Jean-Paul Villere: The free market versus gentrification

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Jean-Paul Villere

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, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

28 thoughts on “Jean-Paul Villere: The free market versus gentrification

  1. I live at Spruce and Dante and this has been thrown around there, like it is a bad thing. Someone claimed to me that the cleaning up of this corner was just this and it was bad. I hardly see how discouraging public intoxication, urination in the streets and not tolerating petty-opportunistic crimes is bad, no matter what neighborhood you are in.

  2. “Quite simply, population migrations happen.”

    Just so we’re clear (and I think it’s instructive that you choose this metaphor): the Pilgrims “replaced” the Indians? The Indians were removed over the course of centuries by extermination policies led by successive governments. They didn’t just get up and make way for Pilgrims.

    Is displacement by gentrification/the free market simply the lot in life for the weaker and less sophisticated who–though they might lack the necessary capital, civic education, and access to public representatives–have all the same access as stronger folks to tax incentives, etc?

    If so, cool, we know where you stand. But save any claims to community. There can be no community when we talk in terms of Pilgrims and Indians, the latter of whom get what they get when the market arrives to drive them out. There is only the market.

    • Brian – as I stated the Indians were displaced (not “replaced,” though oyster / erster, I guess), and everyone’s consumer choices drive the marketplace – because EVERYONE (you included) participates in consumerism. Displacement by gentrification leans in the direction of trending wherein one of the laws of real estate, that being highest and best use, acts as a barometer of desirability. Systems like homestead exemptions and age freezes on property taxes work for everyone though clearly moreso for retirees, the unemployment, the disabled, and so on. I fail to see where there is unequal access though unless you are speaking strictly in terms of income? Which if that is what you mean, then should everyone make the same amount of money? Hell no. Some work harder than others, and some are luckier than others. And that is life.

      • JPV – See, I like what you’re saying, because you make things clear: unlucky or lazy–those are the Indians, the folks who lose out in life. I think that’s honest. But where should the Indians go once they are displaced? Living their lives when the white man lands (he of hard work and good fortune), they find themselves unable to keep up with his new tools and diseases and so are herded away to reservations or die off in droves. I know this isn’t the concern of the market or the people who displace them, but I wonder: will gentrification along these lines make for a better place, or one of well-patrolled forts and (ultra-violent) reservations? Do you think that will be a safer place, or do you think we’ll just need to wait it out until they die off?

        • Brian – To be clear the unlucky and lazy may not be exclusive unto themselves, and how America was founded I think we can all agree was not ideal. But here we are.
          Ramping up the conversation to present day, gentrification ABSOLUTELY makes for a better place. Why? Anytime blight is brought back into commerce, it provides jobs for a host of vendors, which in turn creates tax revenue both from the property itself and the jobs created, and these taxes pay for better schools, streets, and city services – or am I wrong? When blight sits, NONE of this happens. NONE. Too, once one building is done it (hopefully) may inspire others to do the same, which magnifies these benefits.

        • Mr. Michael – I would say when a choice is removed from the table (no one person, party, or group takes other’s choices), it is one’s lot in life that makes the choice possible or impossible, and again relative to how hard or smart some one works or how lucky they are. Effectively some one’s life’s path determines how likely a choice can be made a reality. Or an exit. Choices lead to other choices. Financial weight I think is relative, but financial savviness is another. People make absolutely awful financial choices all the time, and it has to do with their own consumer choices. Some believe if it’s flashy, the newest, and the coolest, then it’s a non-negotiable and the impulse to participate in that consumer direction remains a constant regardless of resources. Others may act more conservatively and may have the same tube TV they bought in 1997 for $225 and use a digital antenna. Until society reigns in consumer choices on the whole and prevents people from executing poorly thought out financial plans, this equation will play out the same again and again. But you can’t control people; they will choose what they will choose. And the results of those consequences shouldn’t be attributed to anyone else having more than them or an advantage over them

    • Brian,

      Actually, most American Indians died from diseases brought over in a time before anybody understood disease. Many colonized areas had already been virtually emptied before settlers arrived.
      Of course, the remaining Indians were violently forced off their lands, made slaves and otherwise treated horribly, but the main reason why the Americas were so open to colonization is because Western disease killed off most of the native population. It was tragic, but not by design.

