Why integration beats gentrification

The New Tropic’s office sits just off of 71st street and North Miami Ave. An auto body shop is on the right, while graffitied train tracks line the left. A few blocks down, at a hip boxing gym, business is booming, and art studios have sprung up among abandoned warehouses. The imminent change in Little River is palpable. [Editor’s note:  This piece was written from our old offices in Little Haiti. We have since moved to Allapattah.]

It’s no secret that Miami is a city in flux. With seemingly constant construction cranes building higher and higher condos in Brickell, and luxury brands popping up all over Midtown and Wynwood, the city’s many neighborhoods are, socially, economically, and quite physically changing.

All that change is bound to have significant impacts on the populations living within those neighborhoods, according to Marta Viciedo, founder of Urban Impact Lab, a civic innovation firm that focuses on creating meaningful relationships between people and place. “The place we grow up in affects the way we see and experience the world. … What we expect and think is possible is colored by the places we live in and what that place offers,” Viciedo says.

A biologist-turned-city planner, Viciedo first realized the true power of community while teaching English to recent political refugees, many of whom were of Haitian and Cuban descent. “This is when I understood how critical it is to have community. It builds a safety net for people, allowing them to progress,” she says.

This sense of community has largely developed along ethnic lines in Miami-Dade, resulting in quite distinctive cultural enclaves like Little Havana and Little Haiti. But as developers begin creeping further and further into these neighborhoods, that sense of place may be disrupted. In Little Havana, for example, “one developer was trying to rebrand it as West Brickell. When you strip that name, you start to take away the identity of the community in order to make a profit. … This is one of the many factors that creates gentrification,” Viciedo adds.

Defining a loaded term

It can be hard to pin down exactly what the word gentrification really means, because it often means different things to different people. Sociologist and city planner Ruth Glass first introduced the term in the 1964 book London: Aspects of Change. She describes it as the movement of the gentry, wealthy rural landowners, into the city. As the wealthy gentry moves from the rural areas into the city’s poorer neighborhoods, those cities are gentrified, until, “One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower … until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed,” she wrote.

The origins of the word are not far off from its current associations. According to Dr. Robin Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement at the University of Miami, gentrification is “the process whereby a neighborhood sees rising real estate values and an influx of new people into a community. The impact on residents is that they can no longer afford rents for housing and businesses in their neighborhood and fear the threat of evacuation.” Bachin is the author of the award-winning book Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890 – 1919 and is currently working on her latest book, Tropical Urbanism: Modernity, Exoticism, and the Creation of South Florida, 1890-1965.

Gentrification is characterized by changes in demographics, real estate markets, land use, and culture and character, according to Flag Wars, a PBS series on gentrification. In terms of demographics, there is often increasing income, declining minority populations, and a rising number of young singles and couples, the series notes. Alongside the changes in demographics come increasing rents and a shift from industrial warehouses to offices and residential areas.

The term takes on different connotations based on perspective, as developers see gentrification as a positive, bringing an influx of money into poorer neighborhoods while leading to a rise in real estate values and big returns on their investments, Bachin notes.

“Gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm,” Justin Davidson wrote in the New York Magazine article “Is Gentrification all bad?”. Ideologically, gentrification would be the result of shared aspirations for a community — that is, the desire to make the neighborhood safer, well-resourced, and economically viable. The key is to create all of those things without displacing the people who already live there by striving to maintain a racially and economically diverse area, the article notes.

But for people in communities where rapid development is occurring, the word gentrification “raises fear and anxiety, because the concern is that those … factors changing the community mean those residents can no longer afford to live there,” Bachin says.

The classic gentrification tale

Gentrification in Wynwood. (Courtesy of Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Flickr Creative Commons)
A mural in Wynwood. (Courtesy of Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Flickr Creative Commons)

In Miami, Wynwood is one of the most iconic examples of how development can physically and culturally transform a community. The burgeoning independent arts scene in the 1990s and early 2000s attracted the interest of Goldman Properties in the mid-2000’s, the primary investor in the redevelopment of New York’s SoHo and our own South Beach, according to Miami History. “Wynwood has developed into a really vibrant arts district, which has created a positive impact because it’s created a sense of place in the community,” Bachin says. As art galleries, stores, and restaurants open up and murals decorate the walls, “it’s gotten a clear feeling of a distinct neighborhood.”

