Last month I joined some of my NHC colleagues in St. Paul for a meeting of our Inclusive Communities Working Group. The topic of the all-day meeting was “Gentrification without Displacement,” and I helped launch the day’s discussion with a presentation of an informal analysis of how gentrification is portrayed in local and national media. What stood out for me in these news stories was both the common frame of gentrification as inevitable, and the pain and helplessness expressed by many residents, particularly Black and Latino residents, as they watched their communities change around them.
An anonymous leaflet I found in my neighborhood one recent morning brought these observations to mind. My husband and I rent in a majority Black, middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and it doesn’t take a gentrification calculator to tell me that yes, we’re gentrifiers. We also love our neighborhood, have become close with many of our neighbors and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else in this city. The flyer in question reached too deeply into the politics of D.C. neighborhoods to describe in detail here, but it included some lightly substantiated allegations of wrongdoing against formal and informal neighborhood leaders who happen to have been part of the neighborhood’s first wave of gentrification.
One of the flyer’s specific arguments regarded the leaders’ advocacy for a new dog park in our neighborhood. Americans at all levels of income own dogs, and one imagines the desire to get a dog out of the house and into a fenced area where it can tire itself out crosses racial and ethnic lines as well. But dog parks, like bike lanes and other urban quality-of-life improvements, are powerful symbols of gentrification. It should not be surprising when long-time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods question the motives of city leaders when dog parks and other neighborhood upgrades seem to follow closely the arrival of new, higher-income neighbors.
This type of observation can easily develop into a belief in a greater conspiracy. According to research on the psychology of conspiracy, conspiracy theories arise when feelings inspired by circumstance—alienation from institutions, low levels of trust, heightened sensitivity to threat, a sense of vulnerability—hyper-activate our brains’ natural processes of pattern-seeking and protective suspicion to turn run-of-the-mill activities like new development or government initiatives into something much more sinister. What’s more, “recognition of historically documented, anti-black conspiracies” among African-Americans makes current anti-Black conspiracy theories more plausible to them than to Whites without the same historical knowledge. So for some, a dog park is just another amenity. For others, a dog park can call to mind the wounds of the past that only deliberate collaboration and trust-building can heal. Toss in rapid redevelopment and out-of-reach housing costs, and you have fertile ground for conspiracies to take root.
I don’t think gentrification is a conspiracy. But I do think it’s vital that local governments, community leaders and developers of all kinds understand the symbolic weight of their plans and actions, in addition to the economic impact. As we seek to create opportunity in struggling communities, we must be aware of what our work—not just our words—communicates.