Gentrification Part 4 – Academic Input and Personal Enlightenment

Well, this is where my attempt to explore claims of gentrification in St. Louis took a surprising, and refreshing….maybe even life-changing turn in the road.

When I originally mapped out how I wanted to frame this discussion of gentrification in St. Louis, Part 1 started with the definition of gentrification. Part 2 focused the lens in on our beaten city. Botanical Heights east of Thurman Avenue became the location chosen to show how one half of that neighborhood was textbook displacement, but not really gentrification, more like urban clearance. Then in Part 3, I looked at Botanical Heights west of Thurman and found a more holistic neighborhood rebuilding strategy that respected the existing residents and tried (usually succeeding) in elevating a sense of place and community. Here you’ll see an affordable housing component, a well respected, highly desired tuition-free charter school that serves the surrounding zip codes and maintains excellent racial diversity and performance. But the current retail/restaurants in the neighborhood definitely lean toward the more expensive side of dining/goods/services in the city. Still not really textbook gentrification, by definition though.

There is something else going on here entirely, and I can’t find a single word to describe it.

I walked away from Botanical Heights saying, yeah a rebounding neighborhood sits here today more stable, mixed race/income and dense than it was ten years ago for sure. But is gentrification the right term? No. Urban clearance east of Thurman is a shameful practice for sure, whereas the slower infill/rehab west of Thurman not only looks good, but the approach invited the existing residents to the table to talk about the future needs and goals of the neighborhood. The rising housing values and storefront rents will benefit those who stuck it out as homeowners. Renters are of course more vulnerable to displacement, but again maintaining affordable units was part of the plan. In most cases, quality affordable units are available and run well, not dumps owned and run by slumlords which as we all know was a problem in the McRee Town days.

It largely worked and I think Botanical Heights west of Thurman could serve as a road map for future neighborhoods that will eventually meet their demise as property values continue to plummet and people leave and crime and abandonment take hold. Sadly, this is the trajectory many of our neighborhoods are headed toward, if they aren’t there already.

I reserved Part 4 for the data portion and sharing of my opinion that claims of gentrification (displacement and kicking people out…building things that only appeal to yuppies) is not supported by hard numbers in a city still losing population at a staggering rate all the while maintaining our nearly 50:50 black:white resident ratio with static to slightly rising incomes. White incomes are growing at a faster pace than black incomes, but this is a national phenomena, not just a St. Louis thing. But it sure as hell exists here as well.

Part 5 was to wrap it up with everything I’d learned from my reading and conversations on the topic, to see if my neighborhood of ten years, a near Southside rebounding neighborhood in a legacy city is experiencing gentrification.

Back to Part 4.

I was poised to share some data and analyses I had pulled together as well as supplemented findings from the learned community, the local intelligentsia and academics from the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) and Washington University to help make my point and share some data that would slow the roll of anyone making claims that gentrification is a serious threat and a problem emblematic of what St. Louis has been experiencing in the last 10 – 20 years.

The data was to help bolster my opinion that gentrification is a word that does not apply to a beaten city still experiencing steep population decline for > 70 years. Staggering lack of personal and public investment pervades the vast majority of St. Louis. This is not a North, South, Central Corridor thing, there is evidence of gross neglect, abandonment and lack of basic investment all over the city.

After all my reading and social media scrolling, I’m stuck with the feeling that cavalier uses of the term ‘gentrification’ is annoying or misinformed at best, and at worst irresponsible or counter-productive to a discussion on development/investment in a city that is going to need long term rebuilding as the original housing stock continues to disappear and not everyone can afford upkeep on a 100 year old home.

I was ready to drop the mic with a bit of data, to tell the haterz or the blind politically correct set to go back to the drawing board. My skepticism was bubbling up to the surface. My middle finger was poised to rise.

But, here’s the catch and the path not expected from my latest conversation on the topic: I’ve come to learn that in social science, hard data doesn’t always work to build a case, and when emotions and historic suppression exists, winning an argument doesn’t even matter.

It’s all about inviting a conversation on development that we all can leverage to rise everyone in a particular neighborhood up, including desired new comers.

You have to be open to the human elements of history and the fear of repeating painful policies from the past. It doesn’t matter if data back up these claims or not. All that matters is some people are scared as hell of the term gentrification and the potential meaning it implies to them. Some of these fears don’t even have anything to do with the official definition: more white, usually upper class, external influences screwing over lower income/people of color once again. A money grab that benefits new comers not old timers.

But that was not the path that this post was to take in it’s final form that I’ll publish here.

