities (Politico)

To get more diversity in architecture, focus on the education pipeline (Curbed)

How should we design cities on Mars? (Fast Company)

ICE rails against Oakland mayor’s warning of immigration raids (New York Times)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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