What makes a gentrifier?


[via StayFree!. Urban Black people need to do more of this kind of art.]

[2-day liberatormagazine.com featured story]

In a recent writers gathering at my crib the topic of alien migration/invasion came up. Alien, as in not from "here", wherever "here" is.

Gentrification is said to be bad. And I agree. I vehemently stand against it. But it's more nuanced than being annoyed with seeing more white skin in your neighborhood.

What makes a gentrifier an unwelcome presence is the gentrifier's desire to transform a neighborhood that he is a new member of, into his own image -- for his own comfort -- ignoring the existing cultural, political and economic infrastructure.

People been migrating into new neighborhoods and towns since the beginning.

The correct way to migrate into a locale is to do so as quietly as possible and to recognize that you are a guest, until you are welcomed and widely recognized as a citizen. One problem with so much free "freedom" in America is that it allows people to invade an alien location with the full power of the law, and one's "right" to live wherever they can afford, backing them up.

I think the gentrifier's insecurity upon invasion of a new town dictates that he have a chip on his shoulder about claiming his right to live in this new location, regardless of what the local culture says, or what naturalization procedures a local community might have in place. After all, the law outranks culture in this specific human civilization. That's just the way it is. If you don't like it go back to Africa (or wherever), cause it ain't changing ANYtime soon.

This all begs the question: what can a migrant do to not be a gentrifier?

Well, I think that no matter one's skin color -- let's be clear, Harlem is being gentrified by Black folk -- what is important is that he fit into the existing framework. This requires humility. It also requires acceptance of the existing culture -- for better or for worse. If it is for worse, in my opinion, the migrant should keep it moving. If it is for better, or at least "not for worse", than the migrant should be able to fit in just fine.

Sidenote: Of course, the existing community has a responsibility to articulate and practice -- or articulate through practice -- an existing framework. But for the sake of this stream of thought, we'll stay focused on the role of the migrant.

This isn't to say that a migrant has no right to agitate for "improvement" or change to the existing framework of the locale. It just means that the migrant ought to agitate through existing channels and relationships rather than trying to circumvent them in order to achieve one's goals.

If he can get this far, the migrant will have so far managed to avoid becoming a gentrifier. But now two questions arise: Will the migration be a permanent one? Or will the migrant be a temporary one? I think it's best if this is decided before the migration takes place. Or that there at least be a plan for one or the other. This can help with finding one's proper role in the community one plans to migrate to.

If one plans to migrate permanently, his expectations will be much higher than if one is only planning to migrate temporarily. The permanent migrant should do the work required to find a neighborhood that is either sufficient in its preexisting form, or a neighborhood in whose existing framework the migrant believes he can achieve his vision of the neighborhood he desires -- whether that requires a struggle to modify the existing framework from within or not.

Sadly, what usually happens is that the permanent migrant lets his ego and his concept of the rule of law get the best of him. Often time he chooses a locale based on non-human or romanticized factors. He then moves into the locale with the mission to replace the preexisting framework/culture with his romantic vision. Again, because in America the rule of law overrides culture, the prospects of stopping the permanent migrant from becoming a gentrified are slim.

But there is hope in transforming the temporary migrant, I think. The temporary migrant can be a little bit less picky -- he can be satisfied with an alien framework for a longer period of time. And, in theory, it should be easier to achieve humility in the presence of an existing culture. The most important thing the temporary migrant has to do is admit that he is a temporary migrant.

Being a migrant to New York myself, who took a big of risk by migrating here, I think it's important that we as migrants figure out why we've migrated to a place. I am in New York for the opportunities it affords me. I openly admit that my plan is to be a temporary migrant. I plan to build relationships and utilize the vantage point that New York provides, but only for a time -- even if I do hope to maintain the relationships and resources I gain even after no longer being physically in this place.

Deep down this place is unsatisfactory to me, and so I have a vision of relocating to a place that is more homely and less alien to me. It is important for the temporary migrant to be open about why he chooses to remain a temporary migrant.

But don't sleep, the temporary migrant can become gentrifier just as easily as the permanent migrant. In fact all I would have to do is start the work of making New York more home and less alien to me, without concern for the existing framework and culture. The only way the temporary migrant can avoid gentrification is by allowing humility to challenge him to accept the place for what it is. Improvements have to come after the humility. If the improvements come before the humility, the humility will never come. The only improvements I want to make to New York are the ones that the people who plan to be permanent residents or migrants want to make. At best, I can inspire ideas of change and be an assistant.

The goals of the migrant are to be welcomed by the existing community. Once that happens the migrant can observe things that he perceives as needing improvement, and voice them.

Where gentrification often syncs with the racial divide is due to the fact that in this society, White people aren't used to accepting humility first. Instead of seeing non-citizen status as a healthy institution of an existing community, it's seen as second-class status. And in American rhetoric, a second-class citizen is the worst thing one can be, even if they are temporary migrants to a place.

But if the temporary migrant can accept his non-citizen status humbly while contributing to his community through existing relationships and channels, he can avoid becoming an enemy of the people.

(and I guess this might apply to larger notions of migrancy or temporary residency too)