But the counterpoint is that as more dollars are invested, real estate values rise, and the longterm residents can no longer afford the high cost of living, she adds.

As Wynwood was transformed from a neighborhood filled largely with industrial warehouses into today’s arts and tech sector mecca, the mostly blue collar Puerto Rican residents who once lived there were ostracized and pushed to the margins, notes the award-winning documentary Right to Wynwood. “Almost everyone that used to live here has moved to Orlando,” one long-time resident told filmmakers.

And for those who stayed put, many feel they’ve intentionally been excluded from the neighborhood’s immense growth. “I came here in 1964. I am a pioneer of Wynwood,” another resident said. He went on to describe a job he had at an art gallery at which he was instructed not to allow people from the neighborhood to enter the building. “But how can I distinguish the locals? … Do they look dirtier…?” he asks. “These people have come here, and, yeah, progress is fine, but they shouldn’t put us down, either, because we’re citizens, and we have the same rights they do.”

Wynwood Walls (Courtesy of Phillip Pessar/Flickr Creative Commons)
Wynwood Walls. (Courtesy of Phillip Pessar/Flickr Creative Commons)

A new narrative

Knowing that the narrative of gentrification holds true from early London to modern-day Miami, how can we challenge that tale in developing areas like Little River? What, as members of the community, can we do to disrupt this pattern of marginalizing and displacing the poor at the will of the wealthy?

The view from Brickell Key. (Courtesy of Emilio Labrador/Flickr Commons)
The view from Brickell Key. (Courtesy of Emilio Labrador/Flickr Creative Commons)

Scott Beyer, a reporter who writes about urban issues for Forbes and Governing magazine, thinks Miami is already doing it. Beyer is living in 28 cities for a month each throughout the next two years,  conducting research for a book about urban policy and the revitalization of American cities. He thinks that allowing, and even deregulating, development could actually be the key to combating displacement. “Miami is a destination city. It provides a cool culture, and cool jobs,” he says. “So, if you have a population increase and you don’t increase housing, people will get pushed out.” In continuing to deregulate development by allowing the building of condos in Brickell, wealthier people will look for housing in those wealthier neighborhoods, according to Beyer.

“If Miami decides to get tight on its land use regulations like New York, then Miami will have the same problems,” he says. “Right now, regulatory burdens and the process of getting new buildings in New York approved is so lengthy that it doubles the the cost of a unit. Consider Houston. Houston has a faster growing population than New York City and San Francisco, but it’s affordable because they have … rapid construction rates.”

And it’s true that in the last year, Houston has seen a 1.62% increase in population, while growth in San Francisco has slowed to 1.32%, and New York had just a 0.62% increase in the past year, according to a 2015 report by the US Census Bureau. As of 2014, at 2,239,558 residents, the population of Houston was greater than San Francisco’s 852,469 residents, though still far less than New York’s 8,491,079.

But there is at least one big problem with Beyer’s theory — allowing wealth to be concentrated in a single area spurs the creation of homogenous communities, Viciedo argues. “With any of the neighborhoods in Miami or anywhere else, places that become homogenous with either extreme poverty or extreme wealth in my opinion are less interesting places,” she says. “Study after study has shown that increased diversity improves communities.”

Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity project reveals significant trends in upward mobility when low-income families live in more integrated communities. For these children, growing up in communities with a broader range of incomes results in them achieving higher incomes in their adult years. And a recent study from NYU’s Furman Center notes that children who lived in public housing within integrated communities experienced higher test scores and income, along with benefitting from a lower crime rate.

“How people connect to their city”

Development should not stop, but rather, policies should be put in place to ensure development does not result in displacement, according to Bachin. One such policy is inclusionary zoning, which requires new commercial developments to include a set number of affordable units in their layout.

