Friday, February 16, 2007

Gentrification: Do the cons outweigh the pros for neighborhood revitalization?

As I undergo a weight and health revitalization, I'm paying more attention to other facelifts in my area. A real estate development company has bought up a large amount of waterfront land just on the other side of my neighborhood. They are putting up three high-rise mega-bucks condos. Tower One is up and framed. It's huge.

I live in a village. We have a nice municipal facility that houses our two-man police force, our mayor's office, space for elected officials, court, and town hall.

Since the village is so small, we use services from two nearby towns. For postal service, we use the closest town. It has less than 9500 people. So we are a small town surrounded by and abutted by many other small towns. You can blur through three towns on one road in about five miles. And we're really close to a big city, so we get the best of all the worlds. The sophistication and amenities of big city with the feel-good neighborliness of small town.

We appreciate that quality. Homes and businesses are well-maintained, but not fancy. It's very down-to-earth. Everything is reasonably priced. You can live fairly cheaply here, very simply. And it's very friendly.

When I go shopping, it's like a social excursion. We can go eat in our local restaurants and always see people we know. People care here, and chip in regularly for one another. It's a true community.

My mother says it's like a time-warp.

We jokingly call my town Pleasantville.

We're in a prime real estate area, or so you'd think, since we are waterfront. We have rivers, lakes, and ocean all within visual distance. But, like I said, up to this point, it's been a sort of forgotten area. Very simple. Then...the gentrification train pulled into our station. It shouldn't be a surprise. But it is.

The billboards outside of the "under development areas"---most of which used to house local businesses, mainly boat businesses or waterfront restaurants---are large and glossy with images of beautiful bikini clad women looking suitably blase while sunning on a yacht, jetskiing, or looking languidly into the eyes of handsome men. I've begun referring to our town as Little Miami, since it seems that is what they'd like to make of it.

It scares me, these images, these goals, for a variety of reasons.

In anticipation of the Increased Money Base of People with More Money than they Know What to Do with moving into our community, businesses have been changing. More chi-chi places have been coming in and taking over either available land or shoving out smaller, cheaper, local businesses.

Signs have quit advertising family-friendly and have begun instead using ones like "elegant."

We've experienced this before. Our last town in MA went from "small town village with family-friendly spots" to "Yuppie Capital of the North Shore." We went from being able to bike up to a great, fun pub to having to drive to the next town to find a place we could (a) afford and (b) be accepted at in casual clothing with a child. We were pretty sad.

So I watch this current development with trepidation.

The mayor of our town came to one of my club's meetings last spring to discuss some of this development. We must have sounded like some degree of sticks in the mud, but how happy would you be with high-rises towering over your neighborhood?

We also expect that the increase in property value to increase property taxes. This could edge out some people. A downside of gentrification. I've seen it before. I've felt it before.

The mayor tried to reassure us.

We just built a new elementary school. The community is pouring heart and soul into this school and we are all pleased and happy about it. Across the street from the school is a boat retailer. He went out of business courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. We knew that land was up for grabs, and also knowing about the high-rises, we expressed concern to the mayor.

She assured us the city would develop half the land for green space and the other half for private, two-story townhomes.

She lied.

Instead, it appears they will be putting in a very tony resort/hotel.

Next to our neighborhood, next to our elementary school.

It might sound narrow-minded and petty, but I'm not entering into this development and transformation of our community with a glad heart.

I feel the cons of what we lose far outweigh the pros of increased property value and more money in the community. I think we have money enough in the community.

I like our small-town, laid back feel. I don't want to lose that. I like my kids growing up with a town that values values over money, surrounded by solid people, good eggs.

Can our town survive an influx of yuppie capital? I hope so.

So what do you think? Hve you experienced gentrification in your community? Do you believe it is a positive? Or are you more like me?

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


Heather said...

Congrats on your weight loss!

NotSoSage said...

I live just outside of the downtown of our city in an area that, five years ago, was known for its poverty and drugs. The reputation made it a haven for artists and new immigrant families because real estate was so low.

I knew, for years, that when we bought a home I wanted to be in this neighbourhood. Why? Because the problems that the community dealt with were the same problems that made it an incredibly strong community. It is multicultural, people of all classes, levels of education, and life circumstances live here. Yes, there are rough edges, but it's real life and I love it.

Only now, as you might expect, the gentrification begins. And that's because Starbucks follows hip little cafes which follow galleries which follow artists and on and on and on. At the moment, it's still quite livable, but I've been astonished at the rate at which things have changed. And I'm really of two minds about the changes. I like the independent coffee places and galleries that are going in. I dread what is to follow. And I recognize that the changes are pushing the artists and people who are street-involved and even newer immigrant families further out to the margins and further from the supports and services they require, which tend to be concentrated in the dowtown (especially the street health agencies). At the same time, I'm a part of the change. I'm part of a middle class, english-speaking young family whose husband is an artist and who was able to snap up one of the homes before they became exhorbitantly expensive. So who do I have to blame but my own self?

Phew. Long comment. But you certainly deserve the distinction that Mad gave you. You've got me thinking, that's for sure.

Julie Pippert said...

Sage, that's my town, It's very artistic: many, many artists, tons of support for artists, very scientific, many musicians, very multi-cultural, lots of immigrants. We're the next step beyond you. We bought here for the same reasons as you and have adored our community. Now...I worry it will become typical superficial. We have Starbucks, which is fine, because our little local coffeehouse is still here. For now.