Can We Let the People Gentrify Themselves?

Taking to the streets at the 2013 Thanksgiving in Spring in Durham

As I finish up this week’s theme of sprawl repair,  I want to ask one last question. Can we let the people gentrify (or de-sprawl) themselves? As much as I love the tactical urbanism, the push to return to the neighborhoods left behind, and to fix the broken ones that have been built and broken rapidly, in the back of my mind I worry that our bad development history will repeat itself, much like some of this good history.

Exhibit one is in Durham. I’ve mentioned the Warehouse/Central Park area before. It’s a little bit north of downtown, the DPAC, the DBAP and the ATC. It maintains a degree of quirk and fun. It was a self-made redevelopment,  catalyzed by the 2010 addition of the FullSteam Brewery and Motorco Music Hall. Yet, the long time garden store on the block still remains and the streets and sidewalks and parking lots still have a little grit on them. Nothing’s over two stories either. According to landscape architect Mark Hough, who recently wrote about the area in Planetzen, people seem to love the grit and want it to stay.

However, a recent article in the Durham Herald-Sun about new apartments and other developments in the area gave me pause. As they will be new construction and come at market rates, I am concerned that the DIY ethos will not remain in the community. The area even has a hipster name now, NoCo. Now, if it was the community gathering together to build the homes themselves or operate the buildings as a co-op, I wouldn’t be so concerned. Not to say that the community will always have its best interests at heart, but if the community’s already been a “DIY” community as the Planetzen article stated, then let it stay that way. One good thing is that all the current owners and even some of the new ones like the spirit and the DIYness of the area, as well as believe that the community as a whole wants to stay laid back. In fact, Motorco’s owner is a New Yorker. Yet, towards the end of the article, a long time business owner expressed a similar spirit to mine, that he likes all the changes, but he hopes the area maintains character.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sheryse Noelle DuBose’s admonition to “gentrify your own self!”  She reiterates the point to not leave behind assets because you don’t think they are cool enough. After all, so many people want what others don’t have, especially when it comes to “prime lands” along coasts, near mountains, in good farming shape and the center of cities. Think about the folks in Rosewood and Tulsa and to some extent Durham in the mid-20th century when the Durham Freeway was rammed in over Black Wall Street, who didn’t have the choice to stay or go. The Trail of Tears. Chinatowns that are such in name only.

The truest way to deal with sprawl and its cousin dis-investment, in essence gentrifying oneself, is to do what you can to build wealth and funnel it back into maintaining a sustainable community. We also have to have lawmakers and power brokers on the same page. The Warehouse District folks seem to be both powerful and humble enough to recognize the strength in a low-density, yet urban-style neighborhood and commerce center.

If we don’t exert our innate power, we will constantly be asking those who do have all the land and power, if we can gentrify ourselves. If we can maintain the simplicity that we love so much, along with the things that make us unique, yet still have the basics and a few luxuries and provide for the common good of our neighborhoods and the greater municipality as a whole, then we have in fact gone beyond gentrification. We have sustainability.


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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.