Another possible policy is upzoning, which would essentially change zoning laws so that developers could build larger buildings, for example, creating 120 units in a space previously only approved for 100. The hope being that since developers would be less likely to lose money, they’d create affordable options in addition to, rather than instead of, the existing number of approved units. Counties and municipalities could also utilize land banking — buying land to ensure that it is set aside for affordable housing. In the past, land banking has been used “to mitigate future development impacts … to preserve areas of shoreline, or to protect ecologically valuable land such as wetland,” according to a Washington University paper.

What proposed integration policies have in common is the goal of aiding in the creation of affordable housing. Another goal would be to foster economic development by creating mixed-use buildings and mixed-income housing, according to a paper by Frank S. Alexander, a professor of law at Emory University.

 A mural in Little Havana (Courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr Creative Commons)
A mural in Little Havana. (Courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr Creative Commons)

Until more affordable options exist, for renters who can’t afford a Brickell condo but still want to live near the urban core, Little Haiti and Little Havana are becoming increasingly popular options. One way to move responsibly into these communities is to support local businesses and work with local organizations to protect a mix of incomes in the community, Viciedo says. “Be conscious of the culture of the community in which you’re moving. Don’t assume because you’re there … that everything should cater to your needs,” Bachin adds.

And the value in participating in local government can’t be overstated. “Local elections can provide a crucial opportunity … to influence how [your] city approaches and invests in the issues that matter most to [you],” according to a recent study by the Knight Foundation.

Ultimately, a sense of a unified and invested community could be the difference between eradicating a culture and integrating within it. “It impacts how connected they feel to their city, and how connected they feel to their society,” Viciedo says. “The more that people feel connected to their city, the better a city becomes.”

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  • Maria Morales

    I was living in New York City when SOHO was forming and still have artist friends living there. SOHO was formed by ARTISTS!!! not by real estate developers, I know! I saw it! The developers, including Mr Goldeman, are following the Artist, they are behind them on their heels.
    What was done in Wynwood was created, artificially made, not truely by Artist. Many of the graffiti artistwere brought in, were not local. What was done to the Puerto Ricans is disgusting in Wynwood / Little San Juan. Now they are in Little Haiti, Overtown….etc. and I have no doubt they will entered parts of Little Havana, too.
    In time they will do it!

  • Kim Ives

    Well written. You might want to look into Lemon City and research back to 1998 when an investor from South Beach began buying properties on NE 59th Street. He showed others what can be done and the floodgates opened.

  • anthonyvop

    This article is just thinly veiled racism as an excuse to deny people their basic rights.

  • Elaine Mills

    Great article, history and civil discourse! I wish more discussions were so thoughtfully and respectfully crafted on all sides.

    • Roshan

      Thank you Elaine! Appreciate that feedback!

  • Steven Reginald Barkley

    Personally, and guiltily I loved the article it is well researched, informative and identifies the ideals that everyone hopes for in the next five years. But it is so very naive and blinded by an ignorance of values shared by the “gentry”(landowners) and the “peasantry”(land renters).

    All the gentry at some point were part of the peasantry. They owned no land, did not transact business, nor did they own any means of production themselves. Because of this harsh and bleak lifestyle a few of the peasantry looked at those whom they slaved for and worked for as models not only financially but social as well. After a full or pseudo-adoption of values literacy and community they were able to gain significant lifestyle improvements and social ills that plagued the peasant classes such as disease, crime, illiteracy, famine and drug abuse faded.

    Some of the modern day “peasantry” in Miami-Dade have been able to adopt these same values and their communities are growing successfully. The problem lies in the willful refusal of integration adopted by various cultures that have immigrated to Miami-Dade County in the past. Yes, I mean blacks, cubans, puerto ricans, haitians, dominicans and senior citizens. We as a County don’t have a shared literacy nor a shared empathy. Blacks, Haitians, and other Africans in Miami don’t share a love for the mother tongue of Spanish that is widely in use by the majority. This illiteracy causes strained or nonexistant communication to fester therefore community is near impossible. The Cuban, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans have a strange and historically prevalent critic on one another and what they individually believe is literate Spanish versus garbage spanish. Empathy internally within these groups is only tangible at sporting events and Pitbull concerts. In the areas seeing the most growth, there you see the most empathy for one’s neighbor.

