Gentrification with no end in sight.

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I moved to Oakland, California in the fall of 2009 to go to college. Growing up in a suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge, Oakland was always considered a dangerous place to be avoided. Now the urban city is better known for its art and bohemian scene than any of the crime that plagued it in the 90’s. This transformation seen there is similar to the type of gentrification happening around the country.

Gentrification is a hotly debated topic that often brings about feeling of injustice, as well as, guilt and shame, however there are many factors to take into account when thinking about the topic. The blame has often been placed on artists and aspiring young professionals; although, gentrification is an extremely complex and contradictory issue. There are much larger cultural shifts at work causing so many people to move into urban cities in droves.

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The recent arrival and rise of the creative economy in big cities can explain much of these changes. By the 1990’s, creative fields such as advertising, graphic design, technology and knowledge-based commerce replaced most of the old careers in traditional manufacturing sectors. These industries took place in cities such as New York and San Francisco, which subsequently became safer and wealthier areas. Investment in urban renewal projects turned cities from concrete jungles into irresistible urban playgrounds filled with inventive public spaces, sky-high gardens and artwork.

As urban spaces became nicer to live in, a new group of well-paid professional artists moved in. In his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks of The New York Times described this group as “BoBos” short for “bourgeois bohemians.” The demographic of urban dwellers glamorized city living with images of restored lofts with exposed brick alongside their high profile careers in the booming creative industries. Growing up in the suburbs watching episodes of sitcoms such as Will and Grace, Friend and Sex and the City, I romanticized the idea of such city living.

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It makes sense that a new generation of young college graduates would migrate towards the cities and away from the suburbs. Most of the new career options are based in the growing creative economy of technology and design, headquartered in big cities like New York and San Francisco. While our parents got married and bought homes straight out of school, a new generation is waiting longer for these sorts of commitments, giving them time to move to fun areas of cultural activity. Additionally, while young people aspire towards more eco-friendly and conscientious living, urban areas embody these ideals through local shopping and public transit. In many ways, it feels that the American Dream has shifted and is now an image of biking and living in a loft in the city rather than buying a suburban mansion with a three-car garage.

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But what does all this mean for those communities who have lived in urban centers all along? Gentrification has sped up to levels no one could have anticipated. I currently live in Brooklyn, which in many ways has become the poster child of such transformations. Each young creative-type newcomer looking for cheap rent feels the guilt of taking over someone else’s neighborhood. However, that rarely stops them from supporting any business such as a hip bar, restaurant or boutique that makes it feel more at home. As soon as a young or bohemian presence is established, real estate developers hop on the opportunity to market the neighborhood as the next up-and-coming spot, only speeding up the cycle of gentrification. Of course, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are most negatively effected by this process, as they get pushed further and further to the outskirts of urban areas.

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 As more and more people move from the suburbs and America contracts back towards the urban centers, a much more proactive urban planning is desperately needed. Gentrification is a culmination of many cultural and economic shifts in American society. Fixing the serious issue of displacement among the poor will require looking more constructively and seriously at the many factors contributing to the cause. It will take nothing less than the full cooperation of housing agencies, urban policy makers and community organizers working together to make it a win-win for everyone involved, ensuring we do not have to keep surfing across boroughs escaping continually rising rents.

[images sourced via thelmagazine and JustinBlinder]

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