The Elephant in the Room

This post has been authored by Tacumba Turner, GTECH’s newest Project Coordinator! 

Remembering the Reclaiming Vacant  Properties Conference : “The Elephant in the room”

By Tacumba Turner

During the three day Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference I got the chance to observe an array of innovative strategies that have been implemented in recent years across the country. In reflecting on what was my first time attending the conference, there was one break-out session in particular that resonated with me. The topic was Equitable Development and Building Cultural Competence, presented by Vernice Miller-Travis of Skeo Solutions. During the Q&A part of the session questions were raised regarding the apparent challenge of building more inclusive communities. Ironically the inclusive communities we do see are indeed inclusive in the broad sense but only temporarily inclusive, implying people are on their way in and there are people on their way out of the said community. The conversation that took place during the break-out session left me with the weighing question of “How do you create more inclusive communities?”

However if you study the history of this country from its inception you will have observed that in order for a new group of people to move in, the old group of people must move out, whether it’s “Native Americans” and pilgrims or project buildings being replaced with luxury condos. It’s not necessarily fair, but when has progress ever been fair? And, honestly, how could it be when it happens at the expense of others? The more appropriate term to use in a scenario such as this would be self-preservation—the opposite of a holistic approach that thoughtfully includes the well-being of all residents in the planning process.

The positive aspects of gentrification can be argued to outweigh the negative consequences. This process turns dilapidated neighborhoods into revitalized communities, which benefits the city as a whole because it raises, considerably, the tax base. This increased tax base can be used to improve living conditions for those who feel compelled to flee to less-expensive and often crime-ridden neighborhoods. When communities are gentrified new businesses open up, such as restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and so on, to cater to this more affluent clientele, which provides jobs for lower-income individuals.

These neighborhoods were once avoided by middle- to upper-class families because of the fear of crime in conjunction with the socially embedded stigma attached to the people who reside in those communities. However since 2000 here in Pittsburgh there’s been an upward trend that has seen those same blighted areas become desirable destinations for young, upwardly-mobile families. It’s important to note that more times than not it’s the socio-economic status of the residents rather than their ethnicity that determines which neighborhoods become gentrified .
That said, in practice gentrification tends to create concentrations of advantage and disadvantage. But how can anyone logically argue against better apartments and homes, better roadways and schools? Who is against more trash pick up and enforcement? Neighborhoods that once saw trash piled up for weeks or months don’t see trash sit outside for more than a day after gentrification. Abandoned homes that went uninhabited for years are now nice clean lots that may go for upwards of half a million dollars. The problem, and the question that never gets answered, is, “Why does it take developers and new residents to get these lots and neighborhoods fixed up?”

To conclude my recap of the conference, the conversation around equitable development elicited some major feedback from the audience. Equitable development is one strategy I think deserves more dialogue in terms of feasibility and implementation.

Equitable development could potentially be used to ensure everyone participates in and benefits from the region’s ongoing economic transformation, especially low income residents, communities of color, immigrants, and others at risk of being left behind. It requires an intentional focus on eliminating racial inequalities and barriers, not to mention making accountable and catalytic investments to assure that lower-wealth residents live in healthy, safe, opportunity-rich neighborhoods that reflect their culture. Equitable development can enable communities to prioritize and pursue development that benefits current residents and contributes to neighborhood resilience and quality of life.

Gentrification is a complex phenomenon that is a derivative manifestation of how we have conducted politics in this country for generations. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect there to be a one-size-fits-all solution. However, man alone is responsible for the nature of our society for we have built it—innocence is thus an illusion in this matter; we contribute to society one way or another. Therefore we should reflect on our contributions, in order to do away with the confusion around the very concept of society. That concept has become so abstract and convoluted that we have no general sense of accountability towards humanity as a whole, too often disregarding our common connections in favor of finite differences.

On the whole gentrification is a by-product of many elements. In order to come up with an effective solutions that mitigates the negative aspects of gentrification , one of which is displacement.For this reason it’s imperative we have the tough conversations on topics such as equitable development and inclusive communities to ensure we create a Healthy Pittsburgh that everyone can enjoy.

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