What redirected my trajectory on the story was a single conversation. I am immensely thankful for this conversation that transpired. I feel refreshed and enlightened and I may just become a better, more thinking, more open citizen as a result.

So I’m going to spare you my hobbyist scouring of the data. I have it all typed out and organized for potential future use, but I’m not going to include it as part of this story. Again, it’s not always about the data. Sometimes there is a human element that is much harder to quantify and cut into numbers and graphs, but as important as the hard facts.

As a trained scientist, this was a long lesson for me. Colleagues in my professional career make data driven decisions, and there is little to no emotion in the scientific process. It’s designed that way to make progress and science-based decisions that are universally accepted as law across the scientific community.

That’s not how it works when you are trying to consider the best ways to rebuild a city.

If you simply use data, you will find St. Louis is a quite affordable place to live compared to other American cities. Even our currently swanky neighborhoods like Tower Grove South, Central West End, Skinker/DeBaliviere, Downtown or Shaw are still quite affordable if you compare median rents and home prices to other cities.

But none of this really matters as it was explained to me by a respected, intelligent, and down right fascinating person to meet and talk to: Dr. Todd Swanstrom.

Swanstrom wrote a couple pieces that really resonated with me. Here are the three articles/publications I consider essential reading if you are to form an open mind and well rounded opinion on claims of gentrification with St. Louis as the study area.

Gentrification Debates Without Gentrification? – Todd Swanstrom – August, 2018 – City Observatory

Gentrification May Not Mean What You Think It Means in a City Like St. Louis – Todd Swanstrom – August, 2014 – NextSTL

Gentrification: Is St. Louis ready? – Henry S. Webber and Molly Metzger – November, 2015 – The Source – Washington University in St. Louis

The one that stuck with me the most was the first article by Dr. Swanstrom. Here are a couple quotes from that paper:

“…there is little evidence that “gentrification” is crating economic pressures that are rapidly pushing out large numbers of low-income residents. Indeed, our data shows that if you take out the citywide increases in rents, the rent burden actually fell in many of the ”gentrifying” neighborhoods between 2000 and 2016.“

He is referring to the Central Corridor neighborhoods of St. Louis.

The paper goes on to state that the classic gentrification cities don’t match St. Louis’ situation. These neighborhoods are not classic enclaves of rich white people, in fact some of these neighborhoods are the most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods we have. As an example, the only Census tract in the region that qualifies as both economically and racially diverse is Tower Grove East. Anecdotally, living in a neighborhood directly adjacent to TGE I feel this as well as see it.

Dr. Swanstrom goes on to say: “Clearly, if I presented these findings to the activists in St. Louis who warn about gentrification, it would have absolutely no effect – and for good reason. Those who are worked up about gentrification in St. Louis don’t have some kind of conceptual or empirical confusion that social science research needs to straighten out. People are worried about gentrification for a reason. It is based in their lived experience.“

This and the NextSTL article cited above resonated with me. I knew there was something more than data that must be weighed in the equation, even if it is subjective or folk-based information.

In fact, the data is not there screaming GENTRIFICATION. Like he said, “there is a reason”. And, it is based in emotion and lived experience and history.

I had to talk to this guy.


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The Conversation

I looked up his impressive UMSL profile posted here.

I questioned whether I had the sand to give this guy a call and try to meet and talk or just send a few questions over email.

Would he dismiss me as a hobbyist and brush me aside? Would he not even answer my email? Would he ghost me once he read my website and writing on gentrification?

Anxiety was there, but I had to give it a shot.

The beauty of living in a small city the size of St. Louis is, if you are genuine, putting in some work, and not prying some political/self-serving lever, you can usually gain the trust of the smartest and most influential people in the region.

I emailed Swanstrom on a Saturday and got a kind reply back on Sunday. He sent links to more of his work (some very recent) and we agreed to meet on my turf. I had more reading to do to prep for the discussion. And in true South City fashion, I invited him for a cold beer at a local watering hole. A couple weeks later we were drinking locally brewed lagers in a tavern that embodies my part of town.

I know it’s a general rule of interviewing that you don’t talk about yourself, but I am not a journalist and I’m publishing this on my own damn website, so I’m gonna sprinkle my perspective into a summation of our maybe two hour conversation.

The conversation was not stuffy as I anticipated. He wasn’t smoking a pipe in a tweed jacket with a Wes Anderson vibe. The structure and preparation I felt I needed faded into conversation. My stacks of academic papers, color coded sticky notes, must-ask questions highlighted in yellow: all unnecessary. It just flowed. Smart people who live a topic like this seem to let it rip. I listened and didn’t take notes because I was having fun. He gained my trust quickly.

I did turn the recorder on maybe halfway into the conversation to get some things right.

