Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gentrification Panel Discussion: Nathan McCall

Today I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on the hot-button urban issue of gentrification. It was held at ground zero of the same in D.C., Busboys & Poets restaurant and world bookstore. The inspiration for the panel was author-journalist Nathan McCall's debut novel--cleverly titled Them. The setting is the "Old Fourth Ward" of Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr's neighborhood, once an elegant black middle class community. Decades later it becomes "The Hood," with all of the attendant problems. When the protagonist, a black man, wants to buy the old house he's been renting, along comes the white professionals eager for an old Victorian home without the commute. Can the developers with their chain stores and condos be far behind?Included on the panel were Prof. Tony Samara of George Mason University, attorney and candidate for D.C. City Council Dee Hunter, Rick Lee, owner of Lee's Flower and Card Shop, one of the oldest small businesses in the Nation's Capital, and Nathan McCall. As you know, Nathan is the author of the New York Times bestselling and iconic memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, chronicling his life in the projects of Portsmouth, Virginia and his escape from a life of crime to the newsroom of the Washington Post. Nathan is now a professor at Emory University. We share the best literary agent in the world...Faith Childs!
So--what are your thoughts on "gentrification" and how it may encompass race, class, the utter greed or sainthood of developers and local politicians, be you in Brooklyn or Baltimore. Or what about the effects on the burbs? Tell me...


Pebbles Flintstone said...

As I am DC area resident and a faithful Chambers devotee and follower, I attended this session and it was incredible. I did not ask any questions of the panel, but I was impressed with the diversity of the DC folk who attended, and the panelists were excellent! The only thing I would suggest in the future is including someone from the religious community. Your moderating was excellent, and I found Nate McCall's comments insightful. Obviously he has thought about this issue and turned it inside out. I was particularly struck by his comments on how gentrification can actually be useful for a community, but the parties involved must respect the culture of the community they are moving into. I don't know what the answer is -- change is inevitable, huh? But this is a discussion that should continue on for quite some time.

PGCountyresident said...

Gentrification? Bad. Why? Because all of the crazy people, ghetto thugs and illegals have now been deposited on my doorstep and in my child's school.

eisa said...

chris, you know how gentrification and displacement have angered me over the past several years. the powerlessness in our communities is stunning. we can't even decide where we want to live - or how, as pg county resident suggests in the comment above mine. until we form the networking and economic power to make elected officials truly beholden to us, and the unity and love needed to cherish our neighborhoods, as mccall's male protagonist does in his wonderful novel, we will always be vulnerable to displacement.


field negro said...

Good job Chris, this is why I love you folks down in D.C. I miss that type of activism sometimes here in Philly.


Your sister said...

I have to echo the comment of the PG County resident. As a child, we saw it happen in our quiet, comfortable middle class neighborhood in Baltimore: as thugs and hood rats purchased homes with shaky mortgages. the lenders being, ironically, corrupt African American politicians/businessmen.
Now I see it in Charlotte, NC. as leasing agents and realtors "steer" blacks and latinos to certain sections of the city. This illegal practice is often done with newbies to town, regardless of income. It is also alleged (and proven in some cases) that real estate companies have taken renumerations from home owners associations with the xpressed purpose of keeping out "undesirables" These same hypocrits would, however, welcome a few thuggish professional athletes or hip hop "artists" as neighbors. Afterall, they are celebrities...

Lisa said...

I am upset that we and our parents who remained in neighborhoods and tried to stablize them, and paid our taxes, are victimized by raising tax rates, and watching others like big chain businesses and new "homesteaders" reaping tax benefits. Let us not forget the politicos who claim to be about "the people" and residents who have carried the burden, yet are in the pockets of developers!

We can debate about crime and culture issues, but I can't see how anyone can side with these politicians and developers on the pure unfairness and de-stablizing issues. Now we have a down market and credit scandals with the big banks and investment bankers and you see the result!

James H. Robinson said...

