What we talk about, when we talk about gentrification


One of the useless canards when discussing gentrification in the Mission is the claim that the area used to be mainly Irish with some Germans and Poles, so Latinos don’t have any right to lay claim to the area. We are not stealing the neighborhood, they say, because it wasn’t yours to take. This doesn’t wash though, because those earlier immigrants and newcomers to the Mission weren’t pushed out by rising rents, discrimination, and redevelopment, they left. 

White flight invalidates any claims to vestigial ownership. If they hadn’t been so afraid of the Brown people moving in – Brown people who moved in because they felt comfortable since they prayed to same man in a funny hat- the neighborhood would look very different. 

But of course gentrification happens, because cities change, and yesterdays undesirable, even dangerous block, becomes todays most sought after property. But  how does that happen, and what does it look like while it’s happening? That is what  Clybourne Park, at the ACT is all about. 

In the first act, set in the 50s, a white family sells their home to a black family, causing much gnashing of teeth amongst their white neighbors because they know the inevitable downslide is going to begin. In the second act, set in ’09, a white family is now moving into the same house which is now a distressed property. They want to bulldoze it and build a McMansion. The black family is now the one worrying about what will happen to their community. 

The play obviously resonates here as a number of neighborhoods are going through big changes. Neighborhoods are being renamed and subdivided to differentiate them from their past associations. (This is a familiar gambit, and one not invented by Realtors trying to gin up commissions.  In the south they used to change the name of the street if it ran through both black and white neighborhoods.) But all of this isn’t bad. Change is a necessary part of being a city. Density is good, increasing the tax base, diversity, all of these are good things, and make you feel like you live in a real honest to goodness city. 

And thankfully restrictive covenants no longer dictate where people can and can’t live. Ultimately we probably all gain as housing desegregates, but only up to a point. As the flow of money comes back into the cities, we’re not raising all boats, we’re creating new ghettos in the inner ring suburbs. But there is no way to stop that from happening. During the first dotcom boom this conversation was being had a screeching level. 


Now though people are mostly civil, crushed under the reality of those huge Bauer buses that drop tech workers off all over the neighborhood. People are resigned to new exclusive condos that keep springing up and block your sunlight, they just wish Sauron’s all seeing eye of gentrification would turn its gaze elsewhere for a while.  

Anyway this is all just a long way of saying go see Clybourne Park while you still can. The play does really good job of bringing up all of these issues, and our inability to have a discussion about them, because we haven’t agreed upon the ground rules when discussing race, class, and furthermore no one ever takes responsibility for our shared history.  

0 thoughts on “What we talk about, when we talk about gentrification

  1. Nice one. This was just waiting to be written. You capture the conflict well: on the one hand gentrification brings new life to a neighborhood; new residents; oftentimes new retailers. At the same time old residents feel the stress of the new wave. I had trouble writing about gentrification because at the end of the day after laying out the particulars, I was left thinking: well what do we do with this? Gentrification is inevitable. I suppose if community members are more aware of what’s happening around them they can take some steps to reduce harm to the most vulnerable neighbors, but this just seems like spitting in the ocean. Not sure what conclusion to draw on gentrification.

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