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gentrification: it’s coming to a city near you

It’s a true sign that you are aging when you start experiencing things you have seen all your life but somehow doubted they would ever effect you. Case in point: gentrification. I love cities. The bigger, the better. Some people think that looking at mountains is awe-inspiring. I like mountains, too. But the skyline in Manhattan, now that gives me goosebumps. I lived there for over 10 years, and I got a pit in my stomach every time I was heading over the Brooklyn Bridge in a cab at night. That there is some wonder.

I digress.

While I lived in NYC, I often heard about gentrification, and how poor people were being pushed out of the city to the outer boroughs and beyond. I listened to these stories and depending on how rushed I was while trying to get to my job or how awake I was (I always heard these stories on the radio in the morning for some reason) I would feel varying levels of sympathy. Growing up in LA, you tend to think of land as being endless. The city, though some might argue against me on this one, stretches from Ventura down to Orange County–if not officially, then at least culturally. That isn’t to say that you’d ever want to be moved from one point to another. Even if you were forced to move down the block, that seems deeply troubling.

Now, if you are a grammar person, you might have noticed that in the previous paragraph, I used some passive voice construction. I am conscious of this. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone really can know who is responsible for hyper-gentrification, by which I mean, gentrification that is so extreme that it pushes people out en masse. Maybe when I was back in NYC, I didn’t notice that the same trend was happening because I was single and young and stupid on this topic. But maybe it’s also that for the first time, I am seeing this new trend of gentrification on steroids. I think San Francisco’s situation is unique.

Elsewhere, I’ve written on this subject, so I won’t bore you with another tale of boohoo. But honestly, I am marveling at the force with which San Francisco is pushing out not just its poor, but its middle class, as well. I see this, and I think, am I imagining the changes both big and small. But talking to people–from high schoolers on up, everyone sees the craziness. Most are affected by it.

Everyone sees the buildings going up everywhere. Some might root them on, since a lot of time, the buildings they are replacing were old and not well maintained. But even those old buildings housed people, and where are they now?

The more subtle changes: the ones that are harder to spot are within neighborhoods. Strange, modernized Edwardian facades now line up with the old cracked ones. You see them in traditionally poor neighborhoods. Start-ups are coming in as well, taking over old structures. It’s worth pointing out that they don’t usually put signs up announcing themselves. Still, you know something is going on because all of the hipsters have their fixies locked out front. When you ask one of them what’s going on in there, they look sheepish. Do they feel guilty? Did they push some family out to retrofit the space so that they can be the next Twitter?

gentrification leaves no mark

gentrification leaves no mark

gentrification with no name

gentrification with no name

Even if you somehow miss the renovated buildings, you can’t miss the people.  A neighborhood block that two years ago was full up with young men hanging out on the stoop is now a jogger’s paradise. These are not the urban pioneer types that usually mark the beginning of change, mind you. These are suburban looking people jogging by the projects as if they were another McMansion. The way things are going, they probably will be some day soon.

new neighbors

compare the old with the new

I don’t know what the solution is. I am a lover of cities and cities change. That is their way. And to be honest, though these suburban folks in their Nikes and the techies with their fixies are agents of change, they are not the causes of it. I don’t want to condemn Capitalism. That’s where the small ultra-Lefty part of my brain wants to go, but I’m no Communist. I’m an urbanist. And maybe that’s the problem. For my whole life, I grew up hearing that when you make it, you move out to the Burbs. What did I care? I love cities. Rich people, you can keep those places with your big WalMarts and Applebee’s.

But the tide has turned. And rich people who are my age and younger, have come to see cities for being the wondrous places they really are. Problem for me is that between them and me, I lose out. There is no place for a teacher’s salary.

Another change that has happened to me as I am getting older: I actually pay attention to the news I still listen to in the morning as I get ready for work. Last month, on one of those mornings, I heard an economist very casually made a prediction: cities in 50 years will only be for rich people only. There will always be poor on the periphery–he admitted as much. But for the most part, cities will be the homes of the rich.

I hear this and I am sad. But as I write these words on this screen, I force myself to remember that in the history of cities, this kind of polarization is not a new thing. Country folks are poor; city people are not. Maybe I should be a farmer, pull a Green Acres (though unlike the show, I am being forced out there). I don’t know who or what is the cause of the force, but maybe I shouldn’t care. Maybe I should learn to love the green grass and “fresh” air that one doesn’t get much in a city. Maybe. Maybe.