Is gentrification an inherently "white thing?" I thought gentrification was when people of means, regardless of ethnicity, move into a heretofore lower-income community. If that is the definition we are using, then why can't black people gentrify black communities? Is that also considered a "bad thing?"

rikyrah said...

Sounds like a great panel. I am against gentrification because our community seems to come out on the short end of the stick, mainly because we have politicians that don't stick up and fight for the community.

I have a niece and her husband who are looking for a home right now. She simply cannot afford to move into an area that, 5 years ago, was 95% Black. Two employed folk should be able to live within the city limits - it's breaking her heart, because she totally loved the neighborhood.

HamnEggs said...

I understand ANC commissioner Dee Hunter basically laid down the gauntlet on Carol Schwartz and the developers at this event for author Nathan McCall? If so, good for him. The racists who say DC is a Third World Country due to the ethnic makeup and poverty actually have it backwards. It's Third World because corrupt politicians neglect the long time residents and long time small businesses and shops, and give tax breaks and sweatheart deals to the condo developers and the big box stores and chains, and hand them over city property, free. And while our greedy banks and institutions created a credit and capital crisis, the dollar's fallen and so, shades of the Third World, foreign money is now backing worthless but pretty construction projects (kind like steel mills and huge dams in the Third Word that actually did nothing). You can't get much more Third World than that! I left a similar comment on DCBlogs.

James H. Robinson said...

Gentrification isn't a black thing or a white thing it is a money thing. Black folks with money abandoned Washington DC for the halcyon fields of Prince George's County. Now that non-black people of means are moving into areas we abandoned and raising the property values, we have the audacity to be annoyed.

We had ample opportunity to gentrify our own neighborhoods. Instead, someone else took the risks and are gaining the benefits. That's how capitalism works.

Anonymous said...

I agree with James in part but haven't long-time residents and small business owners tried and have been fustrated (often by our "own people") in the municipal governments to improve schools, services, etc? Often the choice between staying and going, especially in the 1970s and 80s was no choice at all. Go if you could. Indeed, the suburban governments,states, feds all had a hand in this along with economic interests (even highway and beltway builders), and we cannot discount racism on a basic level. So while I agree with the essence of your statement, James, we can't ignore very tangible human and governmental hands driving this process (look at the tax issues and condo building, as some commenters alluded to), and many times yes those hands were ours. I know there's a controversy with Marion Barry in Washington yet again. Like Bill Clinton, I think African Americans should think about issues like this before declaring him some kind of a saint. A lot of the problems worsened under his administrations, and ironically, the machinery for gentrification, development and displacement began under him as well.

James H. Robinson said...

Long term residents did not have the household incomes to draw the attention of retailers or government. That is why is essential for people who have money to move into blighted neighborhoods in order for gentrification to work. Government entities that charge an income tax respond more readily to those with more income. It is unfortunate, but it is how it works. And retailers also respond to households with higher income. So racism is a factor, but money is an even BIGGER factor.

The DC metro area has more affluent single African-Americans than any other area in the USA, if not the world. However, many of them chose to pursue the American dream in the suburbs. I'm not saying that it was wrong to buy in the 'burbs, but don't be irate at those who bought in DC and benefitted in the long run. Also, why are we complaining because neighborhoods in DC actually improved? Do we want U Street to go back to how it was in the early 1990's? Do we want Logan Circle to go back to the days when it was full of crackheads and hookers? If anything, we should be pleased that anyone, regardless of ethnicity, placed themselves and their capital into DC neighborhoods.

lance williams, sr said...

