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Gentrification: Progress Or Destruction?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If I say I want to talk about gentrification, what comes to mind? Do you think new businesses and services revitalizing tired rundown neighborhoods or do you think higher taxes and snobby people with too much money and too few manners pushing out your grandma? And be honest, is the real picture in your mind whites with money and blacks or Latinos or Asians without bumping up against each other? Well, wherever you see yourself in this story, you probably know there is a story. Filmmaker Spike Lee recently made a splash when he offered this comment at a Black History Month speaking event. Here it is.


SPIKE LEE: You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re mother [bleep] Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. You can't do that. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect.

MARTIN: Well, New York - where Spike Lee lives - isn't the only place where tensions have erupted. Washington, D.C., Portland and Philadelphia have also seen these kinds of confrontations as established residents feel like new investors and new homeowners are leaving them out or, in some cases, pushing them out of an improving economic picture. We wanted to talk about this so we've called three people who have been thinking about or who have been affected by this issue. Lisa Sturtevan is vice president for research at the National Housing Conference. Also with us, John Murph. He lives in Washington, D.C. He's a music and arts journalist. And Jacy Webster, who lives in Philadelphia where he owns a Philadelphia Record Exchange. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.


JOHN MURPH: Thank you.


MARTIN: Lisa, I'm going to ask you to give us the big picture. What types of neighborhoods tend to undergo gentrification or become subjects of urban renewal plans? And what does that process look like?

STURTEVAN: Yeah. So I think you described it really well when you talked about neighborhoods where higher income folks come in a lower income folks tend to be displaced. And these are generally cities where there's been fast employment growth, where they've been attracting higher income residents because of jobs. And Washington, D.C. is a classic example where job growth here in the district was much faster than anywhere else. And so those are the places where residents and investors are really looking to move and where this gentrification tends to happen.

MARTIN: Is gentrification a neutral word or is it a word that people tend to not like?

STURTEVAN: Yeah. No, I think...

MARTIN: Does it have politics behind it?

STURTEVAN: I think gentrification has politics behind it. I don't think it's necessarily a word everybody knows either. But I think it's one of those things where you know it when you see it, right - when you walk through the neighborhood, when you talk to people about their experience, that there's common threads in what gentrification means to people.

MARTIN: And what does it mean to people?

STURTEVAN: I think it means that there's this group of people who are losing power to another group of people. I think it really comes down - when we talk about incomes and higher rents and higher prices - I think what we're really talking about is power.

MARTIN: Not necessarily race?

STURTEVAN: And I - well, I think that you can't talk about this without talking about race, but I don't want to suggest that in every case gentrification is a white moving minorities out. There are cases of places that are gentrified by minority higher income folks moving lower income folks out. Income is the real driver of gentrification.

MARTIN: Well, let me turn to Jacy and John because one of the reasons we were happy that both of you could join us is that in each in your both way you've flipped the script on this narrative that a lot of people have. So, John, I'll start you. Your situation is - what? Tell us. I mean, and just for those who don't now know, you are African-American and in 2002 you moved into a predominantly black neighborhood in D.C. that was undergoing some changes. And tell us your experience.

MURPH: Well, like you said before, I moved around 2002 to 14th and V, which is very close to the vibrant U Street district. And...

MARTIN: U Street used to be known as Black Broadway back in the day.

MURPH: Exactly.

MARTIN: A lot of black businesses there, theatres and so forth.

MURPH: And at that time, it was even more transitional than what it is now. And it was affordable. I was a journalist and I found a great place in which I could afford, nice apartment. And I was close to a lot of cultural places that I loved. Within that - within two years, I started noticing the change. Then Busboys and Poets, a lot of condos moved in and...

MARTIN: Busboys and Poets, just for those who don't know, it's a local change of restaurants and kind of gathering places. The owner is kind of a man about town - it's a gathering spot

MURPH: Exactly. With those changes I also notice an escalating of turf wars. There was some pushbacks and a lot of escalating, kind of minor, but rising.

MARTIN: Like what? You didn't feel well-received. Let me just...

MURPH: Not feel well-received...

MARTIN: Even though you're African-American, you felt like you were viewed as the enemy.

MURPH: Exactly. And it wasn't just my experience, it was some of the white people who were moving in, you know, rocks were thrown at them, some of the Asians and Latinos as well.

MARTIN: Like, what crystallized for you the fact that you didn't feel welcomed there?

MURPH: I think when - I started feeling this way when people started noticing I was going to Busboys and Poets and some of the more, quote-unquote, more gentrified areas across the street. And when they saw that some of my friends were some of those white people who were possibly moving into some of the new condos, you know, then I got lumped in with them.

MARTIN: How do you know that? What did people say to you?

