‘Urban Renewal’ Destabilizes Established Neighborhoods

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Illustration by Heather Rose.
Illustration by Heather Rose.

It’s hard to overlook the changes in sights and sounds of Highland Park, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles. Walking through the community in 2005 would have meant listening to the conversations of locals chatting about work or family, being enticed by the smell of fresh baked pan dulce from the local bakery all while dodging children as they chase after the man selling elotes and raspados.

In 2015, however, taking a walk through Highland Park means walking past repainted storefront signs that used to fashion taquerias and party supply stores but now illuminate art galleries, hip cafes and unfamiliar faces.

This trend isn’t unique to Highland Park. Many communities like San Francisco’s Mission District have seen vast changes in their neighborhoods. What were once cultural enclaves composed of working, middle-class residents have now been transformed into communities for upper-middle class folks who take yoga classes during the day and hang out at minimalist bars at night. This process is known as gentrification or “urban renewal,” resulting in displacement of existing communities.

While many have denounced gentrification and have referred to it as a modern form of colonization, author, journalist and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Héctor Tobar argues in a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times that this process generates a mixture of races and classes that can work to benefit communities like Highland Park — which he argues struggle with “de facto segregation.” Tobar argues that the “integration” of “bohemian and upper middle class” people will improve the quality of living and of education within the community.

Tobar’s argument is problematic, to say the least. It lacks a nuanced understanding of what “integration” and “segregation” mean. It’s not that communities like Highland Park are segregated, it’s that communities of color have chosen to make them home because of the networks that establish and facilitate relationships between community members.

For neighborhoods like Highland Park, which has a 45.1 percent foreign-born population, the community fosters kinship that helps those who struggle to find work and housing after their migration to the states. More importantly, these neighborhoods give community members a place to call home, where they can relate to their neighbors and shop at businesses that are similar to those in their home countries.

These long-standing community ties between neighbors and owners of local businesses are severed when folks are forced to move out and close their businesses because of rent increases.

Although Tobar acknowledges these issues, he brushes them off with an assumption that they can be fixed with policies like rent control that would limit and regulate rent increases. The National Multifamily Housing Council, however, argues that rent control has more downfalls than benefits. It argues that the effects of rent control weigh most heavily on the lower-income population.

Regulating rent is known to cause increases in rent for properties that are not controlled and has substantial effects on the quality of housing because these policies control how much property owners can allocate to maintenance and repair. While these policies help renters stabilize the costs, rent-control policies are only temporary bandages to a deep-seated issue.

The failure of rent-control adds to the question: Is this “integration” or is it colonization through displacing the existing community?

In Richmond, organizers are fighting similar battles with gentrification. UC Berkeley, which has plans to revamp its property in Richmond to make way for a new Berkeley Global Campus, has raised concerns within a community that fears that the new extension will result in the displacement of the black and Latino-majority neighborhood.

In response, organizers have asked for Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to sign a community benefits agreement that would guarantee affordable housing, job security and health benefits for current Richmond residents. This provides an alternative solution to battling the negative effects of gentrification, which Tobar argues are just means to an end.

Those who are interested in moving to Highland Park or similar communities need to remember that those neighborhoods are more than trendy spots to purchase $10 organic juices to wash down carne asada tacos — they are neighborhoods that are homes to those living within them.