Reassessing The Gentrification Debate: Is It All About Race or Just Economics?

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By Brittany Hutson

Chris and Trey are brothers who grew up in mid-city New Orleans. Trey left home and became an attorney in New York City while Chris stayed behind and has long been dedicated to his neighborhood. But an impending building project is slated to transform their area, causing Chris anxiety about current residents being displaced because the new developments will be too expensive for people to live in. But Trey believes the impending change will be beneficial to the neighborhood.

The brothers are fictional characters yet their story resonates with an issue that is very real and is continuously stirring up controversial debates in cities across the nation, including Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Los Angeles’ Echo Park.

“Brothers from the Bottom” is a production currently being shown at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn that brings to light the issue of gentrification as it occurs in predominately African-American communities. The play parallels an ongoing partnership between Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and their efforts to build a joint medical campus in downtown New Orleans, scheduled for completion in 2013. The campus will span across 70 acres within a national historic district that will force the demolition of at least a hundred houses and small businesses. Preservationists have voiced concerns about displacing residents and losing historic assets.

Playwright Jackie Alexander attempts to show through his production how the debate around gentrification can cause a rift between neighbors and family members, as evidenced through the characters of Chris and Trey, brothers who are on opposing sides.

Gentrification is defined as the process of neighborhood change that results in the replacement of lower income residents with higher incomes ones. It is a housing, economic and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital, according to the Center for Disease Control. The process shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (i.e. racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and creating desirable housing stock in neighborhoods previously run-down, due to crime, crumbling infrastructure, or otherwise.

It has long been associated with a strong racial component. Typically, lower income African Americans and/or Hispanics are the dominate residents in the neighborhoods that are slated for an upgrade. The outsiders (as they are commonly known) that begin to move into the neighborhood are believed to usually be higher income Caucasians. Nevertheless, studies over the last several years have reiterated that the causes of gentrification are not so black and white.

“It’s never the intent to get a certain group of people moved out of their homes,” says Barbara Becker, a dean at the University of Texas Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs. “What happens is the housing stock that we find charming and wonderful and that everybody wants to live in is closer to the city. We’re also becoming more in tuned to being closer to our jobs so location becomes important, as well as the housing stock.”

She goes on to explain that when an influx of people moved to the suburbs during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the housing stock in metropolitan areas went down and over time, lower economic groups began to inhabit those areas.

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