Gentrification and the church

February 5th, 2016

Moving to town

Before we moved to the city, we lived in a suburb. The houses were built in the 1970s and 80s, when garage doors were the primary entrance and people drove from one interior space into another. Many homes there were designed as a refuge from the world. There were no sidewalks, and we didn’t know our neighbors very well. We wanted to spend more time in the local cafe or park than in our living room. The urban neighborhood that we moved to is only minutes by bike from downtown Birmingham. The homes were built before air conditioning and automobiles, when people would take shelter from the summer heat on front porches and walk to the streetcar line.

Everyone has different lifestyle preferences when considering where they want to live, but we weren’t alone in our desire to live a more urban life. Urbanization, the growing concentration of our population in large cities, is actually accelerating. More than 80 percent of the United States’ population lives in urban areas. Younger people, who are more likely to live in cities, are increasingly less likely to have a driver’s license or own a car. Whether this is a cause or an effect of shunning the suburbs is up for debate.

Reversing history

This cultural shift has huge economic, political and racial implications. For decades, “white flight” was the dominant story about cities and suburbs. While people who identify as white make up 66 percent of the general population, they only make up 40 percent of the population of cities. Brooklyn is experiencing an increase in its white population for the first time in a century. The move back to urban areas, which involves real-estate development and changing neighborhoods, often leads to conflict and can be summed up in one word — gentrification. The word gentrification describes what happens to a community when wealthier people begin moving in and changing the culture and appearance of a neighborhood. It evolved from the word gentry, or nobility, from the European Middle Ages and was first used in 1972 to refer to the renovation of inner-city housing. According to The Wall Street Journal, “While the root of neighborhood conflicts is often money or class differences between white-collar and blue-collar workers, it often unfolds along racial lines.”

We can’t understand why gentrification is a racial problem unless we also understand the history of white flight. While some white families chose to leave cities throughout the Civil Rights Era and during desegregation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the reality is that city planners and real-estate developers encouraged the process much earlier than that. Redlining was the practice of assigning neighborhoods a grade, from A to D, associated with a color from green to red by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The HOLC analyzed the racial makeup of neighborhoods and actually made it more difficult to get FHA mortgages in locations where black people lived. This policy squeezed money out of cities and into suburbs. Sure, some people who identified as white may have left cities because of racial bias or school systems — but they were encouraged and financed by lenders. Meanwhile, those who remained in cities found their ability to invest in their communities restricted.

For decades, inner-city residents used their resilience, ingenuity and resourcefulness to create new businesses, raise families and make art in places that wealth had fled. Now that white flight is reversing, developers see abandoned commercial property and blighted residential property as potential hot commodities.

In my own city, I’ve seen that it’s easy for discussion of gentrification to focus on the surface issues — some people greet a new chain coffee shop, local brewery or bike path as signs of progress, but others see the loss of mom-and-pop stores or neighborhood character as creeping colonialism. People who are proponents of revitalization see gentrification as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of a free market. They ask, “What’s wrong with moving into old neighborhoods and fixing up old houses, removing blight and reducing crime?”

Whose neighborhood?

The documentary film My Brooklyn, by director Kelly Anderson, exposes the very un-free market collaboration between private real-estate developers and city governments interested in revitalizing neighborhoods. Anderson’s concern isn’t so much about gentrification as it is displacement and disempowerment. The “Downtown Brooklyn Plan” changed zoning to allow more freedom for developers. Residents and small business owners saw their rents increase and had to move away from their neighborhoods. The city removed building restrictions and requirements for rent controls, and developers quickly moved in to demolish historical buildings and build luxury high-rise condos in their place.

Longtime residents feel disfranchised from the decision-making process about their neighborhoods. After pouring years of energy into improving their community and begging local governments for basic services and investment in schools and daycares, wealthy developers get huge tax breaks and subsidies with promises of “improving” a neighborhood. Developers cash in on a neighborhood’s hip, authentic urban feel while displacing the entrepreneurs, artists and residents who gave the neighborhood its character. Brooklyn councilman Charles Barron opines, “When we get free money, it’s welfare. When they get free money, it’s subsidies. Well, either we’re on subsidies and they’re on subsidies, or we’re on welfare, and they’re on welfare.”

Whose church?

As a pastor and church planter, I’ve paid attention to the growth strategies of the church. For years, white churches have focused their planting efforts on new suburbs, following real-estate development the way early circuit riders and missionaries followed American settlers. Increasingly, church planters make the case for “following” millennials and younger families back into cities. One of the fastest growing churches in our state, which began in a wealthy suburb, has turned its sights on a nearby neighborhood with all of the enthusiasm of missionaries to a new country.

But even this well-meaning, missionary-minded activity can create resentment among residents and churches who have lived and carried out ministry in these neighborhoods for decades. Churches and church planters, like other business owners and nonprofits, can be agents of gentrification, unwittingly accelerating the displacement of their neighbors. When a church turns an abandoned lot into a community garden, they help provide healthy food and a place for neighbors to work together. But they also raise the property value of the nearby apartment complex, which may make the current owner more likely to sell it to a developer. Two or three years later, when the current residents have been forced out due to rising rents, what happens to the community garden?

Such quandaries about economic development are common for cross-cultural missionaries. In my experience, many American churches don’t have the patience to deal with them. But being willing to talk about uncomfortable truths related to history, race, class, culture and economics is necessary for us to do good without also doing harm. Rather than throwing up our hands in exasperation or charging blindly ahead with our own ideas about what’s good for a community, the first task is to listen and understand.

The task of the church is to spread good news — to old-timers and newcomers, but especially to the poor. Churches that stay awake to the real challenges of gentrification can also find great opportunities for ministry and life transformation and can create sacred spaces where all people can experience the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.


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