I am glad somebody called out Bill Clinton, our supposed first black President. In the mid 90s under the fanfare of these house negroes (the same ones kissing Hillary's ass) in the Congress and in the municipal governments, he designated areas like Harlem and out here on the left coast in Oakland "enterprise zones" and thus opened the door for the "box box chains." Oh how the brothers danced that they could get their gear from The Sports Authority and make its stockholders and executives rich, rather than supporting Mr. Brown or Mr. Jones, who'd been there since jump. Little did they know that hand in hand with that was the promise made to the developers for more chains, and condos condos condos and shifting densities and zoning to allow for more! Historic homes split into lofts overlooking the Bay (or downtown Manhattan, or the Washington Monument, what have you). Then you have folks like Magic who are squarly in the pocket of the chain retailers and others with no regard for what makes a neighborhood with flava--which is why people want to live there in the first place. Even the white homesteaders. They don't necessarily want a Red Lobster next door to their brownstone. It's the traditional feel that attracts them in the first place.

But the key is, don't blame "Mr. Charlie" for this. The perps have names. Some of them are definitely our "icons" and heroes and our pastors selling the old historic-register church founded by slaves to WholeFoods, so they can build some ugly arena to God out in the suburbs.

James H. Robinson said...

I just moved to Oakland and I think "the town" needs every big box store and loft development it can get. If customers want mom and pop stores then let them patronize them (I do). But don't deny Oakland additional jobs and tax revenue in some quixotic quest.

It is me or are we the only oppressed people who complain when progress occurs? So what if the new buyers are not black? Why don't we recognize our own bigotry? Well-to-do blacks can leave the cities in droves, but if someone else tried to come in and develop, we complain. Shouldn't the goal be getting stores in where there were previously abandoned buildings? What was on the site of the Oakland Whole Foods? Was it being productively used? And in East Oakland where I now live, there are empty lots. Why not let someone develop? Where I now live used to be abandoned motel on MacArthur Boulevard. Should it have stayed abandoned in order to keep non-blacks from wanting to "gentrify?"

Hathor said...

One of the problems with gentrification, which happens in Philly, poor to working class neighborhoods, white and black is that older residents are usually put under a lot of pressure. Your property value goes up, but since you have paid for your house or or bought in before it became gentrified, your income hasn't changed. Your taxes can double, triple; the reasonable convenient retail, disappears; new residents getting rules as if they are still in the burbs, like changing street access and parking, the look of everybody's house and sometimes the gentrification has purposely damaged the older residents property in rebuilding some homes, with the intent of driving the older residents out.
Fortunately in this city the second oldest church and the oldest black church survived the assault.

Charlotte Cousin said...

First, I agree with all Jas. Robinson has said. I also have to say that, ooutside of urban areas, black folks have just given over to white developers and investors some of the most valuable land in the US. Do you know that, maybe 50-75 years ago, rural and mostly black areas along the SC and GA coasts were not even on the radar screen of white retirees, who thought the climate -- in those days before A/Cs became commonplace -- was uncomfortable and the lifestyle unexciting (like the plantation owners who stayed in their townhouses for fear of yellow fever). Yet, it took only a few decades for developers catering to this population to bring about a wholesale transfer of that land by buying off black owners who hadn't a clue of the value of their land. If you can read a newspaper, you can see which way real estate trends move. This may not help much if you don't have the means to keep up with the taxes or maintenance required for a property in a developing market, but at least you can make sure you get a fair price when you have to pull up stakes. But ultimately, when you get down to it, who can be against anyone of any race investing in a struggling neighborhood?

sunrunner said...

I put "Them" on hold (at the library) and judging by the few pages I read, there's apparently some humor in his depiction of buying a postage stamp as an act of cultural resistance? Or maybe not, but I've read Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, a novel about Dylan and Mingus, two neighbors on a Brooklyn block undergoing gentrification, but it couldn't be construed as an "activist" novel which the author, for instance, would follow up by making an appearance on a panel to discuss gentrification. I understand that political activism has a long and venerable tradition in black history, from the bondsmen who petitioned Thomas Jefferson over the Declaration of Independence, to David Walker's Appeal, to Frederick Douglass, et al. But at some point doesn't it become an albatross that writers shouldn't have to wear?

