Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Point of this blog

Recently the New York Times ran an article about gentrification in DC and how for the first time in 51 years, the District will no longer be majority black. In the article, a local hair salon owner complains about her rising property taxes and how small businesses whose properties may have gain value are now selling their properties because they can not afford the taxes. One of my favorite blogger's Ta-nehisi Coates responded to this article after another blogger had pointed out the hair salon owner would still make a considerable profit even if she had to sell her property.

Coates point out that:
"I actually think it's fairly easy to understand Johnson's beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to "sell high," but the fact is she doesn't want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn't simply, for her, a financial instrument--it's an emotional one.  In that sense, Johnson isn't very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods."

He continues on to say:
"... the city is trying to make H Street a "desirable place to live," I am compelled to ask "desirable for whom?" I'm not being obtuse here--I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data."

And this is a real sticking point for me. As a planner, I can not tell you how many times I have been to redevelopment meetings in struggling and blighted communities where consultants or planners propose turning around a neighborhood by adding a Starbucks, a wine shop and a deli. These businesses might turn a neighborhood around but...for whom? Either these consultants or planners assume that everyone likes Starbucks, wine and deli sandwiches or they are just out of touch with the culture of that community, which is even more troubling. I'll get into that later. The problem that I see is that too many consultants and planners feel that they have to uplift a struggling community by importing another culture of businesses (usually their own culture) instead of adding onto the cultural capital that is already within a community. Which means if a struggling community doesn't have a coffee shop, a Dunkin Donuts would be more appropriate than Starbucks and a Subway Sub would be more appreciated than a deli.

Coates goes on in his post to state:
"...I don't think we'd much debate the notion that neighborhoods usually hold some emotional value. But we often fail to see that value in African-Americans because, from a socioeconomic perspective, black people represent a class that is too often murdered, too often impoverished, too often uneducated, and too often diseased. Put differently, statistically, black people are a problem. Fix the problem and black people will thank us, right? Maybe."

I think this paragraph could be applied to almost any impoverished neighborhood, regardless of race. But this paragraph sort of lays out the reason I wanted to create this blog in the first place. I wanted a blog that focused on City Planning from a people's perspective. In my opinion, the world of planning theories and practices focuses on the brick and mortars of planning cities. Planning practices get implemented  with almost no respect to the the culture of individual neighborhoods and communities. I remember reading in particular about the success of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in redeveloping blighted neighborhoods. The main criticism of the successful redevelopment of TOD projects that occurred in several major cities was that it completely displaced the original residents through gentrification. Well in my mind, that is a failure. Any practice that gets counted as a success that does not improve the lives of the  existing residents is a practice that is culturally tone def.

But even worse than being tone def to another community's culture is viewing another community's culture as a problem. If you are in charge of reviving a neighborhood and you view a blighted neighborhood only as a problem you are going to fail to see the positive aspects of the neighborhood that can be built upon for revitalization. If you only see the neighborhood as a problem, you will replace instead of rebuild. And without understanding or more importantly caring about a neighborhood's culture, what gets replaced could be very important to the fabric of the existing community.  A blighted community may seek out help from planners and consultants to help turn around their neighborhood because they feel that there neighborhood and it's culture is something worthy to be saved. Not replaced. 

Until all reformers understand that they have to rebuild and not replace, there will always be resentment from the existing residents of gentrified neighborhoods. And I will continue to write about the urban experience.