Economy, politics fuel gentrification

By Darryl Holliday

The history of segregated neighborhoods in America is definitive, and Chicago, being one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, is the clearest example. There are places all over the city where one can see it exemplified every day of the week—choose any crosstown bus line.

Gentrification adds to the problem. Neighborhoods like Austin, Uptown, Bronzeville and Humboldt Park are a few examples where it is currently seen, not to mention the neighborhoods that have changed in the last 30 years, including Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Logan Square and Lakeview.

Gentrification is often described differently by different people, but it is basically the process of restructuring a community based on, and in expectation of, an increase in a more affluent population. Subsequent raises in property tax, rent and home prices make the neighborhood unaffordable for previous residents.

Gentrification can’t happen without participation of the local government and private markets.

In most cases, minority populations are moved from their neighborhoods and the poor are replaced by wealthier residents, who are statistically young, white professionals. It’s not quite red-lining, block-busting, racial steering or any number of systematic ways in which people are displaced. The difference is gentrification attracts wealth to a community and the other tactics are solely about racism; yet the same conclusion is reached.

Despite the typical argument, gentrification is less about mustachioed hipsters and more about money and the economy. It brings in revenue through higher taxes, new local business and development.

And everyone knows the state of Illinois is outstandingly broke.

It’s not surprising local governments and private markets are typically first to promote the idea of gentrifying a neighborhood through housing tax incentives, among others. However, “trend setters”—young, low-income, culturally adept types—also contribute to the aura of “up-and-coming” that attracts a wealthier crowd.

Worries about gentrification seem to stem from the perceived cultural loss, but culture doesn’t die, it just looks different over time.

Pilsen and its surrounding areas are a historical collaboration of several dominant cultures in the last 50 years. The neighborhood has historically been home to immigrant populations and one of the many effects can be seen in the various combinations of Latino public art on the largely Bohemian architecture.

Plans like the creative industries project in the Spice Barrel District, a proposed art community between Chinatown and Pilsen, as well as an influx of middle-class professionals bring about worries of property values increasing in the neighborhood. Huge residential development opportunities, in addition to a large lower-income population had people anticipating Pilsen’s gentrification for years.

Local activist groups that naturally arise from the community’s needs represent the most systematically oppressed populations. They are typically the first defense against irresponsible development. Strong community organizations are in tune with the needs of those most easily overlooked when a developer or politician wants to bring wealth to, or make money from, the community. Pilsen has several of these dedicated watch groups.

Everyone should be aware of his or her impact on the neighborhood. Being involved with the community is the best way to meet neighbors and learn of issues.

The push to bring in revenue will only increase in Chicago in the coming years. Ways to attract affluent residents will continue to edge displaced families into the suburbs and outlying areas away from where local governments hope to build a bustling,

profitable market.

But development has to happen. It’s one of the best ways to ensure growth and additional resources for the city.

We have to make sure it doesn’t happen at people’s expense.

Culture can’t be bought off by eager developers, but a local identity can be suppressed, scattered and forced into low resource locations when politicians find more value in the land than the people who live on it.