One of the interesting angles on this season's major book awards are the number of Caribbean-born American authors up for prizes: besides Edwidge Danticat and Arnold Rampersad, there's Junot Díaz, who's already won the Sargent first novel prize. A few years ago there were an inexplicably large number of race- and ethnicity-themed books nominated for the major awards: The Time of Our Singing, The Known World, A Ship Made of Paper, A Distant Shore, Lost Prophet (the bio of Bayard Rustin), Arc of Justice, Brick Lane (which, like Invisible Man, ends on an "internal" riot) and a few more, however, very few of the authors, maybe only one, were African Americans.

The Hurston /Wright Awards were announced two weeks ago. Two of the awards went to non-American black writers involved in either missionary or activist work in Africa and the fiction prize went to Edward P. Jones, arguable the most celebrated American author of the past five years. It seems to me that this year's Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards privilege two things: literary celebrity and political activism in Africa. It's an impossible standard for American black writers to meet and in my opinion, it's intended to impress (who, I don't know).

Aminatta Forna is a Briton, the granddaughter of a Sierra Leonean tribal chieftan whose physician father served as a cabinet minister and was murdered by the regime for advocating for democracy. She returned to her country after 25 years and founded a school and reclaimed her family's cashew plantation named Kholifa Estates after the fictional plantation in her award-winning novel, "Ancestor Stones." Wangari Maathai, the "Tree mother of Africa," is an eco-warrior and women's rights campaigner who serves as an elected member of Kenyan parliament. She won the nonfiction prize for "Unbowed." Shouldn't there at least be a separate category for this type of writing? There are already awards for African literature: The Caine and the Commonwealth Africa prizes. There's a Commonwealth prize for Canada and the Caribbean, and Citizens of the British Commonwealth of Nations are all eligible for the Booker prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, and many other UK literary awards and first novel prizes.

Why are they stacking the deck against American writers? Is it related to something like Alain Locke's romantic dream of a "great race welding" based on African American exceptionalism? If there are, say, 25 million African Americans (Juan Williams's recent demographic polling results notwithstanding) what logic is there to opening up the field to a billion "people of African ancestry"?

I'm currently reading "Dominion" by Calvin Baker, which critic Dale Peck named in New York magazine as his "favorite underrated book of the past ten years." I finished "The Last 'Darky': Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora" by Louis Chude-Sokei. Although I couldn't find any biographical information on the author, it's one of the most brilliant nonfiction books I've read since Lawrence P. Jackson's "Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius." In my opinion it's relevanct to the globalization of hip-hop and other American culture. Anyway, thanks for the forum Christopher, I'll be back another time.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the forum on gentrification and hopefully Nathan will have an increase in book sales as a result. I am not a big fan of ATL at all, but I have been following gentrification of Tidewater for a few years. I do believe DC and Harlem are lighten and that is very disturbing indeed. I was surprised no one brought up the dynamic of homosexuals buying homes in the gentrified areas. I am sure having many singles with disposable income is a driving force. I thought it was interesting that the discussion took the turn of assuming many of the buyers were young couples who would move back out to the burbs.. I am sure many will stay and force better their environment to change ie better schools in their districts etc... The panel was well rounded. The only thing I didn't like was the lack of direction for the Q and A. If the questions could have been more concise and the answers from EVERY panelist, this would have moved better. Nathan is very personable and I look forward to seeing him in Tidewater in January 2008. You did a great job and I wish you the best in the Middle East if you go.. Thanks again for sending the info.

Lola Gets said...

The defenition of gentrification is one class (the gentry) moving into a community and imposing their values on the other residents. That, in and of itself, is wrong. However, as a DC resident, and yeah my family's been in the Shaw neighborhood for about 100 years, I support improvement of the neighborhood, of the city.

Personally, I think it can be done in a way that is beneficial to all ethnicities and income levels, but oftimes isnt. And thats where the problem lies.

Man, I wish I had been at that panel; I miss all the good stuff!


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