How to Be Less of a Gentrifier

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“snob” by Charles LeBlanc on Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since moving to my Harlem apartment about three years ago, I’ve been thinking a ton about gentrification. Not that it’s anything new to me. The black community in Tallahassee where several generations of my mother’s family have lived (and where my grandparents still reside) has been fighting encroachment from Florida State University for decades. (One of my long-held dreams is to do a big oral history project of the area, including my family’s history. I gotta get on that. Archivist friends, I’ll definitely be asking for advice.)

I know about gentrification and have seen its effects, but moving to Harlem really made it hit home for me because I knew that I myself was a part of the problem. I make more and pay more in rent than the average for the area. I’m helping to raise costs for the people who live here. And I reflect on that and do my best to mitigate the effects. I buy most of my groceries at the local latinx-owned and operated store up the street. I grab coffee and hot breakfast from the Syrian-owned bodega at the end of my block. I use the black-owned laundry service for my washing. I bypass the new hipster brunch spot a few blocks away to head to the black and latinx-owned and operated diner.

I love my adopted neighborhood; it feels like home to me, and I want to invest in its continued existence as a place created by and for marginalized folks.

But even in these last three years, I’ve seen the changes. More hipster brunch spots popping up. More Peapod trucks and fewer folks at the local grocery store (I’m also guilty of using Fresh Direct for big purchases myself.). And, as my sister noted on one of her last visits, “Damn. There are a lot of white people around here.”

Other folks who have lived in Harlem their whole lives have written and spoken on the effects of gentrification on their home neighborhood. So I won’t try to retread that ground. But I do want to offer a bit of advice for the average—particularly white—gentrifier who wants to be more careful about the effect they have on their new black/brown neighborhood. So, here are a few tips:

  1. Shop local. Yah, I know you just love that organically-sourced kale that you got every week from the coop you left behind in Brooklyn, but guess what? The more you invest in local grocery stores, the more financially stable they’ll be; the more able they are to provide affordable fresh produce for everyone—not just you. Need a caffeine fix? Forgo that brand new Starbucks and check out the bodega on the corner. Why settle for an overpriced half-caff macchiato that tastes like scorched earth anyway when you can have a delicious paper cup of fresh java with two scoops of sugar and cream, all while helping a local POC businessperson? It’s not hard. Get out of your apartment and find local replacements for the stuff you pay for anyway.
  2. Speak to your neighbors.  I know there’s this myth out there that New Yorkers keep to themselves and don’t know their neighbors, but that’s only true of white New Yorkers. In black and brown neighborhoods, we speak. And if you don’t speak back, it is the very epitome of rudeness. I can’t tell you how many of my new white neighbors hear me or one of my POC neighbors say hello to them and they proceed to look at us like we’re growing tusks out of our nostrils. Get over yourself and say hello. Start a conversation. In the stairwell. On the stoop. Outside the bodega. Talk to your neighbors. We all speak around here, from the Jehovah’s Witness granny who sits outside her building handing out religious tracts, to the block’s resident pusher man, to little ones tossing the Nerf football around. Everyone. It’s a cultural thing. You’re in a new culture. Acclimate. Which leads me to…
  3. Don’t try to change stuff. Don’t be like every other generation of your forebears and come into the POC neighborhood to stake your claim, plant your flag for queen and country, and kill off whatever you find of the existing culture. Don’t pass out your metaphorical smallpox blankets or set up your metaphorical slave trade. Don’t colonize. You are a guest. Learn the culture, the language, the rhythms. Adapt. There’s going to be the smell of fried fish and the sound of gossip and pleasantries in the lobby. Deal with it. Embrace it. Don’t complain. Soak it in. And for crying out loud, don’t try to change the name of the neighborhood.
  4. Show respect. When you do speak to your neighbors, show the proper respect. Refer to older folk by “Miz [name]” or “Mr. [name].” Don’t ever ever ever look an older POC person in the eye and use their first name without permission. There’s a ton of racist, oppressive history behind that. Be aware. And show respect. Not just for the culture but also for the people. Which finally leads to…
  5. Don’t call the cops!!! Obviously, if there’s a real emergency, you do what you gotta do. But if you see an unfamiliar black or brown man sitting on your stoop, you may want to back off. Chances are, he lives in your building and you just don’t recognize him because…white supremacy. Whatever it is, just ask yourself, “Would I want to phone the cops if I were living in a white neighborhood right now?” Then examine your honest response. For anything. Because you think you smell weed or you hear your neighbors music or it sounds like someone’s arguing outside…just take a moment to reflect. And realize that, again, there’s a huge amount of violent, racist historical and present context that makes inviting the cops into your new neighborhood for any old thing not a great idea.

These are just a few tips. I’m sure there are many more. But ultimately, it all comes down to self-reflection. We can all mitigate our effect as gentrifiers if we engage in a bit of self-reflection and take time to learn from our new surroundings. Let’s leave our new neighborhoods just as great as we find them.

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