Let’s talk about America. Apple pie. Baseball. Gentrification. Oh, you can throw in genocide and international warmongering in there if you wanted. But those are negative things, and while America has plenty of black marks in its past, present, and likely future, gentrification does not belong among them. It belongs among the apple pie and baseball.
The term, which was coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in the mid-20th century is defined by Miriam-Webster’s as “the process of renewal accompanying the influx of middle-class people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier, usually poorer residents.” Dictionary.com defines it as: “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods…”
Let me ask you: Who likes running errands? Who likes Target?
Think of how much better your life is with a neighborhood Target. You can get your clothes, your groceries, electronics and prescriptions filled all at one stop. You can’t do that at a small business shoe store or a bodega or a Radio Shack or a standalone pharmacy. And those smaller stores employ only a handful of people. Each Target employs hundreds. Sometimes those small stores are family owned and operated, so only one family makes the money. With Target, hundreds of families are able to earn money, in some cases with health benefits, too. This would not be possible without gentrification — without the renovation of a deteriorated neighborhood.
Yes, there is always some displacement as a neighborhood is improved. Displacement does not have to be a bad thing. Displacement brought people to America. It can save people’s lives as it did when people fled Europe in the 1930s. Growth and prosperity most often comes from stepping out of your comfort zone. Gentrification in America often displaces a specific ethic group that has been living and operating in an ethnic bubble. That prevents inclusion and promotes the idea that different ethnic groups are too dissimilar to live among one other, which breeds ethnic fear and racism. Hardly the melting pot America claims to be.
If all ethnic groups weren’t pushed out of their exclusive neighborhoods to mix and mingle with others, German immigrants would never know the joys of tacos or Polish sausages. None of us would.
Gentrification is not ethnic cleansing. Not in America. In America, gentrification is taking advantage of low property values so that we can all build our lives and our businesses and our families, and truly thrive and achieve the American Dream.
Let’s look at Bucktown, a Chicago neighborhood, as a result of how gentrification has created improved living conditions.
As you probably know, Bucktown earned its name from all of the goats raised in the neighborhood when it was the epicenter of what was called the Polish Downtown. The residents called it Kozie Prerey, which translates to Goat Prairie. Ever been to a goat prairie? It smells like goat shit. And goat shit stinks. I was going to bring in some goat shit tonight to support this argument but thankfully there is not goat shit lying around Bucktown anymore. We have gentrification to thank for that.
In the 1980s, in Bucktown, as is often the case, artists were the first to begin moving into the traditionally Polish neighborhood. During Reagan’s America, the Polish Downtown had taken a downturn and the low rent options and unique cultural identity was attractive and even necessary for the artist community. It provided them a perspective into immigrant Americana while giving them roofs over their heads and space to create.
With the influx of new residents that were not exclusively Polish, Bucktown, and its neighbor Wicker Park, witnessed a boon of new businesses and experiences that brought the neighborhood to life. Reinvigorated! Art galleries, restaurants, bars, music halls… Without change, Bucktown would still be a field of goat shit and there wouldn’t be a Target on Elston and Western. A neighborhood experiencing gentrification — renewal, renovation — experiences a growth of diverse businesses and, therefore, diverse consumers looking for diverse and exciting entertainment. In the last few years alone, Bucktown/Wicker Park has seen the opening of a Nike store, which was half a block from an Asics store. The Asics store closed but there’s still a Reebok store and an Adidas store. All of these are within a short walking distance from each other. Thanks to this ongoing renewal of a once dilapidated area, you now have three choices of top brand athletic apparel.
This answers the need of the Bucktown community because there is a Bucktown Athletic Club, which is a really nice gym with spinning classes and yoga and treadmills. There’s also the 606, which, without the city’s desire to invest and improve and renovate its deteriorated areas, would still be a weed-riddled abandoned rail line serving no other purpose but providing a place for riff-raff to consume their drugs and plot their crimes against the citizenry. Nothing good ever happens on abandoned train tracks. The gym, the 606 and the athletic apparel stores promote healthy living. Running along the 606, walking along its path with your family is a far better way to live a better life compared to breathing in goat shit. As a reward for the residents’ hard work to live healthful lives, there’s a Stan’s Donuts next to the Damen Blue Line stop. Stan’s would not exist there if not for gentrification.
There’s a Lululemon store nearby, too. Any pervert worth their salt has gentrification to thank for that.
The new storefronts, the 606 and the continued arrival of upwardly mobile residents looking to support these neighborhood businesses increase the beauty and the financial health of our city. That was not the case before gentrification began.
Take a moment to consider Lincoln Park’s Clybourn Corridor. The 1500 block of North Kingsbury Street used to be a dark, scary stretch home to strip clubs and desolate regret. Now there’s a Whole Foods and strip clubs. You can get titties in your face and wash ’em down with an $8 bottle of water with a sprig of mint in it. That, too, is thanks to gentrification.
Yes, this leads to the inevitable rise of property value and can price out longtime residents who cannot afford the hikes in rent or property taxes. But there is nothing written in any of America’s documents about people never having to move or adjust to changing times. The Declaration of Independence says that we have the “pursuit of happiness. Pursuit is an active noun. Gentrification is the pursuit of happiness. It encourages — sure, even forces — us to get off our asses and reinvent ourselves for the better, seek new land. It is the American way to always be writing our own history and redefining our destiny. In Chicago, gentrification tells us to “Go West, young man!” If things were to stay the same we’d be Russia. Is that what you want?
Chicago is historically and currently a terribly segregated city. That’s not the kind of city I want to live in. Is it the kind of city you want to live in? I’m not saying that if you oppose gentrification that you’re a racist but true progressivism requires the blending of cultures and the changing of neighborhoods. Gentrification is progress.
This is a transcript originally performed by David Himmel at Literate Ape's BUGHOUSE! on Jan. 8, 2018. Don Hall made the opposing argument. His piece can be read here. Himmel won the debate, which proves that it truly is endless. Brown people die off eventually but Target is never going away. This and all the debates can be heard delivered on the BUGHOUSE! Podcast.
The next BUGHOUSe! is Monday, Feb. 12 at Haymarket Pub & Brewery at 7 p.m.