As a young African -American who grew up in Central Brooklyn, it is easy to feel the American Dream fading away. I recently read an article in The New York Times by Jennifer Collins titled “Detroit Pushes Back With Young Muscles” that made me question the fate of young black America and what opportunities exist for us in the midst of a national economic crisis. She excitedly described the “influx of young creative types turning Detroit into a Midwestern TriBeCa” as the main catalyst for change in Detroit.
Contrast the photos that accompanied the Times article of young white professionals casually networking at a rooftop party in downtown Detroit with the life of the average black Detroiter makes the race and class dynamics of gentrification even more visible. I’ve visited Detroit, and while it is true that young folks from around the country are flocking there and calling it a “movement”, this movement is not color-blind.
Without explicitly mentioning race or gentrification, an article ostensibly written to celebrate the rebirth of Detroit is nothing more than propaganda for urban gentrification. Similar to New York City, Detroit’s campaign to target young white professionals is well-resourced and unrelenting.
There is even a Web site dedicated to getting 1,100 “new” people to move to Detroit by November. Even if a few handpicked young and talented black folks are selected to promote the city’s image as a multicultural hipsters enclave, it is unlikely many of us will have the wherewithal to relocate there anytime soon.
Closer to home, gentrification is polarizing and displacing many black residents that are struggling to make ends meet. On the corner of Atlantic and Franklin Avenues in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a huge billboard targeting young hipsters by a local real estate company called Myspace sits adjacent to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory- a massive 350-bed men’s homeless shelter. The billboard depicts a slim white woman covered in tattoos with long black hair stuffing her face with a burger as she sits in a bubble bath in her new apartment. The ad could not be further out of touch with the lives of the surrounding black community.
This brings me to my final point. Gentrification is inherently undemocratic. Over the past ten years, I have witnessed New York City and other cities with significant number of black residents shift its resources to primarily benefit upper-middle-class whites at the expense of low-income communities of color. These policies are often subsidies by the city or private companies. The net effect is that our cities are being redesigned completely around the needs of the most privileged. Our policy-makers and those that support this form of urban investment either ignore this fact or don’t care.
Gentrification hurts more than it helps our community. The only development that will promote greater equity and justice during these tough economic times are ones that are created within a racial, economic, social and environmental justice framework. Our community is paying a heavy price for the free market to work for only a few people. Without a framework that aims at promoting justice, it is difficult to counteract the inequitable power and racial dynamics that keeps gentrification thriving.