Commentary | Here’s The Thing About Gentrification

by | May 24, 2024 | CULTURE, OPINION, OPINION & EDITORIAL

A few months ago, a Los Angeles-to-Richmond transplant who happens to be a prolific TikTok content creator made a series of videos about her favorite vegan spots in town and an e-book guide. You could see the clear joy of discovery on her face along with the admiration for her new hometown in her voice. She bounces around, showcasing some of Richmond’s best. She posted her videos. Just a regular RVA fan expressing her opinion on her favorite things. Simple? No.

Example post by @laurenzray, click the image

A gross amount of people with internet courage destroyed her joy with shouts to “get out”, “leave”, “go back to LA” etc. They barked about “how could she possibly be considering herself knowledgeable about RVA food scenes when she just got here (which was actually just shy of a year).” How dare she? The degradation expanded to accusations of being the very thing ruining Richmond. Transplants, carpetbaggers, “immigrants”. Evidently, she was personally responsible for the rise in rents and home prices. She and her ilk were draining the life and culture out of Richmond like a plague of locusts eating all of our Lee’s thighs and Sub Rosa pies. The “G” word was invoked. Over and over again. It was her fault, and everyone like her too. She was a “GENTRIFIER”. 

*skkrrrrrt*

Are you fucking kidding me? Check yourself before you wreck yourself, RVA. 

Local @say_rahh__ explainer thread X (former known as X)

It seems that most of the volume on the subject is coming from the liberal, arty, and culturally-invested that feel their clubhouse is being invaded. The clubhouse they “built”. I’m gonna be real with you Richmond. Have you ever been to LA? I bet a bunch of you have. NYC? Oh, nearly all of you? You can’t throw a rock in Brooklyn without hitting an RVA transplant. It’d take a tiny pebble to miss the hordes of homies from anywhere else but the five boros. This is what that feels like. It can feel good if you just calm down and take a breath. 

The Richmonder rite of passage used to be about finally getting the hell out of here for destinations unknown. Many were lost to the voyage, never to return. A great deal of us come back with bigger ideas, expanded understandings of the world, and a bit more cosmopolitan grit under our nails. I’ve never met anyone not improved by this rumspringa. For those that never left, you do you, but shut the ever-loving fuck up about “PeOPle TaKIng OVer rVA!” We have been doing this to every city up and down the East Coast for decades. Smell yourself. 

Rent is insane here lately. I feel it too. My rent has gone up $240 in the last two years. Home prices are to be laughed at (or cried at, depending on how soon you’d like to buy one). Do you honestly think TikTok stars are doing this to you? If you do, you are woefully under-informed about your situation, and that is exactly how the people really responsible for this phenomenon would like to have you say. 

Many of you understand that the mechanisms of gentrification are intricate. But how many of you actually understand what gentrification is, who’s at the steering wheel, and who are its gleeful passengers? Let’s also talk about what gentrification is absolutely not. It is not a catchphrase for the high-minded to bandy about in lazy conversation, in the game of grievance one-upmanship we all enjoy. It is a real societal ill, and sometimes – sometimes – the rocketship out of poverty for generations of our worst-treated and neglected residents. Unfortunately, escape velocity is rarely achieved without negative consequences for their neighbors, but is that their fault? Capital “G” gentrification has deep roots in a twisted history. The masters of its path have been the same the entire time. Here’s a hint. It’s not TikTokkers from LA.

There are several paths to gentrification. All of them suck, but some are inevitable under the reign of unfettered Capitalism. That’s not to give Capitalism a pass. It’s not the devil, but we could do better, much better. We just simply haven’t been smart or strategic enough to fight it. Yet. 

The type of gentrification I hear most about is the kind that sprouts from what I call “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” – after The Cure song with the same name. Listen to the lyrics, you’ll get what I mean. Later in this article, we’re going to take a look at some ideas on how to put it to heel, to control displacement, and to welcome new communities. But first, a quick history lesson. 

