Gentrification… and the Lie of History

In the NY Times this weekend they had an article about a one man show by Danny Hoch. The topic of his show was gentrification, and how it impacted natives of New York City. In the article they reviewed him and he had the following quote:

“I did a lot of community arts work through the 90’s, really believing that we were making a difference socially…. Within the last 10 or 15 years, those communities have virtually been erased.”

On a seemingly unrelated line, there is a history of the neighborhood that I live in, the River North neighborhood in Chicago. Here is a link to a document summarizing River North history, notably its time as a manufacturing area called “Smokey Hollow”. This article summarizes the demographic changes in the Near North neighborhood of Chicago by decade.

These types of documents talk about the history of a neighborhood as if it was continuous, with links between each era. However, the reality of urban areas like River North (and the New York of Mr.Hoch) is really quite different. Aside from some projects just north of Chicago Avenue near Cabrini Green, the neighborhood has turned over to a degree that most US residents would find astounding. There are literally no individuals living in River North that were even here ten to fifteen years ago.

The area was not heavily populated, with many industrial buildings. Over time, the industrial buildings were converted into galleries, offices, or high priced lofts. Any apartments that catered to the non-well to do have been leveled over time and either converted into high rise condominiums or free standing houses costing in the millions (nearby residents include Michael J*rdan’s wife and Mancow, the shock DJ).

If you were here, and working with a community group, and you returned, all of your residents are gone. The relentless rise in rents and the fact that this land, within walking distance of the loop and filled with restaurants and other attractions, is too valuable to have even modestly price residences.

On a holiday, such as Thanksgiving, when you drive your car through the garage and out onto the street the garage, which is usually packed, is empty. Why is this? Because no one is FROM here. Everyone empties out of the neighborhood on holidays and goes to see their family. You can practically see tumbleweeds rolling through the streets (except for tourists).

The sad fact is that poor communities can’t exist long term in an area of high property values. The forces of rising rents and higher quality housing (which is sold for more than locals can afford) are relentless. Unless there is the heavy hand of the state (rent control in NYC or Europe) the gentrification sweeps across the neighborhood like a brush, taking away the old and replacing it with the new. Many neighborhoods in Chicago represent the EXTREME of that circumstance, where virtually every previous resident has been displaced (all the more so since the stock of housing was relatively limited).

Reading a history of River North is interesting if you are looking for a vanished civilization, or seeking to understand the remaining architectural landmarks.

If you are looking for people, like Mr. Hoch, they are all gone. Erased.

Cross posted at LITGM

7 thoughts on “Gentrification… and the Lie of History”

  1. Argh the dreaded “reading assignment” comment right off the bat.

    It seems to me that neighborhoods are markets just like anything else – if you can afford to live there and want to, so be it. If the rents can be afforded, the people building the buildings get paid for their risk. Everything with where you live is tradeoffs – obviously if you have kids and live in River North, you have to factor in private schooling to your costs rather than send them to Chicago public schools (that is, if you care about them). Location is a factor as always. So many other things too.

  2. Yeah, I used to go to Yoga Circle in River North (it is River North, right?) years ago and was surprised by how quickly that neighborhood came up. That’s the fun and heartbreak of cities – neighborhoods change and when you first move in, it’s great, you are drawn to the buzz, but if you get used to something and like it the way it is, it just never lasts.

  3. The life of neighborhoods is a cycle, like everything else: they live-they die-they get reborn once again. The next step for the posh neighborhood you described, in this economy, will be to loose its well-paying renters and condo owners. Licquer stores will move in in place of the closed hi-end restaurants, XXX dvd shops – instead of expensive boutiques, as the rents will go down and “gentry” move out.
    And some people will still hold on and live to see the tide come in and out.

  4. I think ‘tide’ is exactly the right metaphor.

    I’m from a city in MA that was originally Irish; its earliest name on the map was, in fact, “Ireland Parish”. Then the WASPS moved in. Then the Italians, Poles, French Canadians, Greeks. Each group had its own neighborhood, school, and church.

    In the 1960s, Puerto Ricans found it to their liking. The city now has one of the highest Puerto Rican populations of any city in the US.

    Today, it’s Punjabis. One of the highest densities of this group in the US, too.

    Fires took out a lot of the historic buildings, from the Opera House to the old high school which had been converted into the community college. Redevelopment mostly affected farm lands rather than slums that were once middle class housing. But with all the mills and factory closed, there were attempts at redeveloping those sites.

    Prior to WWII, Georgetown in DC was mostly a slum. It was predominantly a Black area and people kept livestock in their small backyards. That certainly changed; it’s now among the priciest areas in the city. ‘Yuppification’ has pushed many of the poor out of other parts of the city, extending the ‘safe for Whites’ zone eastward by a few blocks over each of the last few decades.

    Housing prices in Georgetown have taken a hit in the current housing crash, but as most owners had had their homes long before the bubble started to grow, there’s not much panic. Houses that are priced realistically (relatively speaking, of course) are still selling, even if that price is in the low millions. With a new Administration coming in, there will be some churning, of course.

  5. One irony I’ve always “enjoyed” about the likes of our artist friend Mr. Hoch is that they are the first to decry the soulless, environmentally unsound suburbs.

    However, when kids who grew up in the suburbs decide to move into the city, they are “yuppies” who are “forcing out” the people who were already living in the city.

    Make up your mind already, will you?

  6. > Housing prices in Georgetown have taken a hit in the current housing crash, but as most owners had had their homes long before the bubble started to grow, there’s not much panic. Houses that are priced realistically (relatively speaking, of course) are still selling, even if that price is in the low millions.

    That’s no surprise, the main brunt of the housing problems have statistically been in Cali, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.

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