Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Don't need a study to convince me that poverty is a bigger problem than gentrification in Nashville

I don't need convincing just because I can be labelled a "gentrifier." I encounter individuals once in a while who insist that gentrification is the worst thing that happens to neighborhoods like those in North Nashville. While I do not believe that gentrification--however we define it--is an absolute boon, I don't believe it's an absolute bust.

I tend to believe that the real culprit that destroys the cultural vitality and authentic diversity in established neighborhoods is poverty, untrammeled home values and skyrocketing rent that drive working class people out of our communities. I believe that gentrification, as a tool for building the middle class in diverse communities, can have a positive impact if measured and controlled so that poverty does not pool and concentrate elsewhere.

Now come indications from a national report consistent with my views:

Gentrification is the bete noire of the yuppie: once affluent professionals have settled a previously rundown neighborhood, they get cranky about how others like them are ruining the place. Nashville is the latest in the “gentrification is killing the city’s soul” meme.

Gentrifiers, however, are not ruining the US – or at least, not enough of it.

An exact opposite of gentrification is playing out. Instead of neighborhoods rebounding, they are getting older, shabbier and the people who live there are falling deeper into poverty.

The number of neighborhoods with a high poverty rate has tripled over the last 40 years, according to Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, authors of a new report published by City Observatory.

Having voiced my affinity with those findings, I hasten to add that this kind of knowledge can be twisted into an oppressive, dangerous advocacy for growth. Developers and planners could use information like this to justify wanton demolition of existing homes, headlong pursuit of maximized infill and assumed freedom to take as much wealth out of neighborhoods as planning policy allows without a call of conscience. The risk of excusing gentrification is that we give cover to developers without demanding that they address problems of poverty, too.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing gentrification a bit, too. Keeping gentrifiers honest is not a bad thing.

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