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, banks and developers will displace anyone in their way, but their avarice begins with racial minorities. American culture is rife with tales of displacement, going back to the original sin of these United States – the eviction and obliteration of the First Nations. For centuries, financial institutions and the corporations they feed, would stampede through neighborhoods of any non-Anglo Saxon Protestant collective with impunity. Anything else was beneath protection, beginning with African Americans. They’d bulldoze through white neighborhoods too if the profit margin was big enough, but minorities have always been picked first in the game of GTFO. The practice is not a bug. It’s a feature. Along with corporate greed come the politicians eager to enact laws that disenfranchise the poor and enrich the influential. You simply do not have an America without this system. Not one anyone has ever known, at least.

Let’s add redlining to the mix. The “wrong side of the tracks” is as literal a destination as a street address. As black and brown Americans started succeeding and investing in themselves, they began to buy homes – their deferred slice of the American dream. Racists, and the institutions that loved them, relegated their possibilities to the least desirable portions of town, away from their white contemporaries and real property value. This worked for white society until the federal government made housing discrimination illegal under the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination stopped right then and there. Right? Right??

Post-Jim Crow, wealthier, white urbanites abandoned the inner cities altogether and moved to the counties. They decided to not face the uncomfortable reality of non-white potential. This left massive swathes of properties for black and immigrant communities to grow into, to shape in their image and call home. They were predictably underserved and over-policed, seeded with crack so as to harvest any hopes of further growth. Their community features were paved over and condemned. They were limited from receiving public services. Their environments were devoid of living staples like grocery stores, banks, good schools, etc. They persevered anyway. 

As arts-forward countercultures gained popular traction in the 60s, these neglected neighborhoods’ value of being far away from the antiseptic half-smiles of cul-de-sac life became evident. They were the opposite of the politely manicured suburbs the young and enlightened were eager to flee. They were not lorded over by Homeowners Associations and church-side gossip. There were limited zoning restrictions banning nightlife establishments and adult entertainment. Loud music, fast booze, fun drugs, and cheap rents were in healthy supply. Due to globalization, many manufacturing and warehouse spaces were abandoned for cheaper facilities overseas. They became the perfect venues for upstart promoters, studios for artists, and veritable mansions to the broke bohemians that would occupy them. The young pioneers that preferred their candles lit on both ends came running. Cities nationwide became the urban reincarnations of the Wild West in the 70s through the 00s. There’s a whole anthropology class in there somewhere. 

Generally, early adopters to these opportunities consisted of outsiders capable, if not excited by the prospect, of coexisting with multiple cultures. Post-racial America starts in these communities. It often dies on the vine there too. For the artists, creators, activists, and weirdos escaping strip malls and obscene Jell-O recipes, these neighborhoods were meccas. Sure, for every handful of sincere and respectful newcomers, you’d get a pandering, tone-deaf Becky with a messiah complex. They usually meant well and could be dismissed with a “namaste” and an eye roll. 

These communes wore ‘tolerance’ best. The ecosystem worked. There was balance in the Force. There would be a heyday of appreciation for what positivity can be made from ashes. Racial divisions would get blurred. Community gardens would get built. Assistance networks would be forged. The basis of the capital “P” Progressive conscience would incubate and thrive. There’s nothing sexier than an American utopia that respects its indigenous, plots its future as a community, shares resources, and wears a great outfit. Localized fashion trending was never far behind as the tribalization of these scenes would mature into signifiers beyond their addresses. Throw in some homegrown music, eclectic cuisines, vibrant arts scenes, and you’ve achieved a certain purity that is as beautiful as it is fleeting.  

The inner cities ditched by the “upper-class” attracted allies of all colors, shapes, and persuasions once property values bottomed. They’ve gone by many names over the decades, but I think “progressives” (activist, poet, hippie, punk rocker, artist, musician, LGBTQ+, community-motivated individual) is the most accessible for understanding in this context. Known primarily for expressing the need to not belong to “whatever the hell this is” *gestures vaguely at everything*, they’d employ the language of creation to cement their distinction. 