      It’s a stretch, but I suppose an analogy to gentrification can work if you think of bad government policies, negative cultural trends and the breakdown of communities as creating neighborhoods full of blight and vacant lots mixed in with the few “survivors” of the decline of the neighborhood leading to an area very open to gentrification. You can also think of some gentrifiers as mistreating the remaining residents by passing new laws, higher taxes, and generally using the power of government to harass (or just price) the old residents out.

      Where the analogy breaks down, though, is that old residents in an “up and coming” neighborhood benefit from the effects of gentrification. Crime tends to go down, the neighborhood looks better, and most importantly, property values increase. Now, taxes certainly go up with that, but it means that the old resident now has an asset worth a great deal more than it was before the neighborhood improved. The increased appraisals might eventually force them to sell, but they can cash out. In the end, I think this makes the situation work better for everywhere.

      Where gentrification bothers me, however, is when gentrifiers move in an instead of just trying to abate actual nuisances, they try and harass anybody in the neighborhood they don’t like with unreasonable demands. Any amenity aimed at or serving the poor (like an old corner store or bar) is targeted, and projects for new businesses that serve the poor are slapped down (like cheap to-go restaurants). However, if all that happens is that a wealthier person buys a property and fixes it up, I see no reason to oppose that.

  3. Last time I checked, African Americans only made up around 12% of the general population. That means that when you or anyone else goes into a restaurant, shopping mall or a neighborhood, and if Desegregation is successful, then you would still see very little African Americans, Blacks, in a restaurant, shopping mall, neighborhood.

    Moreover, if things were PERFECT and black men were normal and it was paradise for both whites and blacks, BLACKS would still be 1 in 10 and you really couldn’t tell the difference in terms of Gentrification in a restaurant or shopping mall.

    12% is around 1 out of every 10 people.

    Perfect or imperfect, gentrified or not, 12% is still a very small number.

  4. I love gentrification. It’s incredible. Back in 2003 I bought my first house on Burdette near Hickory. There was a corner store that sold drugs along w alcohol & food. The first week there I caught a guy doing heroine in my backyard. Along with that, there was constant litter, defecation in the street (yes), shootings, robberies…it was just scary. Thanks to Councilman Batt helping us shut it down, the area has gentrified…mostly. It literally did a 180 degree turn. So yes, gentrification is mostly awesome. And speaking of the Indians, 90 percent of them were killed by disease (mostly smallpox).

    • Kurt, you say 90% of Native Americans were killed by disease. Cite your source. And allow me to point out that dying from diseases (unintentioanl–no one knew what germs were back then) does not in any way whatsoever change the fact that Native Americans were intentionally exterminated by European colonists.
      When I bought near Hickory and Fern in 2008, there were still dealers on the sidewalk, stashing guns and drugs under my front porch. It was people on the block, working with NOPD, who cleaned that up. And we’re still working on that, those of us who live there.

  5. Good read JP. Whether people like it or not, gentrification is good for Uptown and the city as a whole. When investors go into a neighborhood to spend money renovating/gentrifying, they’re eliminating blight and neighbors property values go up. People tend to whine about being “priced out” and what not but several of those being “priced out” are the ones who end up selling their poorly maintained properties for a big payday to an investor or owner-occupant. Bottom line: gentrification eliminates blight, increases surrounding property values, and improves the quality of a neighborhood greatly. It’s called capitalism, people need to learn to embrace it rather than whining

    • Great article and some great responses. Though I totally agree that gentrification has its upsides, many of which you cited, I don’t think most people who are being “priced out” of neighborhoods that need gentrification to survive are necessarily being paid a “big payday to an investor or owner-occupant.” Most people take what they can and get out and a lot of investors low ball whey they know the market (in this case usually the lower class) will go for it. Usually people end up taking their small profits and moving to another neighborhood just as blighted until that one gets gentrified and so forth and so on, creating this cycle of lifetime displacement.

