Are you a middle or high-income earner, who is probably white (but not necessarily!) and has moved into a predominantly black or Latino low-income neighborhood? And is that neighborhood rapidly changing, as longtime residents move to less expensive suburbs because they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood’s revamped, much pricier apartments? Check off a bingo card if you must: you live amongst hip coffee shops, with white people where white people never dared to go before and patronize yoga studios that were once corner stores. Face it: you’re a gentrifier.
For the self-aware and well-meaning among the gentry, the guilt can be almost akin to white guilt — your very existence can make you feel bad. But if you’ve moved into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, there are ways you can be a good neighbor. Here are five things to get you started, and feel free to suggest more in the comments section:
1. Get involved, but first listen and learn.
- Diane Levy, a senior researcher for the Urban Institute who studies neighborhood changes, suggests getting involved in neighborhood organizations and civic associations in an effort to get to know the community. And that’s something that makes sense when moving into any community, gentrifying or not.
“Not everything in a community is easily knowable, but try to get to know the community before coming in and pointing out, as the new person, what needs to be done differently,” she says. “In the case of gentrifying areas, it’s easy for somebody to come in with a certain view of what makes for a good neighborhood and focus on what they see as negative without trying to understand what makes the neighborhood what it is.”
I hear that neighborhood blogs are good places to get to know a community, no? Sure, Levy says, but be careful of what you write, even if it’s an anonymous comment.
“Some of the comments people will post, it’s anonymous and people think they can say anything and no damage done. But write things you would be willing to say directly to somebody’s face,” Levy says. “Because even though it’s a virtual space, it’s real. It can have an impact.”
The impact cuts both ways — negative comments perpetuate stereotypes of the neighborhood, but they can also perpetuate the stereotype that all gentrifiers share the same negative feelings.
2. Say hello to people, and if you have a front porch, use it.
Levy says that greeting people “may seem really simple,” but it’s something that many newcomers neglect to do. Levy, who is a white, middle-income woman, moved 10 years ago into a predominately black neighborhood in D.C.’s Park View. At the time, she noticed that many of her new neighbors said “hello” to her each other. That kind of small-community feel starkly contrasted to her former Dupont Circle neighborhood in which passersby often walked down the street as if they were strangers.
“It’s sort of fitting into that, and in a way, it’s being polite, being friendly, being open. But it was also a way to act in accordance with a neighborhood,” she says. “It allowed me to blend into what the norm was there, as opposed to walking down the street in my own little enclosed world. Again, it was fitting into what I perceived the norm, and I really liked it.”
But what if you get an angry look or comment in return?
“My feeling on that is, so what?” she says. “… You haven’t lost anything by saying hello, and if you keep doing it, some people will break down and say ‘hello’ back.”
And as for front porches: “It’s another way to create those opportunities, because it’s another way to be neighborly,” she adds.
3. Have a baby or get a dog.
OK, obviously you shouldn’t give birth to a child in order to be a good neighbor. But if you just happen to have a baby around, be mindful of how your interactions with your neighbors may change. Same goes with dogs.
“Babies are cute. They’re perceived as innocent. They are another little being around [which] people can at least smile, and if not at least chat, at the corner market or at the bus stop or wherever,” Levy says. “It’s sort of like saying ‘hello,’ having an infant or a dog. It creates more open spaces and more opportunities for positive interactions. Not that it’s necessarily going to go there, but it creates the opportunity.”
Dogs have gotten a bad rap — remember “white people believe more in their dogs than they do in people?” But DCentric blogger Anna John has previously written about how her dog has created opportunities for positive interactions that didn’t exist before:
I hated Columbia Heights when I moved here fourteen months ago. Compared to my old neighborhood, everyone here was rude, entitled and anti-social. I was used to greeting my neighbors and chatting with them whenever I saw them, whether on the sidewalk or in a store. Here, no one returned my greetings and I rarely heard an “excuse me” if someone knocked me out of the way. All of that changed dramatically when I got my puppy.
Suddenly, people were friendly. They wanted to know all about her. They smiled as she wagged her tail so hard, her entire body wiggled. They asked if they could pet her. They told me how much she reminded them of the dogs they had grown up with. In a city where most of us don’t talk to each other, especially if we don’t have race or social class in common, people of all hues and bank account balances were chatting with me, offering me advice and forging connections.
4. Don’t automatically cross the street to avoid young, black kids.
This is something Levy (and myself) have noticed among some young, white commuters in particular. For instance, there is a recreational center near Levy’s home where children and youth often hang out in front. Some commuters getting off the nearby Metro pass by the center as they walk home.
“And I’ve noticed this in terms of white people who will cross the street before they even get there,” often going out of their way, or blatantly crossing the street near the center, she says. “Sometimes there’s an assumption that because they are kids, you will have cracks thrown at you or something. But you walk by and you’re either going to say ‘hi’ and they’re going to say ‘hi’ back, or they’re going to make a comment and you ignore it, or they will most likely ignore you because you are not the center of their world.”
A lot of Levy’s advice centers around being aware and mindful of your own internal reactions to various social situations and questioning those motives. In the case of crossing the street, she says people may want to ask themselves: “Is this something I really need to be worried about? Or is this sort of a knee jerk reaction?”
5. Visit local, small businesses and take note of what they offer. Some sell things you actually want.
It’s difficult for existing, small businesses to survive waves of gentrification, even if they start selling products appealing to the new residents. John McIlwain, a housing and urban issues expert with the Urban Institute, previously explained to us that “if the store sends the message that this is a store for the low-income community, most of the new residents… will look elsewhere to shop.” This is despite what products the store carries.
Those kinds of unspoken messages include such things as having bullet-proof glass. Whether the shop owner should adopt to survive and take down the glass altogether is another matter. But if you need a nice bottle of wine or a gallon of organic milk, don’t necessarily assume a store doesn’t have it simply because of the presence of bullet-proof glass. Check it out first.