In every way, their existences were meant to provoke a reaction from the bourgeoisie – their music loud and contemptuous of traditional values, their fashion garish, provocative or inscrutable, their philosophies predictably centered on the fabulous individual against the cruel and ugly ‘World’. Some would eventually gaze so far inward that they wound up in front of a mirror installed up their own assholes – but that’s a different article. 

When a neighborhood goes from “scary” to quirky, quirky to chic, chic to popular, popular to ‘brand’, the wolves tend to catch the scent. The buzzards aren’t usually too far behind. This is the life-cycle of a culture-turned-commodity. Once a community is ‘branded’, it metamorphoses into a theme park, its former structures that created a balanced, but sensorial, experience bulldozed to recreate the suburban convenience of quiet conformity, luxurious personal space, and homogeneity. 

The irony at this stage is that the legacy residents – homeowners and renters alike – who steadily saw their neighborhoods thrive, came to odds with the transplants that had focused a positive spotlight on them. Streetlights got put in. The potholes were fixed. Layers of scrawled tags had been turned into outdoor wall art emblazoned three-stories tall on old brick walls. Parks got cleaned up and the threatening dudes on the corner were identified as just guys hanging out, maybe selling a dime bag or two – probably to you. 

I call it ironic because the hipsters who moved there for the romance of danger and squalor created the very bleach that sanitized it. Cue nostalgia for hardships those original residents were trying to escape all along. Where to draw the line as to when the neighborhood went from chic to popular is determined, individually, a year or so after the person describing the travesty arrived. That is to say, the disease is subjective to the pathogen. At a certain point, the equilibrium breaks, and it’s always someone else’s fault.

Now comes the rapid incline in rents, massive speculation on commercial properties and single family homes. Banks and corporations bought hundreds of homes to unilaterally gouge the market, at whatever premium they saw fit. The usual suspects – Starbucks, “organic” and “green” markets, the brands – like a club of mean girls pushing the less fabulous aside – come in and start making demands. “This park isn’t big enough. The graffiti on this wall is ugly. That bar is too loud. The group of young black men that have been hanging out on this corner for the last 15 years scare me.” Then come the upscale fast food joints and cottage lifestyle brands built for the suburban aesthetic, and if you’re lucky, whatever overpriced fad retail outlets you used to have to go to Paris/London/Tokyo etc for. 

All of a sudden, the police can hear cries of complaint coming from the neighborhood. What a coincidence. The loud, the non-conforming, the renting poor, the entrepreneur, the artist – are kicked into the adjacent neighborhood that previously represented the frontier, where this process starts back up again.

The subprime loan explosion of the late 00s and the resulting foreclosure conflagration only made things worse. Predictably, this affected first time homebuyers (many for the first time in their family history), financially insecure families refinancing their homes, and plenty of collateral damage to misguided investors. Who did it benefit? The gentrifiers, otherwise known as the banks. 

COVID, a once-in-a-century debacle, and the unique political climate of de-regulation, added insult to grave injury. Price-fixing amongst corporate landlords have sprouted lawsuits in Washington DC and other cities around the country. Vast amounts of wealth and real estate ownership went to the top 1%, a great deal of that to the top .1%. There are entire empty office buildings all over America due to COVID’s re-imagining of the workplace. So many people were blessed with the option to work from home. The general happiness that comes from deleted commute times, grating coworkers, and aimlessly meddling middle management created the ultimate positive work environment. The couch. With that comes the inspiration that your couch can exist anywhere. Even in a place as cool and relatively inexpensive as Richmond.

All of these things brought to bear what the unluckiest in these scenarios would go through. Displacement. Feeling like a tourist in your own home. Seeing your lifestyle replaced by something “better” when it is, eww, nothing close to that, is horrifying. Having to leave your neighborhood entirely after watching it get bulldozed for new construction is depressing. Living through the construction phase is its own hell. 

