Gentrification is good. The opposite of gentrification is stagnation and decline. Opposition to gentrification is based in part on a genuine concern for the impacts of revitalization on the most vulnerable in society, but also on a failure to understand, or willful denial, of the facts and history of neighborhood decline and benefits of revitalization.
Recognizing the important role gentrification plays starts with understanding the dynamics and history of urban evolution. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, many American cities grew rapidly with important downtowns and vibrant neighborhoods radiating out.
After World War II, many cities went into decline as baby boomers and their families moved out to the suburbs. The decline accelerated into the ’70s and ’80s as urban crime increased, manufacturing and jobs left for the suburbs or abroad and retail decamped for the suburbs.
Initially, immigrants, particularly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, moved into the urban neighborhoods with declining property values, but as the immigrants prospered, they too, moved to the suburbs and urban neighborhoods depopulated, leaving behind primarily the unemployed or those too poor to move. This pattern repeated itself in Miami’s urban core, especially along the FEC Corridor, including Wynwood, Midtown and Little Haiti.
Loss of Jobs
In the 2002 FEC Corridor Redevelopment Plan by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, the study found that:
“The loss of approximately 20,000 jobs within the FEC Corridor between 1980 and 1995 has had a profound impact on the local economy. Most of the job loss occurred within the labor-intensive manufacturing sector. The loss of jobs and general disinvestment has resulted in property deterioration, abandonment and over all blighted conditions along commercial corridors and in industrial areas. This resulted in a distinguishing characteristic of the entire FEC Corridor… being the inordinate amount of vacant and undeveloped land… that creates a blighted overall appearance.”
In Little Haiti, as in other neighborhoods, hardworking immigrants saved their money and bought homes or rented in suburban communities, like North Miami Beach and Miramar, where stores and accessible jobs meant a better quality of life.
This runs counter to one key myth of those opposing gentrification, which is that they are fighting to preserve the way of life and culture of the community. In the case of Little Haiti, and similar communities, the vibrant culture, jobs and original immigrants largely moved out. Preserving what remains in its current state is not preserving or venerating the culture or community we once knew but dooming the neighborhood to perpetual poverty and economic decline.
There are Rust Belt communities that have had no gentrification. They have deteriorated. Ben Bradlee, Jr., writing about the Wilkes-Barre, Penn., area in his book, “The Forgotten,” noted that with the rise of foreign competition, manufacturing jobs started to disappear, declining by one-third since 2000, and that the area has an unemployment rate higher than the national average, with more than 1 in 5 families living in poverty. At the same time, he notes, the opioid epidemic and other social problems have spiked. This is what can happen to a community when you don’t have gentrification.
Contrast this to the remarkable revitalization of the FEC Corridor over the last 15 years.
Midtown Miami was an abandoned rail yard converted to a mixed-use community, with a large shopping center providing retail serving residents, that was previously unavailable in the City. The Design District was a largely abandoned area that is now one of the major shopping and cultural destinations in South Florida. Wynwood, a formerly vacant industrial district, is now a center for art, restaurants, bars, offices and, soon to come, residential. These districts have provided thousands of jobs for area residents.
Next up is the recently approved Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti, which will transform largely vacant land and warehouses into a tech-oriented workplace and residential community. The project includes a trust fund for Little Haiti of up to $31 million dollars, which is comprised of various investments in the community, such as affordable housing and homeownership, community educational programs, local small business development, and local workforce participation and hiring programs.
Gentrification brings investment, jobs and support for local culture that is critically important for the future success of urban neighborhoods. Activists who oppose gentrification appeal to people’s fear of change, ignore the facts and disregard history. The irony is that through their opposition to investment, activists will often foster policies that doom their neighborhoods to decline and all the attendant social ills.
Benefits of Revitalization
Furthermore, a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which tracked original residents of gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods, supports the notion that gentrification has limited impact on displacement and that residents benefit from revitalization.
In addition, contrary to the narrative that gentrification disadvantages the poorest residents, the study found for original residents that fall into one of the most vulnerable demographic groups (less-educated renters), gentrification has no effect on reported monthly rents.
With respect to the poorest and most vulnerable, who remain in these neighborhoods, gentrification offers the opportunity, and has the obligation, to help ameliorate these conditions. So, when a formerly industrial property is rezoned to allow dense residential, it is appropriate to mandate the provision of affordable and workforce housing or a payment in lieu.
Large-scale projects like Midtown and the Magic City Innovation District can provide job outreach and training for area residents and help encourage new business and investment in the area. Existing residents can benefit from economic opportunity, job training and attainable new housing. In this way, gentrification is critical for the long-term health and prosperity of our cities.
Source: Miami Herald