Ever been around someone who is much smarter on a topic than you, but you are clearly interested? The good ones are not condescending, they are happy to know the general populous is interested in their work and life studies. That’s how this was. It felt more like shooting the shit with a former colleague than it did getting a lecture from professor to silly blogger. No condescension here, no dismissiveness.

After ten minutes, I knew I trusted this guy’s instincts and came to a quick understanding that both he and I both don’t like the word ‘gentrification’ to describe what’s going on in modern day St. Louis; and, as he claims, lots of other legacy, rust belt cities.

We both struggle with the majority of literature on gentrification having an air of political correctness. Yet, in the context of D.C. or San Francisco or NYC, it’s a legitimate word that is warranted. Gentrification pressures in those and other booming cities don’t necessarily apply to a slow/zero growth city like St. Louis. Swanstrom told me that 90% of the research on gentrification is in hot market cities, not legacy cities. Sure, there’s abandonment and vacancy in all cities, but St. Louis has both it’s feet in the abandonment gutter.

We talked about my reading on Camden and Newark, NJ as better comparisons to St. Louis. He agreed, but they have something we do not in St. Louis: racial diversity, and lots and lots of immigrants and people from multiple cultures. Here we have black people and white people, many of whom have been here for years, if not generations, and are very entrenched in their ways for better and for worse.

Swanstrom insisted that even through the data don’t necessarily suggest textbook gentrification here, that doesn’t matter. Something is going on here, more than just rising rents and Yuppie invasions. Race and power are the on-going fundamentals here.

I learned that the term gentrification can be like the n word or other racial or economically loaded words…it can shut down a conversation before it starts.

If you expect to walk into a room of people who feel gentrification is a threat to their lifestyle or future and hit em with some data and tell them “you have nothing to worry about”, you are missing the big picture. You risk dismissing everyone in the room who is feeling another wave of pressure on their place.

People’s feelings about gentrification, or better yet, changing neighborhoods are as important as the facts.

But, it might not be classic gentrification that is the root of fear or suspicious feelings. It is change and feeling powerless in that continuum of change. It is a legitimate fear based on history of how poor people, especially poor people of color, have a clearly documented history of getting fucked over by the ruling class and governments around them. Some people are living proof of this history. They are fearful of swift change as they think it will lead to the feeling of not being wanted, marginalized or not invited to the table to talk about what is needed to rebuild our crumbling spaces.

People seem more triggered by the term gentrification then they do about collapsing housing markets, the latter of course, leading to high crime, social decay and unlivable conditions. Gentrification by and large does not lead to those things, it’s the opposite…if you are part of the equation, that is. If you are subtracted, you don’t have a say and you feel hosed once again.

I think we can succeed in investing in and seeking better neighborhoods for all, if we just respect the people who were not even asked what they can use before the shovels and incentives, lawyers and developers start showing up.

I learned that vast vacancy and abandonment outcomes and properties are hard to find a culprit to direct your hopelessness or disgust. In a neighborhood like say Jeff-Vander-Lou, it is hard to find a single person or entity to point at and say, YOU did this to me/us. With gentrification in places like NYC, San Francisco, Portland or D.C. or even Botanical Heights, you can see a developer or the people moving in that look way different than the people who shaped that place over the last generation(s) and target your fear or disgust based on their intentions or even their look.

An opponent is squarely in front of you with gentrification; whereas, the change brought on by St. Louis levels of neglect happen slowly. First the moneyed people/businesses move out, and those who stayed built their own community that was needed and genuinely worked on the dime for the most part. Then the community slowly decays with not enough outside money or enough within to sustain it. Financing is harder to come by, people leave and eventually the community is met with crime, social decay and lack of leaders and you find yourself in a race to the bottom…hopelessness.

If there was more ownership by the current residents, say if ~30% of the property in a certain neighborhood was owned by black people who’ve lived there for years are a formidable, undeniably strong group and are given a seat at the table and asked to help shape development and investment, things might look a lot different. Seat, hell, maybe these folks should be asked to lead the discussion!

Take Botanical Heights west of Thurman, that was the intent and the results are way better than when no one was asked what to do and the local power structure leveled the place and built unaffordable new suburban homes.


How Best To Talk About Change

I learned that if you want to engage in a productive, respectful conversation on the topic of change, you have to invite people in and build a relationship based on trust, not drop a word that immediately makes people bristle or choose an immediate side before they can come to a place where moving forward is possible. Swanstrom recommended the following as a good starting point:

Frameworks Institute  Mixing It Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic diversity  Oct, 2016
Frameworks Institute Mixing It Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic diversity Oct, 2016

We need change in St. Louis. We need investment of all kinds. We need the well-moneyed, well-connected, we need the commoners, we need all parties. The doers need to meet the wanters/disenfranchised or even the neutral parties. Everyone needs to be at the table to turn us around.