There are other paths to what we experience as gentrification for sure. New economies burst onto the scene without warning or favor. Think of Silicon Valley. When tech startups turn into trillion dollar behemoths, the local impact is immeasurable and unpredictable in scope. Los Angeles with Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s is a great example. It was barely a city prior to the talkies. Vegas and its Strip are very recent inventions. Seattle, with the leviathan Amazon – if not earlier conflicted by the popularity of grunge aesthetics in the 90s. Even Austin, who became a hotbed of commercially-sanctioned weirdness, became consumed by its reputation. It barely even registers as odd now. It’s also in Texas, so… gross.

Being too cool for school is the most fashionable way to lose your footing in a community in transition but, sometimes, city governments actually do their job and give attention to the impoverished. Sometimes there are great organizers in these communities that make shit happen. These are the heroes right? The answer is yes, but the benefits of positive change are rarely left to the needy. Just as the powers for equity thrust their swords to the sky in triumph, the wringing of hands and evil cackles begin in the lenders’ boardrooms. They stop at nothing to put these neighborhoods back on the market. They promise low-income housing cutouts to new construction, and just blatantly don’t do it. They drag in the city government to make noise about massive infrastructure investments to get permits, and then tell us all to fuck off when it comes time to deliver. 

There may be several paths towards the endpoint of displacement, but the outcomes are always the same. Why? Because it suits the goals of those who started the whole thing in the first place. The banks.

The triggers that fire real estate agents at a community like so many bullets are squeezed with every updated property value map. Is your neighbor the villain when they appraise their home for sale, and due to demand, they net a fortune? Is the buyer that has no way forward in the giant megalopolis they currently live in wrong for buying a home where they can afford one? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Both of these parties are reacting to a much, much, larger paradigm shift in economics, security, culture(s), and politics than what we colloquially call gentrification. 

Let’s remember and understand the phenomenon relies a few fundamental truths:

  1. The geography of opportunity has shaped our landscape into zones of low and high capitalistic pressure – usually by methods rooted in racism. 
  2. Voids will be filled, if not by passive population flow, then by scurrilous opportunism. That’s basic social physics. 
  3. Some people’s money is greener than others. Protections are not equal. Privilege is real. 
  4. Cultural change in a neighborhood does not equal gentrification. Manipulation of financial opportunity structures does. 
  5. Change is constant, and inevitable. 
  6. Gentrification is a perpetual motion machine built by our banking system to extract the most money, the most amount of times, from whatever resources there are to milk. 

I need a cigarette. We good, Richmond? Before I go, here’s some advice:

  1. Support legislators (or become one yourself!) and legislation that makes it so when your neighbor sells their house at 1000% of their original investment in 1986, yours and your other neighbors’ property taxes aren’t affected. Support legislation that only re-estimates your property value when you, as the owner, request it be revalued for the purposes of sale or refinancing. 
  2. Support, or start, a registered voter signature campaign to present to the state legislature that would fundamentally change Renters Rights in Virginia; to include rent stabilization and rent control structures many cities currently enjoy. 
  3. Hold them accountable and do not let up. VOTE.
  4. Stop yelling at the new people. It makes you look stupid. 

Cheers.

Illustration by Mauricio Vargas

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




more in politics

Richmond’s Next Mayor? Get To Know Dr. Danny Avula

Here’s my conversation with Dr. Danny Avula, candidate for Mayor of Richmond VA. This completes the set of all my conversations with Richmond’s prospective Mayors for November 2024. One of these people is going to be leading the city next year. Who it’s going to be is...

Dystopian View of VCU’s Graduation Walkout

The Greater Richmond Convention Center has undoubtedly experienced more prosperous times. The recent walkout by Virginia Commonwealth University graduates highlighted a series of declining events in Richmond, marked by police confrontations during protests and the...

RVA 5X5 Deep Dive: Parking Decks, Debt & Trap Doors

On Wednesday afternoon at 3:00pm in City Council Chambers, City Council will vote and approve the plan presented by the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to allow the city to issue $170 million in bonds to pay for the new baseball stadium on ten acres...