Public Transportation and Gentrification in Latinx Communities

Panelists unpack the intersection of public transit and gentrification.
Panelists unpack the intersection of public transit and gentrification.

By Lynda Lopez 

This week, I went to a panel discussion on public transportation and gentrification in Latinx communities. With what we’ve seen along the blue line and the 606, it couldn’t be a more pertinent time for this discussion.

What I particularly found valuable about this conversation was the nuance it brought to the issue of gentrification. Gentrification as a word is limiting and I acknowledge it. However, I still think we need to use it because it does describe a particular process of displacement and value creation in low-income communities, but we need to expand our language around it. In addition to gentrification, let’s talk about evictions, environmental justice, and suburbanization. In order to offer an accurate depiction of what’s happening in our communities, we need to broaden the terms we use and the way we talk about the processes.

One of the panelists particularly wanted us to think about gentrification in terms of environmental justice. “How do we see gentrification through an environmental justice lens?” asked Antonio Lopez, PHD of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

Lopez emphasized how we need to view gentrification through a lens that encompasses more than just housing. While we need affordable housing,  we also need better paying jobs for our people. We can’t simply accept having our people relegated to low-paying jobs.

I am guilty of viewing gentrification predominately through a housing lens. I think it’s partly because it’s the most visible part of the process. You can hardly go any block in Logan Square or Humboldt Park without seeing a new luxury single-family home or luxury tower going up. Land and homes are integral to value creation and the real estate speculation in gentrifying communities. It’s important to keep that critical lens regarding what housing is being built, but we do need to start challenging ourselves to think deeper about what a healthy community looks like. After all, we don’t simply want to be staving off gentrification. We want our communities to thrive. We want to move past “police-oriented development” and militarization as Lopez called what often happens in low-income, Latinx communities.

Addressing the specific topic of transportation and gentrification brought out the nuances that exist in examining this intersection. There are big concerns that gentrification is going to follow the pink line and the proposed Paseo Trail in Pilsen, much like it has followed the blue line and the 606 in the north side. Alma Zamudio, a community organizer, was quick to point out that it’s not as simple as viewing new transit options as suspicious and as drivers of gentrification. “Transportation doesn’t automatically mean gentrification,” Zamudio said. “It can mean access to jobs for low-income families.

Latinx communities need transit options and they deserve that without fear of displacement. It often feels like we have come to a point in this city where anything green and transit-oriented is a signifier for gentrification. We all deserve to live in communities with these kinds of amenities, but we also can’t blame people for their suspicion of something like El Paseo. In order for people to embrace these new amenities, they have to be coupled with a comprehensive plan to keep residents in their homes. We can’t have a conversation about transit and green space without also talking about housing. It’s incomplete and simply replicates processes of exclusion.

Much of the conversation around transit and neighborhoods is centering around this relatively new concept of transit-oriented development, which refers to development near transit stations. Nowhere is this more ubiquitous than the Milwaukee Avenue corridor in Logan Square. Huge TOD luxury towers line the area around the California and Western blue line stations. While the TODs mostly have 10% affordable units, this is still out of reach for most Latinx families in the neighborhood because 60% of the area median income is too high, according to Zamudio. She says we need to have a lower area median income for even the affordable units to be accessible to Latinx families. Jesse Mumm, PHD, had an even more critical take on TOD. He said that TOD is “whitewashing enveloped in language of community and improvement” and that TOD “is an invented term meant to prop up value.” With what is going on in Logan Square, anyone would have a hard time arguing that this isn’t the case. Regardless of the intentionality of TOD, the result has led to anything but equity.

The inequity in transit couldn’t be clearer as with the increasing suburbanization of communities of color. Jose Lopez of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center said, “Suburbanization was social mobility for white people, but it’s not the case for Latinx and black people.” Zamudio discussed growing up in Joliet and experiencing white flight and disinvestment firsthand. “I never had a chance to participate in anything like After School Matters,” she said. “There are a lot more resources in the city.” The displacement to the suburbs perpetuates isolation and confines people of color to places with few resources and transit options. Zamudio foresees a lot more organizing happening in the suburbs in the demand for more resources.

The conversation fittingly ended with a discussion about identity and whiteness. One audience member asked about the role and responsibility that college-educated Latinx people have in gentrifying neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as gentefication. I wholeheartedly believe we all need to interrogate our role in the process, even if people of color aren’t driving the speculation. As consumers and agents in neighborhoods, we can’t sit back and absolve ourselves of responsibility. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the process by the very act of being in a gentrifying community. It’s up to us to determine what our role will be.

Mumm specifically touched on the role of whiteness in spurring the gentrification process and why some neighborhoods don’t gentrify. He gave the example of Garfield Park being one of the most transit-accessible neighborhoods in the city. You are never more than a few blocks from a train station and it was once named one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. Even so, it hasn’t gentrified. This innate fear of blackness and the association Garfield Park has with poverty and disorder has kept it from doing so. On the other hand, whiteness has the opposite effect. Whiteness signifies value. Gentrification always ties back to this value associated with whiteness in community. Mumm said to counter gentrification, “We need to disrupt the market and remove this artificial linkage of whiteness and value in community.”

Examining and deconstructing gentrification requires approaching it from multi-faceted lens. It’s a matter of taking all those angles and bringing them together to lead us to a more nuanced, complete way of looking at this incredibly complex process.