What pre-gentrification neighborhoods need to be asking

Hermosa is a neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (streetsadvisor.com)

By Lynda Lopez

I have been thinking a lot about anti-gentrification work in pre-gentrification neighborhoods. The difficulty with this is in trying to convince people to care about an issue that is still hypothetical.

Gentrification is not an unreasonable hypothesis given the historical context of the city, but unique approaches need to be undertaken to engage neighborhoods in this issue at this stage. The term “gentrification” is also not useful at this point (but that’s another post for another time).

When a neighborhood isn’t experiencing massive investment or speculation, gentrification isn’t seen as a factor. Signs of a coming wave (breweries, tourist attractions, inclusion in “hot” neighborhoods list) are not seen as a negative, but are merely seen as indicators of improvement. For a neighborhood to be gentrified, there needs to be a massive infusion of capital. Here’s the thing, though; if your neighborhood has been historically disinvested, initial investment isn’t seen as a negative. I don’t necessarily want to encourage people to see everything new as unwanted, but it’s also misguided to accept any new infusion as positive, regardless of lack of prior investment.

I am not under the belief that we can retain neighborhoods unchanged. I don’t expect that and I also don’t want that, but I also recognize the violence that comes from complete erasure. Having grown up in Humboldt Park and Hermosa, part of my resistance stems from wanting to recognize places as I get older, wanting to frequent some places I still love. Memories are intricately tied to places and without those places our memories face another form of displacement. If the places in our memories no longer exist, what do our memories become? The emotional and physical casualties of changing neighborhoods cannot be understated.

More than anything, I want long-time residents like my mom to feel they have a place in the neighborhoods they have called home, to feel like their dreams matter. In our capitalistic society, dreams don’t matter as much as capital. People can work for a lifetime, toiling away at jobs, and still be left out of the dream. That is often the story of displacement in our city.

We are at a place where we can’t afford to let things happen naturally in accordance to the market. There are no protections for low-income and poor people in our neighborhoods. If rents rise, they are the first to go. If homes are demolished, they’re the ones that lose affordable rentals. When luxury single-family homes are constructed, they are the ones that have no chance of buying those homes. They’re always the first to go. The very nature of our society and city is built on foundations that make life for working people precarious. We need to acknowledge this fact and think about our neighborhoods through this lens.

I want Hermosa and other pre-gentrification communities to ask questions as new amenities and developments become proposed. I want us to ask who is behind them, whom they’re affiliated with, and how they’re going to benefit us. I want us to ask how everything new is going to benefit all community members; not just homeowners, middle-class residents, and white people. I want our communities to ask questions with regards to media coverage and think about how our neighborhoods are portrayed and whose purposes they serve.

I don’t know the answers to these challenging questions, but it’s up to us to be asking them.