By Alex Reisman with contributions from Mimi Graney
I’m always finding more (usually food related) reasons to visit Union Square —bars, coffee shops, pop-up markets. It’s increasingly a destination to shop, dine, and drink, as well as an increasingly desirable place to live. Union Square is “up and coming,” revitalizing, or, in more provocative terms, gentrifying.
The transformation of Union Square has generally been a welcome change throughout the community, though not without some of the usual frictions of gentrifying places. Debates over the zoning that allows for greater heights and density, a proposal for new retail and housing at 380 Somerville Avenue, and, most recently, the plan to demolish the former Boys and Girls Club for an affordable housing development bring up different visions of Union Square’s present and future. Change in Union Square is inevitable. As we work together in building our neighborhood, it’s helpful to consider how each of us are affected, and how we might be able to embrace opportunities for positive impacts while limiting negative consequences.
Looking at it in the simplest terms, there are two major groups involved in gentrification processes: a neighborhood’s long-time residents (usually poor or working class) and the newcomers (“the gentry”)—old-timers versus yuppies, as the stereotypes have it. These stereotypes may not come from thin air, but they overlook much about the day-to-day reality of neighborhoods in transition, especially the ethnically and economically mixed communities of Somerville which have seen several waves of change over the past thirty years. The unsurprising and more generous truth is that both “sides” of the “us and them” equation are diverse and therefore embody a great range of perspectives and motivations.
First let’s consider the gentry—the folks moving into the neighborhood who tend to be “highly educated and residentially mobile.” While this group is sometimes popularly portrayed as a homogenous group of self-satisfied “urban pioneers” actively seeking to transform a neighborhood, sociologist Japonica Brown-Saracino’s research on gentrifiers says otherwise.
The “urban pioneer” type is out there, to be sure, but Brown-Saracino found that most gentrifiers recognize their complicity in a neighborhood’s transformation and often feel conflicted about it. Many specifically do not want to be associated with that image or mentality—they want to live in a neighborhood without necessarily altering it or disrupting it, and they seek to join the community already present. Yet, this group’s consumer choices drive a broader shift, a change they are not consciously making or comfortable acknowledging.
On the other side of the gentrification equation are a neighborhood’s long-time residents. Like the gentry, they are both a diverse group with myriad outlooks and are often conflicted about the changes they witness in their neighborhood. That is certainly what researcher Lance Freeman found in his conversations with poor residents in gentrifying New York City neighborhoods.
Many of his conversations, in fact, revealed surprisingly positive views of gentrification among long-time residents. They valued the new amenities, conveniences, and choices, as well as improved safety, even when they didn’t feel that the changes were “for them.” Even what would seem only to be trappings of the gentry, like a sushi restaurant, were appreciated and used by at least some indigenous residents. (Freeman’s observations also help debunk another myth, which is that lower income residents do not contribute to economic development. In fact, the collective spending power of low-income communities is significant.) Thus, while they are often made out to be little more than victims of gentrification, long-time residents are also beneficiaries.
Of course, they aren’t benefitting if they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. Hence, displacement—when residents are priced out of a previously affordable area—is widely seen as the greatest evil of gentrification. (Displacement also happens to small businesses, which is another important dimension of gentrification beyond the scope of this particular post.) It’s no surprise that fears of displacement were the main source of anti-gentrification sentiments among Freeman’s interviewees. Interestingly though, when Freeman specifically investigated the displacement threat, he was unable to find a causal link between gentrification and displacement.
In fact, he and his colleague found that poor residents without a college degree “were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods.” I don’t want to make too much of that finding, but I mention it only to suggest that the displacement equation is not so clear-cut. Factors such as new housing stock, homeownership, and affordable housing programs help make it possible for outsiders to move in without necessarily threatening to dislocate others.
But that doesn’t defeat the common-sense view that rising rents will inevitably strain or push out some residents, such as those who don’t own homes or who aren’t already participating in affordable housing programs. And new housing stock means that more people can be accommodated in one place, but it doesn’t guarantee that supply will keep up with demand or that rents will stay affordable. Anyway, even if the actual threat of displacement is not that significant, the perception of the threat is still a problem. It’s hard to be neighborly to newcomers and build a cooperative, cohesive community if there’s an underlying fear that one might not be able to stay there. Hence, the importance of preserving affordability—ideally through multiple tactics. Preserving affordability helps to keep current residents in their homes, it diminishes the fear of displacement among long-time residents, and it allows non-affluent newcomers to still move into the neighborhood.
In my reading, I discovered another, lesser-known consequence of gentrification that I think is also worth taking into account: the feeling among long-time residents that they are losing control of public space. Instead of experiencing the neighborhood’s public space as they always have, they are seeing a different culture take hold, and it feels foreign and isolating. This is a form of displacement too, and unfortunately one that might be even harder to treat.
But that’s not to stop me, for one, from wanting or advocating for investments which I believe will benefit the overall health of Union Square—things like building restoration, a new transit station, thriving businesses, and farmers’ markets. The challenge is engaging the whole community in these changes so that they are widely loved and accepted.
Changes that proceed incrementally allow residents new and old to weigh in and time to adjust. So far in Union Square a mix of public and private investment has driven slow, relatively modest, piecemeal transformation and this small-scale “in-fill” development is expected to continue. On the horizon, however, larger projects are coming into view. As public will, confidence and capacity is growing we’re preparing to take on the area’s long-standing, intractable challenges such as brownfields, traffic congestion, and limited public transit, as well as infrastructure problems like sewer systems, roadway design, and limited usable open space.
At Union Square Main Streets, we feel that such efforts can and will benefit the entire community and will hasten the revitalization of Union Square. Such significant public investment and change becomes an opportunity for residents to assess what works and what doesn’t work so well, and to guide that investment accordingly. It’s a chance to both protect favorite places and features, but also to think constructively about what should change (“visioning”). The street doesn’t have to be choked with traffic, the sidewalk doesn’t have to be a narrow deathtrap, that eyesore of an overpass doesn’t have to be there. Such things can change, and improvement needn’t spell displacement—cultural or physical.
Dialogue among planners, developers, city decision-makers and the various stakeholder groups affected by neighborhood change need to know what makes the neighborhood feel like home and what aspects matter most. That way, new investment can preserve important community institutions and build on neighborhood assets, rather than blindly altering them. Continuing to build on the structures of public engagement is essential as we together move forward into tomorrow.
Books cited in this post:
The Neighborhood That Never Changes, by Japonica Brown-Saracino
There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, by Lance Freeman