    If you truthfully want to create gentrification internally within places like Little Havana, Little Haiti, Little River and Historic Overtown its very simple. Have all the business owners practice both literacy and empathy for their fellow Miamians. Then have the Superintendent push cultural integration in schools across the 305. Don’t just talk about diversity, sell the advantages of it. The Black culture has a censorship or punishment mentallity when it comes to reporting illegal activities. The Spanish culture has censorship culture when it comes to fraud and immigration. The summation of this is a lack of dialog within the community and to Political Authority.

    The Educated Cubans that settled in Miami in the past and in the days to come have the biggest advantages of all. They hail from Cuba a place where sharing resources, knowing your neighbors, and trading to survive was an essential skill. In Cuba the peasantry was made up from peoples of all colors from “jipatos to blancas to negros”. Cubans who survived Communism found a land to practice their community Capitalism without Government oppression. The place for political, social and economic refuge was Miami, Florida.

    Until we as a Community have shared empathy and literacy for one another no hope exists for integration of the “peasantry”. Gentrification will continue …………it is a sad but necessary to conclude but this in my truth that peasantrification is petrification of thought, values, social mobility and education. We the people cannot have Diversity without shared goals, only Diversion. And MIami is the capital to both Diversity and Diversion, now as 2016 approaches something has got to give.

    • Roshan

      Steven, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I 100% agree we can only benefit from cultivating care and empathy for one another. As a county, Miami-Dade is a community. With that said, there are definite silos — let’s challenge them. Having more diverse communities with a variety of perspectives all on one street can help to do this, as we break down the generalizations we may associate with one neighborhood or group of people. It’s a slow process, but keep the conversation going — eventually people will start to listen.

  • Zach

    Thank you! Addressing this topic so directly is a great step towards creating awareness and discussion. For those hoping to be “responsible gentrifiers” (admitting is the first step towards healing), what are some of these local organizations that are looking to protect a mix of incomes in the community. Especially in Little Haiti, Little River, Little Havana? Follow-up piece?

    “One way to move responsibly into these communities is to support local businesses and work with local organizations to protect a mix of incomes in the community, Viciedo says.”

    • Appreciate the kind words, Zach! We have some follow up pieces on housing and community engagement coming up, definitely.

  • Monica Matteo-Salinas

    I really wish the people who are gentrifying Little River & MiMo and all these other low income areas would do more to give back to the local schools. Both monetary fundraisers and volunteering time to read to kids would be a HUGE help, since most gentrifyers are renters and transient and don’t stay long enough to truly invest in the schools. I have some more ideas about this and I’m HAPPY to take the lead in needed. – PTA mom

  • Francisco Siman

    Great article, taught me so much of history, and what other cities have done. I would hate inclusionary zoning here, but up zoning could be good. I am a big fan of integration development. However, as a local developer I can tell you the reason why no one is building affordable condos… Hurricanes! The code we have in Miami is quite expensive to build to. My last construction was over $220 per SF ( 5 story residential apartment complex ) to build.

    • Roshan

      Hey Francisco. Thanks for reading, and for adding that valuable perspective — glad to hear that developers are also thinking about ways to include community members in the conversations of change happening throughout the city.

      That is quite a dollar, but I think shelling out some dough for hurricane planning is probably a good thing, haha.

      • Francisco Siman

        Developers would love to build for community members. However, we take a lot of risks in building. When expenses on the structure are too high (right now demand for rebar, concrete, and blocks is up) you have to build to luxury specs to justify your product. Thus, you have to look for clients who can afford new/ high-end product. This may be what leads to an eventual gentrification of an area. Also, Miami does not have many older structures, which are worth updating an bringing to market at an affordable rate. So it is hard to find good rehabilitation deals. At the same time, Miami’s population and economy is growing so more product has to be built, in a city where vacant land is hard to come across.

  • Marc Medios

    Gentrification is going to happen whether people like it or not and it is easy to see the pattern: with Miami’s lack of viable public transportation, areas near city centers and near highways become more valuable. Overtown is, I think, the next one to go, even faster than Little Haiti.

    • Roshan

      Thanks Marc. