By Lynda Lopez
This summer, I had an encounter at an elected official’s office that I haven’t been able to shake. I was visiting one of the offices representing part of the Hermosa neighborhood in Chicago to chat with a staff member.
The topic of our meeting is unimportant; it’s what was said offhandedly that stands out as problematic. In the midst of our conversation, I mentioned that I lived in the Hermosa neighborhood. The staff member jumped on the opportunity to grace me with their thoughts on this “up and coming neighborhood.” Our conversation went as follows:
Staff member: Hermosa is beautiful, more beautiful than Logan Square. I have always felt like it calls to me. Do you own a home?
Me: No, I’m a renter.
Staff member: You need to buy now and sell it in five years for $1 million. Hermosa is up and coming. It’s just waiting to be discovered. Just give it five years.
Me: I don’t want anything like what’s happening in Logan Square to happen in Hermosa.
Staff member: Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want Hermosa gentrified, but the hipsters are already moving in. It’s right next to Logan Square and we see all that’s happening on Pulaski and Diversey. It’s only a matter of time.
Though I wanted to say a lot more, I decided to just steer the conversation away from this topic. It had made me noticeably uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to react because it wasn’t the right time to get into the issues of gentrification.
I left the meeting feeling a bit dejected. I left feeling like my neighborhood was being watched, examined from all angles like a piece on a chessboard. “This is an elected official’s office,” I thought. “These are the ideas we are up against.”
I was particularly struck with the way this person claimed not to want to see Hermosa gentrified, but all their views indicated otherwise. Perpetuating this idea that “gentrification is good” doesn’t always look like blatant disdain against poor people, as we often see at community meetings. These ideas often get advanced through coded language, when someone says that a neighborhood is “up and coming” or that it’s just “a matter of time before it changes.”
It’s these seemingly innocent remarks that can have the most detriment over time. It’s these remarks that seek to paint neighborhoods as idyllic, without the nuances of the issues and people. It’s this romanticization of neighborhoods that allow it to be reshaped by the imaginations of others. These comments commodify our communities, strip them of everything that doesn’t go along with a price tag. It all becomes a matter of what can be sold and repackaged for when someone “discovers it.”
It’s the implications of these remarks that obligates us to challenge them. We have to challenge problematic language, whether it be implicit or explicit, coded or not. When someone says our neighborhood is “waiting to be discovered,” let’s make it clear that we’re already there and we don’t need someone Columbusing at our doorstep.