Whiteness as a trigger


By Lynda Lopez

I can’t say how many times I’ve had friends tell me their shock at seeing white people get off the bus farther and farther west. “They even get off at Pulaski now,” says one friend. Transit patterns demarcate boundaries. In a city as segregated as Chicago, you get used to these invisible dividing lines. You grow up used to white people living in the nicer, wealthier parts of town. As people of color, our communities are rarely allocated the resources to fully meet our needs. Despite the marginalization, our communities are rich with people, vibrancy, and culture.

With the history of gentrification throughout the north side, there is fear of the loss of community. Logan Square has itself lost over 19,000 Latino residents over 15 years, while gaining over 10,000 white residents. You see Latino restaurants replaced by restaurants called Furious Spoon. Bars upon bars line the main thoroughfare in Logan Square. You see less brown faces getting on the train in the morning.

White faces are the triggers to all of that. The power of whiteness knows no bounds in the reshaping of community. Whiteness is seen as value, as dollars. Communities are seen as worth investing in when the people walking by are no longer brown or black.

With the violent act that is gentrification, many people of color are on edge when white people move into their neighborhood. When white people start getting off at their bus stop, they wonder, “Are we the next Wicker Park?” It’s the natural response to years of polices that gentrify our communities for the sake of attracting wealthier, mostly white people.

My community would be considered pre-gentrification. On the northwest side, it isn’t gentrifying yet, but you see initial signs of change ahead. A few white people can be seen getting off the bus stop west of Pulaski. Five years ago, this would have been unheard of. Even 6 months ago, this would have been unheard of (at least to my naked eye).

For me, white faces in my neighborhood means the potential WickerParkification of my community. It means my family potentially never being able to own a home in the neighborhood, the dreams of my mom’s garden washed away. It means relics of my childhood, staples of community being whitewashed. It means the voices of newcomers starting to be centered in conversations around priorities.

As people of color, our voices have never mattered to the city. If the history of this country and city has taught us anything, it’s that people of color have to fight for space. Our spaces have always been precarious, subject to outside intervention. The only time we become valuable is when the city wants to turn our communities into playgrounds for tourists. “Oh, look at all the culture in this historically Mexican neighborhood.” Our cultures are commodified, repackaged for consumption, while our space is remade for the inhabitance of new people.

The centering of whiteness is at the root of the gentrification of communities. Whiteness is what the city wanted when they tore down the public housing high-rises, when they gentrified Cabrini. Whiteness is what the city implicitly means when they say “building a new Chicago.” Whiteness is the idea behind the euphemism of revitalization.

We need to have tough conversations about what whiteness means in the context of community. It’s about making sure we don’t center white voices. It’s about being conscious of how we determine priorities for our communities. It’s about challenging the voices of new inhabitants that often seek to criminalize people of color.

Fighting gentrification has to be broader than more affordable housing. It has to be about decentering and critiquing whiteness in our communities, while building communities that are unapologetically black and brown.