Sunday, March 2, 2014

Spike Lee Sends Mixed Messages On Urban Gentrification

Last week, movie producer, Spike Lee  went on a rant about gentrification and the impact for  those long-term residents still living in urban neighborhoods and the conflicts with their newer neighbors.  

Spike Lee was then interviewed by CNN Anderson Cooper, to clarify his position on gentrification.    Admittedly, I must be less intelligent because  most certainly I did not fully comprehend what the hell he was talking about. 

However, gentrification, as it turns out is a complex concept and has been in the social and political science vocabulary for quite awhile. 

According to Wikipedia: 

Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.Gentrification is typically the result of investment in a community by local government, community activists, or business groups, and can often spur economic development, attract business, lower crime rates, and have other benefits to a community. Despite these potential benefits, it has been suggested that urban gentrification can lead to population migration which may involve poorer residents being displaced by wealthier newcomers

Probably because I grew up in a modest white middle class neighborhood, I understood the concept of white flight in the 1960s and fair housing and resultant integration was a controversial term for many predominantly white suburbs.

For the Ohio urban areas of Akron, Barberton, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown the deterioration of these cities was a tragedy as their industrial bases moved out of the urban areas to the south and overseas. 

Source of Photograph of City of Akron Skyline: Discover Akron/Summit (the official visitors bureau resource site)

The best and most personal example for me was the situation for my white college friend Ed.  Ed lived with his parents on a Princeton Avenue in Akron, Ohio.

Edward's mother was a stay at home house maker and his father retired from  Ohio Edison.  Practicing Catholics, Edward's parents raised three children in their home on Princeton and managed to scrape enough funds to send their two daughters and Ed to Akron's Hoban Catholic high school and onto the University of Akron. Ultimately by the time Edward was attending college,  they had both retired and owned their home. 

As the neighborhood on Princeton deteriorated due to white flight as well as the industrial base leaving the area, his parents managed to keep their house beautifully manicured.   Ed's parents liked their home, and perhaps still liked thee neighborhood.   But to sell their home would have been at a loss due to the conditions of the neighborhood. Edward’s parents home appeared as on oasis as the surrounded by run down homes occupied by lower income families and slowly creeping in criminal element. 

I lost touch with Edward but had heard his parents had died.  About a year ago, I was curious as to what happened to Edward’s family’s house.  The only thing recognizable about the house was the address as the home was now deteriorated and any good memories of the previous tenants had left a long time ago.

East Cleveland, Ohio is a classic example of how white flight destroyed a once prospering community. East Cleveland had a proud history and even had a street referred to as Millionaire’s Row that included the residence of John D. Rockefeller.

For those who grew up in East Cleveland in the 1940s-1960s, a visit to their former neighborhood now is very disconcerting.  

Like many urban cities, when poorer blacks moved into East Cleveland and other urban areas, property values dropped.

Source of Photograph:  East Cleveland, Ohio The Other Side of a Suburban Ghetto 

Let's face it, white flight was based on prejudices.   Real estate developers capitalized on those prejudices by obtaining homes for a great price to sell to minorities. As white families saw their neighborhood become integrated, they sold their homes at a loss or a break even price to either get away from their new neighbors or get out before their home values depreciated. 

East Cleveland became the poster city of declining cities much, as is Detroit Michigan. 

As the middle class tax base moved, East Cleveland became a poorer city.   With a resultant lower tax base, city services as fire and police were reduced.   And the city become somewhat legendary when the criminal element took over the city neighborhoods  in the many abandoned and low priced former family homes.   (And East Cleveland had its share of crooked politicians who took bribes while the city they managed was going down the drain.)

Source of Graph: East Cleveland, A Case Study 

Fortunately, many urban areas like East Cleveland and Cleveland itself are slowly starting to rebound due to some industries and a new industrial base moving back to northeast Ohio.

Perhaps Spike Lee can ponder the good old days in his mansion not located in the neighborhood of his childhood.    And no doubt, old urban neighborhoods have a colorful history for their former and now successful residents who also fled them.  For Spike Lee, the neighborhood provides a good source of stories and yet would the old neighborhood  actually be a place Spike would really like to move back to?  

There are many reasons why people want to relocate to urban areas.  A city could be well run and with a good tax revenue and a civic minded citizenry.  

There are many advantages to city services, which cannot be beat, which makes it desirable to move to urban areas.    And with the new influx of upper and middle class residents combined with current law-abiding lower income residents, a city could be culturally diversified and responsive to the needs of all its residents not only in the neighborhoods but also in the school systems.  

It is a tragedy that urban residents are being displaced, largely due to poverty caused by a very bad economy.  But it is great that urban areas are becoming revitalized again and if gentrification is what it is needed then it is a good thing.

Perhaps Spike Lee needed to articulate more clearly that today's cities need more financial allowances  to assure that lower income law-abiding residents should not compelled to move out of their neighborhoods.

Additional Reading: 

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