      • To an extent you’re right, and I’m sure this has happened many times before. That said, the market is extremely active right now and good properties are selling
        for their asking prices (often higher) in well under one week. For example, I bought a double in the “sliver by the river” last year. I’m on the extreme young end of the demographic shift occurring Uptown and I found out that I was buying the property from an older couple headed to retirement. From when they bought the house in 1995, it had deteriorated badly as it was poorly maintained but still held a healthy market value due to its location and quality bones/architecture. They hired a good agent and I knew it was priced fairly so I jumped on the opportunity, despite the poor condition, as I wanted a renovation project anyway. From when they purchased the property in 1995 to my sale price, the property had appreciated 533% (not adjusting for inflation). But still, 533%! Believe it or not, considerable earnings are being made by many of these “displaced” people due to appreciation in our neighborhood. They left behind a 120 year old house with an array of problems to go live in a 10 year old house with a pool in a Westbank country club. Both parties walked away happy. Though they are technically being “priced out”, I don’t really see it as such a bad thing for either party. It bothers me that people still tend to mention race/class as a factor when a scenario like this happens, when it is actually simply a function of the free market.

  6. Not all neighborhood improvement is “gentrification.” If Luigi has to give up his tailor shop because the landlord can get more money from a store selling organic yogurt, that’s gentrification. If the organic yogurt store is moving to the space Luigi abandoned thirty years ago because he and his customers wanted to mow lawns, that’s something else. There was gentrification of the FQ, but that was fifty years or more ago. The post-k re-occupation of abandoned neighborhoods is a fantastic and unexpected development. That it is being accomplished by wealthier and better educated set of people is nothing to lament.

      • Don’t forget the details: when it was announced they were closing, a certain politically connected CRNA board member showed up at the hardware store looking for the owner.

        Did he offer the “neighbourhood association’s” help in trying to keep the long-established business open?


        Instead he threatened the soon to be former business owner and owner of the building telling him not to dare even think about renting or selling to a restaurant, cafe, bar or any other type of food business or anyone who might want an alcohol permit because he and CRNA will make absolutely sure it won’t happen!

        You see, gentrification can be good. But it can also be very bad and groups like CRNA, comprised of people who have moved down here from other parts of the country, couldn’t afford to live in the neighbourhoods they liked, so bought in ones they could afford, then instead of working to improve their new home, corrupted the political an governmental processes to FORCE gentrification by changing zoning laws and putting in alcohol moratoriums over the objection of the majority — forcing out not just poor locals, not just black locals, but making sure they go ahead and force out ALL locals so that everything Louisiana can be replaced with Starbucks and such just like their bland homeland.


        • Andrew, I’m not sure where your complaint about the dastardly neighborhood association rep fits in with the gentrification analysis. If I follow your report, the concern was about food and alcohol sales, at any price point. Do you think the neighbor would resent Luigi’s tailor shop?

      • The hardware store is closing after a long losing battle with the nearby Lowe’s. It has nothing to do with gentrification. Nothing in the revitaliaztion of Oak has any aspects of classic gentrication and no old businesses have closed as a result. Mellow Mushroom took the space of a yoga studio (!) of recent vintage. it is next to a vacant storefront, Meisel’s, that has been closed 25 years. On the other side is a low end antique store that has been there for decades in what was once a bar. God knows when the bar closed, but I doubt if it was because of gentrification, Oak has been availlable to small and low budget stores for years with no takers. Its current vitality is not gentrfication but a result of new sensabilities in the city post-k. I think you could do a similar analysis of Freret St.

  7. Change is constant, neighborhoods decline and deteriorate, they can also improve or gentrify. It is a process of living. I agree with what you wrote.

