One major way that gentrification – the racist and classist displacement of residents and homeowners of color for increasingly affluent white people – works in Chicago is that communities of color will band together and work to replace amenities they’ve lost as a result of white flight and disinvestment in their communities and the city will use the newly-gained victories against the community that fought for them. Another way is to gather a large amount of White People in communities of color to show that the ‘hood isn’t so “ghetto” and maybe pretty cool. It’s a marketing strategy, but also a way of taking the few public resources the community has as tools against them.
As the saying goes: People of Color can’t have nothing good in this town.
We see this happening in my community, in the dividing line between Humboldt Park and Logan Square called the Bloomingdale Trail.
Dialogue about turning an abandoned, above-ground rail line into an above ground park in a section of town with many children and little green space started ten years ago with Latinos from the two neighborhoods talking for several years, petitioning aldermen and the city and local businesses. Doing the work to bring good things into their neighborhood. But things didn’t really start kicking off until the neighborhoods started being reinvested.
By reinvested, I mean there was more White presence. More white people followed by other white people followed by a gradual westward displacement. We saw Latin@-owned businesses shut down because developers flooded them with city inspectors who charged them for infractions as petty as paper on the floor to drywall placement, knowing full-well that these are jewelers and hair stylists with low profit margins. At the same time, the developers would send delegates and aids into neighborhood committees and make friends with the neighborhood city councilors.
The result is that now property assessment – and thus property taxes – in the area around the trail has risen this year about 40%. That’s significantly higher than inflation and at rates that working class people cannot possibly keep up with.
Developers know how to market and bring in young White people – such as artists – who want to live in cool areas to be their initial colonizers; buy out lots, and tenant buildings; force out businesses, and consume entire blocks when and if possible (often through associated, partner and umbrella real estate companies); and, thus, considerably raise rents or flip houses or property quickly for substantial profit.
Because they have plenty of capital available, they are able to have their way with residents, with rents, with zoning permits, with architecture – unless there is significant push-back.
But the act of gentrification makes the act of organizing that much more difficult, because the long-term residents are now being scattered to the winds and the ones left have even less resources and fight more fights – just trying to keep the schools open and funded or bringing the kids to schools when the neighborhood schools are being shutted, as my elementary school, Von Humboldt, was and as was threatened to happen to most neighborhood schools in majority-black/brown communities.
There is already lack of funding, lack of time, lack of resources. But gentrification works by removing potential leaders and human capital and by treating people of color and the very poor as not as fully human (totally original concept I know right?) and therefore tabling, moving, ignoring, ramshackling, steamrolling their concerns until they can muster up enough people and action to disrupt the way of things.
Recently within the city, we see another agent and trend of gentrification, White People’s Music. Popular music has been accused of pilfering and gentrifying and stealing poor people’s – and specifically black and natives’ – music for profit for the last century, so it only makes sense that it would be used against communities of color.
Take an Uptown neighborhood concert for neo-folk pop artists Mumford & Sons, for instance. After floods nearly disappeared a homeless community living under viaducts in the neighborhood, the city was nowhere to be found. Until another day or so, when they came to kick the homeless people out. And yes, they are homeless but they are people who need community and security and stability that comes with community like anybody else. The neighborhood has been steadily gentrifying for the last decade, but this location – at the lake and a train or bus ride from downtown – has a large section of homeless people. The city has shut down several homeless hotels in the area (as well as one in Logan Square about three blocks from where I’m writing now) while claiming that the population will be served better by going to shelters. But shelters are not safe for many homeless people or families, where the children are often separated from their parents and the adults are separated from each other.
But we consider poor people to behave like middle class people, where needs are taken care of through money and access to resources. We need community, however, to watch each others’ backs, to take care of needs on a regular basis, to exchange works and skills. Plundering us from these communities of care is to plunder people, to keep the marginalized on the utter ends of the margins.
So to say that the city treated the homeless community in Uptown with disrespect and even outside the law is to cut it some undeserved grace. Alderman Cappelman and the city services in coordination and under cover of White pop music were doing what the powerful do: Breaking up any challenge to their power; justifying endangering marginalized people by considering them “hazards”, thus further marginalizing them; dispersing them with little-to-no preparation; underselling them. Yes, the city makes some money from these concerts, but how much of it goes to the very poor it pushes out?
Answer: Not enough to begin to pay them back. Neoliberalism is making wealth off the backs of the poor through corporate affairs while justifying it through the White Logic of personal responsibility.
Last year and the year before, the Riot Fest – a punkrawk-centric music festival and carnival – occupied Humboldt Park to put on a show that could be heard for roughly a mile away. Our streets were flooded by strangers, by White people. Several years ago, it would have been an anomaly to see any groups of White people in Humboldt Park.
Riot Fest at Humboldt Park
But remember, developers and realtors know to move in when they see white bodies. So this music event works in many levels to displace the community. For one, more whiteness means, to white people with investment dollars, security. Which means that White people flock around other white people and occupy those places where they see other white faces. They figure the place must be both cool because of the non-whites in the area but also safe enough for them because of the white bodies. Because of the power dynamics at play, they – willingly or not – move out non-white and poorer community members.
As my friend Sharaya Tindal notes in an article for Crain’s,
For the past few years, residents in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood have seen their namesake park fenced off from the public for weeks. We watched as large machinery tore up the community baseball diamonds and open fields, setting up stages and equipment for the Riot Fest music festival.
But not this year. After a combination of heavy equipment, rain and tens of thousands of people left parts of the park unusable for months last year, residents were fed up. Community members came together to force Riot Fest out of the neighborhood park.
Humboldt Park after Riot Fest
In lieu of going to a non-residential park which could handle the traffic and disruptions, the city decided that colonizing another community of color is preferable. So without input and dialogue from the community, but with vague promises of community investment (again, investment goes to areas when developers believe they’ll get a handsome return), the weekend extravaganza is moving to Douglas Park, nestled between the Latinx neighborhood Little Village and the black neighborhood North Lawndale.
The reason is clear. To get a foothold of whiteness in those neighborhoods as well. This means more revenue at the cost of black, brown and poor people that make up the workforce and the heart of Chicago.
However, there are things that can be done to stall and perhaps even reverse this racist curse of gentrification.
End Capitalist control of housing, for starters. Housing is a human right and should be treated as such. Allow communities to have control of their own homes and property.
In lieu of such radical measures (lolsob): Note that the city is claiming eminent domain in these practices and demand that landowners and renters be rightfully recompensed for being displaced. Call organizers and artists to account for performances they are involved in. Any artist worth their salt knows that a space is important to the performance. Fight for affordable housing. Get involved in community groups that push for resources while fighting gentrification.