On Spike Lee’s Gentrification Speech, or Why Won’t They Build a Fancy New Grocery Store in Mantua?

To understand gentrification, you first have to understand the racialized history of real estate.

Photo | shutterstock.com

Photo | shutterstock.com

There has been considerable ink dedicated to chronicling the ongoing battle between culture and capital as Brooklyn becomes the epicenter of hipster chic.  Of all the things that I’ve read, this and this are easily the most demonstrative of the high cost of “neighborhood revitalization.”

Brooklyn native and architect of Brooklyn Boheme Cool, Spike Lee, has been vocal on the issues surrounding neighborhood turnover, especially as it has directly impacted his parents. “We been here!” was his refrain as he spoke honestly, candidly and truthfully about the erasures of peoples and cultures that happens when someone else decides to make an “investment.”

“Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed,” he said at Pratt Institute for a lecture in celebration of Black History Month. “And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherf*ckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294 […] So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

What’s frustrating is that Lee’s words were characterized as a “rant,” casting his ideas as unintelligible, unfounded or otherwise easily dismissible. What Lee said about Brooklyn can be said of many newfound “business corridors” that see an influx of typically younger, monied folks that cause the displacement of existing, long-term residents.

There are some who call that progress.

To understand gentrification, however, one first has to consider the racialized history of real estate: Understanding redlining, the subprime mortgage crisis, and white flight is crucial when assessing the development of neighborhoods and communities.

The US 2010 Project, a joint study of Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation about residential segregation, noted ethnic identity is a bigger predictor of where people live than income. According to the study, people of color with higher incomes tend to dwell in the same neighborhoods as those of the same ethnic background, even if some of their neighbors are poor. That is to say that there is little distinction made about blackness and brownness within a neighborhood, confirming gentrification as a racial socioeconomic phenomena, where the capital investment follows the migration of white bodies for the development of goods and services.

Consider, if you will, University City in West Philadelphia. And more specifically, the neighborhood known as Mantua or “The Bottom” but which now bears the brand name “Powelton Village.” The new faces, of course, are college students, who are growing in number with the expansions of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. With them come investment dollars and neighborhood amenities such as grocery stores and banks, all of which could have existed beforehand. But did not.

From my office at 39th and Lancaster Avenue, I have watched contractors across the street unearth a building and start anew. As they bulldozed layers of building, a crisp white wall was exposed with the words “F*CK GENTRIFICATION” spelled out brazenly in a big bright blue. (In the weeks since its unanticipated unveiling, the explicative has been censored. The irony is rich.)

“Like many in University City, the residents of Lancaster Avenue have witnessed the neighborhood transform over the last decade to a mix of students and families to a place with an ever-increasing student population that has no place to go but up,” says The Philadelphia Real Estate Blog.

But what often goes unsaid in such pieces is that, at this pace, everyone else has no place to go but out.

“It’s gonna get really interesting around here,” said a friend who lives in the neighborhood as we talked about the sudden infrastructure change across the street.

Interesting, and a bit more posh. As facilities are built to accommodate newcomers (in this case, the ebb and flow of transient undergraduates), fewer spaces are left for long-term residents, aka the ones whose tenure creates personal investment in the wellness of a community.

A ride to 40th Street evokes the phrase “money talks.” It buys influence, power and satisfies demand. On the Market Street corner, housing projects and check-cashing spots litter the block just like those on Lancaster Avenue, reminding residents that financial security has been positioned as a luxury. Unhealthy food options are plentiful, and there’s a watering hole or two, too.

Just a few blocks over on the corner of 40th and Chestnut Street, pricey modern housing targeting those seeking life off-campus rests atop a trendy salon and yoga studio. It’s adjacent to a Stephen Starr restaurant and catty-corner to a major bank’s ATM machine and a smattering of eastern food options, with a Fresh Grocer a stone’s throw away on the Walnut Street corner.

“Penn partnered with Fresh Grocer Corporation to develop a new supermarket, and retail anchor along the 40th Street corridor that opened its doors in May 2001,” reads the website for UPenn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “The Fresh Grocer fulfills what local residents themselves said was one of University City’s greatest needs — a new, high-quality supermarket. The University acted as the main developer of this project, and spent $35 million to finance it. The Fresh Grocer is a key success story, keeping economic activity in the neighborhood while acting as a meeting place where the community and University come together.”

PR spin aside, the Fresh Grocer project demonstrates why community buy-in is an important part of commercial and real estate development in underserved areas; it’s not that building new facilities is an inherently bad thing, nor that blight should be romanticized, but satisfying the needs of long-term residents should coincide with revitalization efforts. This shifts the dynamics of real estate development from occupation and gets buy-in for all stakeholders, reducing tensions and providing markers for true progress and opportunity.

As for why they won’t drop a Fresh Grocer in Mantua? Consider first the perception of black neighborhoods: “Evidence indicates that it is the presence of blacks, and not just neighborhood conditions often associated with black neighborhoods (e.g., bad schools, high crime), that accounts for white aversion to such areas,” reads a 2007 George Washington University study about the racial makeup of neighborhoods. “In one survey, whites reported that they would be unlikely to purchase a home that met their requirements in terms of price, number of rooms, and other housing characteristics in a neighborhood with good schools and low crime rates if there was a substantial representation of African Americans.”

Next, consider the value of the black dollar: “Research shows that homes in majority black neighborhoods do not appreciate as much as homes in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods,” says a report cited in Forbes. “This appreciation gap begins whenever a neighborhood is more than 10 percent black, and it increases right along with the percentage of black homeowners […] Put simply, the market penalizes integration: The higher the percentage of blacks in the neighborhood, the less the home is worth, even when researchers control for age, social class, household structure, and geography.”

These perceptions and market realities stifle the perception of worthiness for investors, leaving many communities without amenities that are on-par with those in non-black neighborhoods. What drives gentrification is race, explaining why all that lovely expansion hasn’t quite reached the corner of 40th and Market Streets, and won’t, until there are a few more University City banners run up the flagpoles.

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