MURPH: It's a vibe. Sometimes people are not going to come and tell you, OK, you're part of this group now so therefore you can't play in the reindeer games. But it's a very gnawing attitude that you receive - it's hard to articulate. But you know when you get it, it's almost like they - when you talk about gentrification - you know it when you see it.

MARTIN: Jacy, what you? Let's turn to you. You've got a different story. You're a long-term resident of your neighborhood. Who was living there when you first bought your house there in 1991?

WEBSTER: Well...

MARTIN: And who's living there now? What have you seen?

WEBSTER: Well, it was an old Italian neighborhood - South Philly, well-known as being, you know, very Italian. And I moved in as a poor musician-type into my neighborhood. And, you know, I was accepted pretty well and it was cheap. It was nice to live, it was OK - it was a little rough. But it was fine, I loved it. And everything was good for quite a while. And then - I guess it was maybe 10 years ago, but really five years ago, it really took off - it was like a lot of people started coming in with money and the prices of houses went way up. And I just couldn't believe it. And I didn't know what was going on, but I thought - at first I thought it was great because, you know, there were new restaurants and, you know, all kinds of businesses were opening up.

And there was a whole new vitality going on. You know, a lot of young wealthier kids, which I didn't understand, like, you know, raising families, like, who are these people? And they have a lot of money. And then all of a sudden I realized, oh, my God, the city is telling me my house is not worth 45,000, it's worth 280,000 and I have to pay taxes on that. And I was like, how did this happen? You know, that's kind like - was very shocking.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I point out you're white. And so for you is this - is it a racial thing or not? I mean - or do...


MARTIN: And do you feel kind of like the other or do you feel invisible?

WEBSTER: Yeah, I'm starting to feel that way. You know, it seems like my neighborhood is moving to a place that I don't belong in. And I'm sure all the old people that live around me that have been there - their families have been there forever - feel the same way. So I'm kind of in their boat. And...

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

WEBSTER: It just feels like...

MARTIN: I mean, do people not speak to you on the street or they park there $700 strollers on your lawn? Or - what is it that makes you feel that way?

WEBSTER: There's a bit of that. Yeah they're not like, you know, people that - like the old people would come up and say, hey, how you doing? You know, I made you lasagna. You know, it was awesome. But now it's like they just don't say anything at all, they just disappear down the street and they, you know, get into their cars and disappear. Yeah, they don't talk. It's not like a neighborhood like it was. It has a totally different feel.

MARTIN: Are you worried you won't be able to afford your house anymore?


MARTIN: Because the - what - the property values have escalated to the point where the taxes are beyond your budget?

WEBSTER: Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly what I think.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about gentrification. We are speaking with record store owner Jacy Webster and journalist John Murph. Both have had a personal experience with neighborhoods in transition. Also with us is Lisa Sturtevan of the National Housing Conference. So, Lisa, you know, we flipped the script here, but - and I'm wondering whether that's unusual, what we're describing. Is this mainly an income issue, is it mainly a racial issue, or is race sometimes a proxy for income?

STURTEVAN: Well, so you're talking here about flipping the script and I would argue that in most places, though, that income and the race issues go together. And so what you're seeing in the two cases we're hearing about today may be exceptions to a more general role where race and income tend to go in the same direction.

MARTIN: Well, you know, sometimes they don't. As we mentioned, we ask NPR's Facebook followers what they thought about this issue. And I have a clip here from Kevin Archer (ph) of Denver, Colorado. He wrote in to tell us about his experience.

KEVIN ARCHER: My great-grandfather was a Danish immigrant who built a house in northeast Denver in 1919. He sold that house in the early 1950s and retired to a farm outside of town. The neighborhood became increasingly populated by African-Americans due to postwar migrations from the South, redlining, etc. In 2012, my wife and I purchased a home about one mile from my family's original home in Denver. How can I be a bad gentrifier when I'm literally using the grocery store that my grandmother used. I'm going to the theater that my, you know, grandfather took my grandmother to their first date on.

MARTIN: So, Lisa, tell me about that.

STURTEVAN: Yeah so it sounds like in his case his family chose to leave the city and move out. And I think that that's the difference here - is when you have higher income folks moving into a place where they then put upward pressure on rent and home prices. It's not a choice for lower income people about whether they want to stay or leave that neighborhood. In many cases it's a forcing out. And I think that that's an important difference to understand. Now if that's the kind of...

MARTIN: It's like you got mad at us and went to the suburbs, now you're back.

STURTEVAN: Well, and now you're - I would argue if that's the kind of city that a city wants to be, a kind of community that a city wants - that's a decision to be made. But I think this idea of how much choice one has in the matter differentiates those two examples.

MARTIN: John, I think - you kind of had a similar feeling, did you not? I mean, you felt that as a person of color, you're in a neighborhood that has been historically important to people of color - how can I be the bad guy? So...

MURPH: Go ahead, finish your question.

