In 2006, my family moved into a brownstone in Harlem, New York. Though I was young, I remember other family members being skeptical about the decision. They questioned my parent’s choice to live in the ‘sketchy’ and supposedly dangerous neighborhood. For years, my parents and I were met with the question “Do you feel safe there?” whenever we disclosed where we lived, and we spent a great deal of time assuring people that whatever conception they had of Harlem was incorrect.
However, the nature of these conversations has rapidly changed over the past couple years. I haven’t been asked about my sense of security at home for some time, and people frequently comment about how ‘nice’ it’s getting in Harlem. Bodegas and empty storefronts have been converted into nook-in-the-wall coffee shops and barn-aesthetic restaurants. Businesses are more vibrant than ever, and now there’s always a group of children playing outside Alexander Hamilton’s house in St. Nicholas Park.
I’ve heard the words ‘gentrification’ and ‘revitalization’ tossed around in conversations about Harlem. The distinction between the two is an important one: the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at The Ohio State University defines gentrification as “the process by which higher income households displace significant numbers of lower income residents of a neighborhood, thus changing the essential character and flavor of the neighborhood.” Revitalization, on the other hand, entails neighborhood improvement and reinvestment without people’s displacement. It encompasses a wide range of goals, like creating mixed income housing, developing wealth building strategies for current residents, preserving existing networks and services while expanding options, and creating a more diverse community. So rather than changing the culture and population of a neighborhood, revitalization aims to preserve key characteristics of a community while helping its inhabitants.
Some claim the changes in Harlem are the result of revitalization– that steady improvements have been made over time and have caused the neighborhood to feel more livable, safe, and inviting (though the assumption that Harlem was none of these before is problematic). However, many existing residents have not been the recipients of this perceived positive change. Rather, they’ve been increasingly displaced by whiter and wealthier families looking to find cheaper housing and remake the neighborhood into something more comfortable for themselves: from 2000 to 2005, 32,500 blacks have moved out of the Harlem district while 22,800 whites have moved into it. These residents are the ones living in the newer and more expensive apartment complexes that have recently been constructed. Viewing this process as revitalization is staunchly incorrect; instead, gentrification has occurred, and resulted in a serious demographic shift throughout Harlem. In fact, the NYU Furman Center ranks Central Harlem, East Harlem, and Morningside/Hamilton Heights as gentrifying neighborhoods with the 2nd, 5th, and 6th highest percent change in average rent from 1990 to 2010-2014. Harlem’s attributes have not necessarily been bettered; they’ve been changed altogether.
Knowing that my family played a part in this process has made me feel responsible for understanding the issue of gentrification more deeply. More precisely, I’ve had to learn about the differences between gentrification and revitalization, which is all-too-often used as a more pleasant-sounding synonym. That both can entail causing drastic changes in a neighborhood potentially makes it hard to distinguish between them. However, the polar opposite effects they have on existing residents are what make a clear distinction, and warrants are close interrogation of what’s labeled as efforts for “revitalization.”
During my time at Penn, I’ve seen some examples of promising community revitalization. At recent trip to Magic Gardens, I learned that the construction of the mural involved renovating derelict buildings while adding art to public and private walls in the city. Artists and activists involved with South Philadelphia and Magic Gardens even helped prevent the construction of a highway that would have destroyed South Street, and thus worked to preserve the character of the space. Now Magic Gardens offers educational opportunities public programming about folk, mosaic, and visionary art, which constructively contributes to South Philly.
Philadelphia’s Storefront Improvement Program serves as another promising community revitalization program. By reimbursing business owners for parts of improvements they make in their storefronts and building facades, the program promotes existing business owners while encouraging their improvement. Practices like these preserve and expand a neighborhood’s culture, rather than change it, and in this way truly encompass the goals of revitalization.
While studying at Penn, an institution whose expansion has been labeled ‘Penntrification’ because of its effects on West Philadelphia, it’s important to understand the impact certain ‘revitalization’ efforts can have on the community at large. Take the potential closing of The Fresh Grocer on 40th and Walnut, for instance: FroGro employs members of the West Philadelphia community and serves as a cheap, accessible source of food. Will we be able to say the same about the grocery store that could replace it? If this to be a true revitalization effort, the benefits that FroGro provides West Philadelphians won’t be taken away to provide a more aesthetically or commercially pleasing alternative for Penn students. Instead, the needs of the permanent West Philadelphia residents will be fully integrated with Penn’s desires for a different space.
As temporary or permanent members of the West Philadelphia community, it’s important that we realize the ways in which our moving in and out of spaces can affect the communities there. Are we occupying affordable housing that others rely on or supporting ‘revitalization’ efforts that do little to benefit existing residents? Though these places may not be our homes for long periods of time, we have a responsibility to preserve the communities for people who’ve lived and will continue to live there. New restaurants, apartment complexes, and stores may seem like beneficial additions to the neighborhood, but if they displace or price out the people who live there in favor of wealthier residents, they do nothing to help. Instead, we become complicit in gentrification, pushing problems away from us rather than finding solutions.