    It seems the attitude of the marginal population and their supporters is much like the Brezhnev doctrine, once a neighborhood has deteriorated the marginal population can not be removed only uplifted with tax dollars of others to ameliorate their dysfunction. It is an unnatural political concept.

  8. Ms. Gay is right. But many n-hoods that have not been “gentififed” do have a network of people who act a bit like a n-hood association, but outside the System, so to speak. Decades of being shut out from the same participation as whites, distrust, based on experience, of City Hall and etc. created these networks of neighbors. Thanks, Jean-Paul for a good article. Like so many other things that we do and choose, gentrification cuts two ways. What is the most unfortunate and regrettable part of it is simply that some people do not have the means to either stay in their home after property values go up or to maintain their property. Not all, but many. We can look back at the history of the South to see the main reasons for that.

    Many “gentrified” n-hoods are still “mixed” class, race, and education-wise. Others change utterly. Facts are facts; the effects of gentrification are facts. They happen all over. We can mitigate, if we choose.

    BTW, Native Americans were not merely “displaced.” Huge numbers of most Nations were intentionally slaughtered. Then the few remaining were put on lousy land and forbidden to practice their religions and their ways of life. Some call those places “reservations.” There aren’t many in LA, but venture West and you’ll see that “gentification” is not at all the right term for what Europeans did to these people. The terms are “colonization” and “genocide.”
    Now, let’s get together and save Tujague’s from becoming a t-shirt shop! 🙂

  9. Excellent article and on point. No doubt you’ll now be vilified by many and accused of racism, as well as kicking dogs.

  10. It’s a natural process which cuts both ways. What’s the antonym for gentrification? Atrophy, perhaps? In any case, I was “priced out” of uptown last year and moved to Metairie, around people in my own income bracket, and I’m content to make the short ten minute drive to get back to uptown to visit. I have a home I can afford in a reasonably safe neighborhood. People talk about moving across town like it’s the Trail of Tears.

  11. What I don’t get is this, and somebody needs to explain it to me in terms I can understand: why is a property owner in any way obligated to participate and limit their profit opportunities in some “social” scheme? It seems to me that if some of these do gooders want to reserve property for their constituents, they should simply step up and buy the property at the going market rate….then they can social engineer to their heart’s content, because they would own the property

  12. @Elaine…althought my main source is the plethora of books I have read on the subject, here is literally the 1st google search:
    If you open your eyes past the media’s white guilt indoctrination, you can look at the facts that the Indian/European affair was like an history…many different angles, many different moving parts, thus complex. There were slaughters on both sides, but the bulk of Native American deaths both in the USA & Latin America were from disease. Most historians agree on around 90 percent. This struggle & violence lasted for almost 400 yrs so it can’t be summed up in “Europeans slaughtered Indians.” There were episodes of that (horrible of course) but there were opposite episodes too. Just research what the Comanches did to both white settlers & other Indian tribes right next door in Texas. I try to look at these things through human eyes & not my race v another. It was a different world then. What this has to do w blighted housing in Nola I don’t know.

  13. Sorry commentators, but my over inflated ego refuses to be exploited to sell his homes, so I never read or comment on any this writer has to say, as I learned long ago how he dangles fruit from the lowest branch.- And clicks= $ when it’s on the net, so I won’t respond beyond this.
    But I’m still at a loss as to how this happened and nobody seemed to notice or care-
    go to-
    Look closely at that map- notice who’s not
    Notice the July 4rth at 5pm publication date?…
    The only other media coverage came from-
    We reap what we so…so we complain about crime, but refuse to look for it’s root causes- and give tax credits to neighborhoods that need it the least, while ignoring the poverty stricken neighborhoods with kids killing kids.
    When is enough is enough is enough.?
    Poverty + no hope = crime
    Gentrification?- Look at that map again!!!
    Look at the border!!!!
    It ends right where Cindy Chang exposed as having the highest incarceration rate on the face of the earth.
    How come they were not included? or is the answer that obvious?
    Sorry for the rant, but I could not keep my big mouth quite any longer.
    Best from Freret,
    Andy Brott

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