And to get that table populated with the right people from the above, you have to be open and you have to listen. The talking points and strategy above are a great starting point.

Swanstom expanded with the following recommendations:

Don’t start with the data, start with the opinions and baseline of experiences of those in the room.

He suggested the following questions:

What words do you associate with gentrification? Get it out, don’t ignore it or bury it.

What words would you use to distinguish between differently ascending neighborhoods?

What policies or programs can be developed to improve conditions for existing residents?

Generalizations box you into a corner. There are too many variables when it comes to gentrification/new outcomes. It is a different conversation neighborhood to neighborhood or block to block. For each specific location under consideration, you have to consider the strength of the market, the infrastructure and local entities already able to help, like Community Development Corporation (CDC), etc. This is a specific conversation, one that would likely be very different in Tower Grove South, Forest Park Southeast, Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place or Gravois Park.

Gentrification can also be a low-self esteem igniter. It can be a conversation killer. It can become too charged too quickly.

Yet, we shouldn’t necessarily slow down the process of gentrification (if/where it’s happening) with solutions. In some cases, more could be served by riding the wave of gentrification and guiding it toward the most inclusive scenario instead of trying to kill it.

This is the key. Don’t squelch it, be there to form it. “It” meaning investment and change…the rebound.

We want more people, we want growth, we want investments, we want rehabs of historic buildings, we want infill on long-vacant lots. We want socioeconomically, racially mixed neighborhoods. In St. Louis, at least in my circles, we all want the above. We are a generally progressive populace. St. Charles or Clayton this is not.

Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts could expand into soft markets that neighbor the strong markets. Think of a Central West End TIF district that expands into the 100% black, low income neighborhoods just to the north, spreading the wealth to Fountain Park, Lewis Place or Vandeventer.

But as we know, that kind of trust is hard to build even if it sounds good in theory or on paper. It boils down to race and power.

If the black community owned a substantial portion of property in a neighborhood and had an organized voice and felt like they were ready to call the shots, you would invite developers to the table and negotiate for the best outcome. But, this has not been my experience in STL, people practically lick the boots of developers. Low self esteem holds sway. Or, race is used to block people out of the discussion and development is shunned. This bias comes from white and black people, of course.

Swanstrom pointed out we are a great city, we have one of the best urban parks in the country, some of the best architecture, people should be salivating to build here. We should be demanding excellence from our developers. But, you have to benefit the entire neighborhood and that has been a struggle. Inclusiveness is a struggle. Integration has been and continues to be a struggle for this region.

People-based and housing subsides should be concentrated in Low Income Historic Tax Credit areas in the hottest markets. Mixed income is the future. Let Clayton, MO be Clayton, MO. We in St. Louis should be aiming for mixed income, diverse neighborhoods.


Displacement and Investing in Middle Neigborhoods

We are losing population, is displacement by gentrification the cause? Swanstrom remains skeptical.

He helped me realize St. Louis seems to displace people by isolation and strangulation more than investment and rising costs. South and central neighborhoods of our city are becoming increasingly diverse. North city has nearly zero diversity, same can be said for the extreme southwest neighborhoods.

Swantstom suggested that if we had political will, strong community organizations and progressive ideals, we could develop a stronger market with thoughtful laws, and people would be more open to development or gentrification to bring a middle class here.

 74% of the people who work in the central corridor live outside of the city of St. Louis.

And we’re worried about gentrification? The suburbs are glad to accept them and tax them and build a livable community for themselves and isolate us. The corporate entity of St. Louis polarizes support. Forest Park gets $300M in corporate and private donations, Fairground Park or Carondelet get little to none.

Swanstrom cited research that suggests place based policies and investing in the the “middle neighborhoods” is the best investment for a city. By middle neighborhoods, those places threatened with decline, but with enough meat on the bone to still make them a good place to protect and boost up. Protect them so they don’t fall. He said Dogtown is an example of a middle neighborhood. Investing in small amounts can help them from tipping over. They have some strengths but they are under-leveraged, maybe with some problems percolating. They can solidify themselves with just a little investment. Public investment in parks, housing, infrastructure and schools. But he warned even middle neighborhood investment is viewed as gentrification by some. His research teams identified that middle neighborhoods in St. Louis are 38% black, less than the citywide total of about 50%. Make sure that 40% has some good equity in their homes. Once they hit the tipping point, housing is worthless, jobs go, crime comes in. The place falls. If you invest in those neighborhoods now, the housing prices will rise benefiting everyone.

