I’m no newshound, but of late I’ve noticed more than a few comments on pieces detailing the present tense of some older, and until recently, largely overlooked New Orleans neighborhoods. Some call it a white tea pot effect, and others have expounded on this, even hyping it up with modified phrasing like re-gentrification or super-gentrification. But the tone often leans toward a woeful finger wagging on that whispery word unto itself: gentrification.
And all I keep coming back to is, do we not live in a free market society? Are the choices made by the citizenry not their own? To live somewhere or not. To embrace risk versus reward in prospecting or strict investment, whether as an owner occupant or out and out landlord? Yes, incentive can come in the form of local, state, and federal tax incentives, and yes, re-zoning has been known to kickstart a movement. But these benefits are not exclusive to any one demographic, and they never will be. Quite simply, population migrations happen.
A year ago in March 2012 I was asked to speak as part of a three-person panel at the PRC one Tuesday evening on the topic of budgets, homebuying, and alternative neighborhoods. It was a robust crowd of all walks, seemed like, and my segment was second. I focused a little on the psychology of buyers but mostly stuck to trends and areas around the Crescent City detailed with photos of way before, before, and after for sites on Oak and Freret. The audience seemed pretty engaged, and after the third and final speaker (I think she spoke on an FHA 203k loan she used to renovate her home in Treme), the floor opened up. Standard queries floated, answers given, and then just as things were about to draw to a close, the ‘g’ word came out.
A young woman asked, “What about gentrification?”
There was a long pause.
My first thought was “What about gentrification!?”
But I didn’t say that. In fact, I didn’t say anything – yet. The pause grew longer. When gentrification comes up like the elephant in the room, people stop. And it’s like a conditioned response, because you see, you aren’t supposed to mention, embrace, or even remotely endorse gentrification. You think the Pilgrims didn’t displace the Indians? You think that suburb you grew up in wasn’t someone’s farm once? And for goodness sake, is the Louisiana Purchase not the most prime example of gentrification? Because this big chunk of North America wasn’t simply claimed, it was bought and sold, along with the city many of us call home. Therefore when you talk about gentrification, you are supposed to feel ashamed and have a pouty, long face, just as the questioner poised herself at that moment. Finally, when it was clear to me no one else was going to answer, I spoke.
“Every day,” I started “every one of us in this room create the marketplace.”
And from there – I don’t remember exactly what I said – but I went on about how the trends we experience collectively are created by our own behaviors. They always have been, and they always will be. All races, all classes. Blame a developer all you want. Curse the corporation. But look in the mirror. Then I rambled on about how wherever a home might be renovated, that I felt it important to honor the history of the space and area. But by this time I think everyone’s thoughts had moved on, trying to psychologically steer themselves away from creeping guilt just talking about gentrification can bring.
And then PRC Executive Director Patricia Gay stood up from the front row, and said that wherever audience members decide to buy a home in New Orleans, they should be sure to join that neighborhood association. If there isn’t a neighborhood association, she said, start one.
Stellar advice, that. I think she then trailed off about how a neighborhood association is the best defense our city has against blight, and of course she’s right. Blight is a cancer, and part of its cure is everyone’s favorite whipping post: gentrification. So be it.
In 2002 a quiet, little movie came and went, you probably missed: John Sayles’ Sunshine State. A fictional drama detailing the layers of life and encroaching developments along coastal Florida, this story mirrors many present day battles in America struggling with identity, family relations, and the seemingly inevitable displacement of the indigenous. At the end of the film Alan King’s character – while golfing (the setting is important here) – waxes on how the moon could never really be colonized. Why? Because historically, when colonization takes place, the native class does the labor. And so the film closes on the putting green with the flat if not epigrammatic showstopper of a wonder: if the moon were to be developed, where would the Indians come from?
Civilization as we know it remains imperfect, but frankly gentrification gets a bad rap. Lay off, and let the free market do its thing.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.