Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Is gentrification the same when the players aren't white?

Photo by Leo Reynolds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A recent post introduced yet another term to Multi-American's evolving cultural mashup dictionary: Gentefication, a twist on "gentrification" referring to what happens when the upwardly mobile folks investing in a Latino immigrant neighborhood happen to be Latinos themselves.

Since the post went up, first on Muti-American, then re-posted on WAMU's DCentric blog in Washington, D.C., the opinions have flowed.

Not surprisingly, the historic immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where I first heard the term from the owner of a bar that draws mostly professional second-generation Latinos, is not the only minority neighborhood in which middle-class folks with roots there or in similar communities have returned to open businesses or to live.

In Washington, D.C., this includes neighborhoods like Anacostia, a historically working-class black neighborhood that has more recently become home to wealthier black homeowners. In Los Angeles, a growing second-generation Latino arts and entertainment scene has been solidifying along Boyle Heights' First Street commercial corridor, drawing a largely well-educated, upwardly mobile - and yes, Latino - clientele.

Gente, of course, is Spanish for "people." Here's how I defined "gentification" in the original post:

gen·te·fi·ca·tion (hen-te-fi-k?-shun), noun: The process of upwardly mobile Latinos, typically second-generation and beyond, investing in and returning to the old neighborhood

So is gentefication the same thing as gentrification? How much of a factor is race and ethnicity, and how much is income and class? Is it a good thing for these neighborhoods, or ultimately a precursor to bigger demographic changes that squeeze out poor renters? In a piece titled "Confessions of a Black Gentrifier" in the Washington City Paper earlier this year, Shani O. Hilton wrote about being a black person in what has been traditionally regarded as a white role:
The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.

For those concerned with housing costs in minority neighborhoods, the fear is that what are traditionally considered building blocks of gentrification - developers, high rents, wealthier white residents from outside the area - have a tendency to follow first-wave investors regardless of their ethnicity, with the next step being the area's lower income residents pushed out as prices go up.

Readers of both blogs had quite a bit to say on the issue, good and bad. On Multi-American, Boylehieghtspv wrote in response to mcem33, a reader who joked about "why don't we pump in more drugs and open up more liquor stores to raise the crime rate just so we can keep whitey out and the rent low."

Here's how Boylehieghtspv defended the changes taking place, edited slightly:

Difficult to decipher sarcasm in a txt, but assuming that mcem33 is being sarcastic to make a point that the goal is to keep "whitey out & the rent low" then I think he's missing the point.

Gentefication is implying that the improvements needed in the community can come from within. In other words, that new retailers, & such, are representative of the mexican american folks already there. I don't think anybody would want to stay in poverty & raise the crime rate just to keep others out.

Typically the goal is to improve ones own situation to be able to afford to get out of the "hood", but now with the urbanization trend across the country & the downturn in the economy, Boyle Heights is finding it's professionals staying put or coming back home along with other like minded gente. This has resulted in Gentefication...

Eduardo Bedoy felt less warmly about it, posting a long comment. An excerpt:
Gentrification for me is a word that describes a mechanism that uses racism (and other isms too.) to disempower racial minorities and is used as a tool to position them in exploitive circumstances; thus the ghetto…While at the same reestablishing the wealth and privileges of the haves over the have not’s.

Let me say it this way; yes it’s nice that your putting bars in the hood so that you and your trendy friends don’t get dui’s driving from the Westside or Silver lake… but it would have been nice for me and mi Gente too… along with the new schools, metro links, and the working class’s taxes being used to subsidize the neighborhood cause we wouldn’t want you to loose on your investment in the hood… When the investment that concerned and concerns those that are being gentrified is the investment or lack there of, of their children and their children’s future…

In Washington, D.C., OctaviusIII wrote in response to the DCentric post:

Gentrification is the right term if it's going to mean anything other than racial displacement. The origin of the term - replacement of the poor by the rich "gentry" - implies it's a class and income distinction.  The problems associated with gentrification deal with neighborhoods being changed by rising rents and home prices.  That happens whether the rich folk are black or white.

Dan Reed wrote, also in response to the DCentric post:

I'd be curious to see if gentefication will happen/is already happening in DC area neighborhoods with a substantial Latino population, like Wheaton and Langley Park. I'm skeptical at how much outside investment the Purple Line will bring to Langley Park, and I'm wondering if it'll be Latino businesspeople & homeowners that pour their money into that area.

On that note, one of the most interesting comments didn't come from either blog, but from Brooklyn's Brownstoner, which posted highlights from Hilton's piece earlier this year. As part of a longer comment on that blog, Montrosemorris wrote:

Personally, it's another "DUH" moment. When is the world going to accept the fact that there are people of color with money? Not just crazy money, like sports figures and entertainers, but the same money that most successful college educated, upwardly striving persons with marketable skills have, if they pursue the American dream of working in a good job? Or if they have the entrepreneurial skills to create something successful with their talents or business savvy.You'd think after 60 years of loud and active civil rights action, we'd have gotten to the point that if you look at your average 30-something white person and black person exiting a building at the same time, there wouldn't be the assumption that the white person was better off than the black. But there it is.

I think that the great secret in neighborhoods like Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, etc, is that the "gentrifiers" have been there for, oh, 80 years or more. Black folks, working in civil service jobs, teaching, nursing, or even holding 2 or more jobs, have been quietly living here for generations, making the same money as their white counterparts in the same jobs, but living in very different neighborhoods. The new black "gentrifiers", often the children of these people, now work for finance companies, or are lawyers or other professionals, but they have been at the vanguard of making these neighborhoods appealing to those who never would have set foot here, only 15 years ago.

Thoughts, anyone?