This city is full of middle neighborhoods.

Some of Swanstrom’s colleagues define a middle neighborhood where the median income is anywhere between 80-120% of the region. Neighborhoods that fit this category are disappearing in the last 20-30 years in St. Louis, but not necessarily to gentrification.


Summary

At this point, I was starting to get it. My original approach was misguided. I’m okay with not being “right”. I started out wanting to win an argument and show people that the data do not show a gentrification problem sweeping St. Louis.

Thankfully, this conversation made me realize that before I published a piece I might be embarrassed of in the future.

Hey all, your kind author is evolving. I don’t need to be right, I just want what’s best for the majority. I want a city that any person would find attractive. And having a discussion is so much better than dividing people into camps.

Again, it’s not about the data. It’s about finding the middle ground. It not about statistics, it’s about power or perceived power in times of change. If you are on the outside of change, you are skeptical. If you are at the table and have a say, you feel empowered and ready for the change, $ and new things that will come.

Maybe burying Ms. Glass’ 1960 term “gentrification” is the move. Maybe we advocate for restructuring the conversation around rebounding neighborhoods. A kinder, gentler term for inclusive rebuilding. Maybe we make rebounding the goal and gentrifying or urban clearance the “what not to do” examples of rebuilding a tattered city that desperately needs more people, active spaces, racial/economic mixing.

I think me and Swanstrom agree that gentrification is misunderstood, misused and sometimes wielded like a blunt weapon. Hell, to hear some talk, you can gentrify a ham sandwich with the right bread, capers and artisan mustard. It’s cultural. He argued the place we were sharing a drink was gentrified. The word is everywhere and it’s become a bludgeoning word, the g-word. It is horrible. Glass probably didn’t know what she created and what it’d become.

I didn’t think the place I was drinking was gentrified. I thought it was soulful and wholly inclusive of anyone in the neighborhood it is in. I wasn’t offended that someone would call this joint gentrified, but it did get my attention.

People’s reaction to the word and the polarization of the discourse upsets him, but it’s real. It’s a fact that he accepts and wants to relay to others. People who think they are being left behind, not necessarily kicked out, but pushed aside have to be recognize as a force. Their emotion is a fact. You won’t get anywhere with the conversation with data. You can’t come into a neighborhood and say, you are not gentrifying, the data does not suggest it. It’s a feel and the emotions are facts. You will get shut out of the discussion if you don’t listen and only look at the numbers.

We’re not gonna get anything done if we can’t acknowledge the feelings of people on both sides of the aisle.

So hey, smart guy, drop the data analysis. You can’t tell people the facts based on numbers normalized on inflation or statewide or national trends and drop the mic and tell them there’s no gentrification. You can’t articulate the facts and then expect that some will give up the ideas they have about gentrification. Underlying is always race and power, and those frustrations and concerns are attached to gentrification. When really, it is anxiety of further marginalization and inequality.

Swanstrom said “I’ve given up that illusion. The facts you need to consider are there is a long history of inequality.”

So consider that I will.

I listened in awe. An epiphany of sorts all in a dimly lit bar with a dude I just met over a cold lager.

The word gentrification brings only negativity, it cuts off positive energy, it smothers the conversation about making better neighborhoods. So how do you get to inclusion and mixed diversity, higher incomes? Get it out, vent. Then pivot quickly as to how you get to inclusion. Fuck polarized discourse and binary reasoning. We live in the grey and we need to talk to each other and fix things, but first we must both listen and try to come to the middle ground.

You know what, we need a new word to describe what going on here. Gentrification just isn’t good enough. It’s too charged. If a brave and determined Kennedy Mitchum, a suburban 22 year old woman from Florissant, MO can persuade the Merriam-Webster dictionary to change the definition of racism based on her lived experience and activism, maybe a smart urban planner or sociologist can do the same with gentrification. Or better yet, find a more descriptive term that applies to legacy cities that will allow discussion and not shut downs or sides or camps upon its first mention.

Hell, maybe that someone will be from St. Louis.

Part 5 of my gentrification series will focus the lens on my neighborhood of ten years, Fox Park. To get to the bottom of this, I know I’m going to have to talk to some old heads and our CDC, DeSales Community Development.

So, thanks Todd for giving me the time of day and opening my eyes and heart to a better understanding of where we need to be, and how I can advocate for a better future.

I now have the confidence and desire to learn more and talk to more experts as opposed to shying away from a staid, elitist intelligentsia.

Oh, and thanks for the recommended reading list, especially the following which is the best book I’ve read on the topic:

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