MARTIN: No, that was my question.


MARTIN: I understand that it's actually even more significant than you are kind of letting us on. For some reason, I think you're not really telling us that you had some expenses that were really unpleasant. Like, for example, somebody spat on you at one point, which cannot have been a good feeling to come home to right?

MURPH: Yeah. It was weird for me because, like you said before, as an African-American I naively thought that I was kind of, like, safe from being lumped in a gentrifier. Also I didn't have the income to support the whole gentrification - like, I couldn't move into Langston Loft, I was in the more lower income, mixed apartment. Probably my frustration, I guess, was not knowing who my allies were, if that makes any sense. When I was trying to get more protection in the area from the police, you know, I felt like me looking like I am, they think pretty safe versus if someone like Lisa came in. And this is an adult thinking maybe police protection would be even stronger.

MARTIN: Jacy, what do you think about this? What would make things better for you? I mean, is this a question of personal manners or do you think this is in part - people just being more polite to each other and taking me - having better relationships? Is this a matter of policy? Is there something that the city you think should do to kind of help people like you who are long-term stakeholder stay where they are?

I mean, because on the one hand, I said I hear you saying you see some benefits from these people. They're - you know, some of the political invisibility you felt is no more - on the other hand, you don't think it's as friendly. What would make things better for you in your opinion?

WEBSTER: Well, I would really like the city to, you know, help people who've lived there for a long time stay there without, you know, forcing them out by, you know, increasing the tax - you know, the property tax. That would be one way to do it

MARTIN: Can ask you a hard question? Why should they? Why is that a good - why do you think they should.

WEBSTER: They don't have to.

MARTIN: No, I know they don't have to, but you would like him to. I mean, I'm asking you for your opinion about why you think that's in kind of everybody's interest that that happened 'cause some people would argue that's just the way it is.


MARTIN: That there's a reason that Harlem is a Dutch word, right, is that the Dutch were there first and then they left and now there's - you know, some people argue that that's just the way it is. What do you say?

WEBSTER: Yeah. Well, I think it will be. It will be just the way it will be, you know. I know that I'll have to move and I'll have to grin and bear it, you know.

MARTIN: But why would you like it to be otherwise? Just tell me your thoughts about this. You feel it would be better...

WEBSTER: I'd like to stay there, you know. I like the - you know, my neighborhood is now safer than it had been, I like that idea. It's very convenient, there are things all around me now that weren't there before. I enjoy all that. But, you know, the comradery of the neighborhood is completely different and I'm not so sure I, you know, directly belong in that world. But I'll grin and bear that if I can stay there and not have to move to a place that might be, you know, like on the other side of the city that's more dangerous and, you know, like, less convenient.

MARTIN: John, what are your thoughts about this? I mean, there's the balance between the dynamism that I think people enjoy and the sense of loss that people have when they feel the places that are their home are lost to them. How would you balance that?

MURPH: That's an interesting question. I think some of the frustration that you mentioned in terms of loss and some of the things that she mentioned earlier is the whole power of mobility. Like, I can move from point A to point B or what have you. I think some of the frustration not only comes now in terms of race, but in terms of culture - meaning that I get a sense of some of the longer time residents feeling like the new incoming people are colonizing the neighborhood as opposed to wanting to be a part of the neighborhood.

And that's a different - it's a different perspective - meaning that, like you said before, coming in and not speaking to the other people, coming in and replacing the mom and pop record store with a tanning booth that's obviously not geared towards African-American people. You know, that's huge. You know, that's a very obvious - OK, we do not want you here. And we're seeing certain things like that happen.

MARTIN: Lisa, can I give you a final word here? What do you think would address some of these issues? I mean, is this a matter of policy? Is this a matter of manners? It's a matter of - what do you think would make a difference?

STURTEVAN: I think...

MARTIN: And why should - do you have an opinion about whether cities should work to maintain stability for people like long-term stakeholders like Jacy - or not?

STURTEVAN: I think there is a benefit to cities to actively trying to encourage long-term residents to stay. Cities do better when there's a diversity of family types, cities do better when there's a diversity of incomes. If you want a thriving economy, you need folks of all income levels to work in those jobs. If you want a thriving community you need folks who invest in schools and have children as well as the folks who are singles. So it is in the cities' best interest as well.

MARTIN: Are any cities moving to move in that direction? Could you briefly just tell us about that?

STURTEVAN: Well, both here in D.C. and Philly there's been examples of tax abatements to help people remain in the city. And that's one small step but that's one of the examples we're seeing spreading a bit.

MARTIN: Lisa Sturtevan is the vice president for research at the National Housing Conference. John Murph is a music and arts journalist. He was kind enough to join us - they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from Philadelphia, Jacy Webster - he's the owner of Philadelphia Record Exchange. Thank you all so much for joining us.

MURPH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.