Equitable urban revitalization means new development doesn’t displace existing communities. If we agree with this definition, what’s occuring in Washington, D.C. and many other American cities can’t be viewed as fair, said a number of African American community activists at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. Many blocks in historic African American communities are becoming fraught, contested ground as they rapidly redevelop and gentrify, with huge numbers of African Americans getting pushed out to due to higher rents and property taxes. The solution seems to be more community empowerment from the bottom, and more thoughtful, respectful urban planning from the top.
For Naomi Davis, CEO of Blacks in Green (BIG), city leaders need to take a more inclusive approach, because “what’s good for the African diaspora is good for everyone.” She said “increasing household income in inner-city communities helps both rich and poor people.” To boost the long-term sustainability of these communities, Davis calls for creating “green villages” that will transform waste to wealth, create new jobs, celebrate culture, and circulate wealth among local businesses. These green villages can only be built by respecting the local culture. Given culture is highly local, “true, long-term community sustainability must be built mile by mile.” And it has to be a bottom-up process: “We can’t wait for the government to save us.”
As an example, Davis described her work in West Woodlawn, “in the hood” in Chicago. There, she engaged community members in creating a new master plan, with layers of greening programs. A new orchard has come out of “the dust of 30 years of disinvestment.” 2012 was the “year of the tree canopy,” so West Woodlawn undertook a major campaign of adding new street and park trees. 2013 was the year of the backyard garden and using “private land to feed ourselves.” There are now orchards, gardens, root cellars everywhere.
For Dominic Moulden, Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C., “gentrification is a crime. It’s violence couched in white supremacy and aimed at uprooting black communities.” His group, a “multi-issue, multi-class, multi-ethnic” coalition, aims to critique the urban development culture of D.C.
He said many of the white tenants moving into historically African American communities seek “authentic local culture, but end up destroying it, which is a violation of our civil and human rights.” Moulden argued that African American communities — like plants that have suddenly moved — are undergoing “root shock.” With a decaying local ecosystem, social networks are failing.
Moulden says the answer is “to develop people and then place.” That way, “the community controls the plan.” As part of this goal, his group is trying to stop what he sees as illegal gentrification. They sued an African American church in Shaw for trying to displace its 50 residents in large, affordable housing units. ONE D.C. also played a role in ensuring the new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the convention center spent $2 million to train local workers and hired 700 local D.C. residents as Union employees with “living wages.” Moulden said “that’s equitable development.”
Wadi Muhammad, 270 Strategies, discussed changes he has seen in Roxbury, one of the historically African American communities in Boston. As that area gentrifies, swarms of college students are moving there. There has been nearly $100 million in investment there in recent years, leading to a new luxury condo where studios go for $2,500 a month. Muhammad said Roxbury is now for the extremely rich or poor. “Where do those in the middle go?” The community is working on a new master plan, with a long-term vision for sustainability.
To add some additional perspective, David Hyra, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said we must be careful what we wish for with “the new wave of urban revitalization,” less we further destroy the communities there now. One product of revitalization is new people moving in. “And all these newcomers into inner-city communities are expressing preferences that are different from those of the existing communities.”
For example, newcomers in D.C. seem to want more bike lanes, while long-time residents are less positive about them. The majority of new bike infrastructure in D.C. has come into the historically African American U. Street and Shaw neighborhoods of D.C., creating a flash point with the old-timers. For them, these lanes are sign that a neighborhood has gentrified. “In the last D.C. Mayoral debate, none of the candidates would admit they used the bike lanes, even though I know some of them are bikers,” Hyra laughed.
In addition, it seems African Americans also avoid D.C.’s bikeshare system as well. “88 percent of bikeshare users are white; just 5 percent are African American.”
While newcomers to African American communities typically want more bike lanes and dog parks, they don’t understand these amenities may be perceived as a “threat to long-term African American residents.” Walter Fauntroy, with the New Bethel Baptist Church, who was credited as saving Shaw from urban renewal in the 60s, recently told Hyra his feelings about the new wave of urban revitalization in Shaw: “I’ve given up, quite frankly.”
To combat further gentrification, Hyra said, “we need to preserve affordable housing and community political representation and minimize cultural displacement.”