View of the Camp from the third floor of our home.
I am a white middle class girl who was raised in the suburbs who happens to love the city.
I mean LOVE the city. I love density. I love the texture. I love how many people can be packed onto a block. I love access to public transportation, to restaurants, to art (in institutions or on the street). I love that living in the city makes me interact with strangers. I love living in a small space and utilizing public space.
I first heard the word gentrification in high school, volunteering at the Drop Inn Center and ReSTOC, learning about housing rights. Growing up in a family and culture that valued home ownership, I couldn’t believe that people could essentially be economically forced from their homes and neighborhoods. I was horrified. I became more horrified when I realized that I was a part of the groups that often force people from neighborhoods positioned for economic development. After all, when the artists move in, you are just a few steps away from being the trendiest neighborhood in the city in a decade or less.
(Want an irreverent look at these issues? Check out this video by comedian Michael Che)
I once lived in a neighborhood in Oakland with a natural food corner store. Pass me a Fiji water to go with my sushi. (But that is another story)
By the time I was graduating college, I was sure of two things. #1 – I wanted to live in the city. And #2 – I wanted to use my economic resources to make the city better, for its current residents, than it is now. I didn’t want my economic presence or resources to be the reason others had to leave.
So how could I occupy space in the city, justly? Is it possible, or would is my presence only possible with the waves of development that increase the inequality on our streets?
My senior year of college was a little unusual. I chipped away at my thesis, I planned a wedding (when my mom reminded me to do things like order invitations) and my betrothed and I bought and designed a rehabbed house. Also a senior, he was an architecture student without a studio his last semester. Our house became his design project. Through volunteering in Cincinnati, he had gotten to know a community developer in Camp Washington, a tiny but active neighborhood with a thirty year history of rehabbing single family homes that had been foreclosed on or abandoned. The community board acquired problem properties in the neighborhood, fixed the exterior and found buyers who could customize their own interior. They focused on keeping properties owner occupied, raising home ownership rates in the Camp, keeping the community intact while growing it. The Camp Washington Community Board was formed by residents, stayed centered on the community and leverages economic resources to benefit the whole neighborhood. Perhaps their house by house approach was the kind of community centered development that could bring justice more fully to this city.
We are in our ninth year as a owners of a home in the Camp. We haven’t lived in the house the whole time; we had tenants while we lived in California. But, we treasure our space. It is a bizarre, quirky and charming mix of century old details and an open floor plan. We celebrated Valentine’s day 2005 with a frigid and dark picnic little more than floorboards and beams, in a shell our of house that made our families think we were nuts. The same spot is now occupied by the crib where our newest little one sleeps.
This neighborhood has taught me that how I spend my resources is a part of my fight for economic justice, but that is the easy part. Living in community, using my presence and building relationships that will bring justice is much, much harder. I have learned that the real ways I can bring justice to the city is through how I live day to day. But that journey, that fight, is time consuming and reflective. It makes me take a hard look at who I am, how I act, the privileges I haven’t earned and the responsibility I have. It is imperfect. It is a series of trials and errors, of embarrassments and small victories, of committing for the long haul. (Ask me about the time that I accidentally left the door open all day in the middle of winter and our worried neighbors called the cops)
I look forward to how else I will grow as a deepen my roots here. I look forward to seeing how I can contribute more. I have been the benefactor of much and need to give back more. As I work at that, I hope I continue to learn how I can use my presence to bring justice to the city.
All that said, and jokes aside, the best, most just, most responsible way to develop a city for the good of the most people is anything but a foregone conclusion. Some people see gentrification as a good thing. Others only use the word with a negative connotation. My own opinions on much of the development in Cincinnati in the last ten years is messy, unclear and contradictory, as hard as I have tried to sort through the issues. If you are interest in some of the local conversation around gentrification, here are some places to look:
How can you avoid being a gentrifier? I personally love this list from a resident of Oakland (where we lived before returning to Cincinnati). Substitute “Oakland” for the name of your city and these ideas work just about anywhere… and are good ideas for community involvement regardless of whether or not you are concerned about or contributing to gentrification.
Abby King-Kaiser works in Ecumenical and Multifaith minsitry at the CFJ during the day and is at the beck and call of a tiny person at night. She welcomed her second child to the world two months ago and is already trying to teach him to hold up an X during basketball games. In her free time, she likes to frequent on of the two playgrounds a block from her house and usually takes the kids with her.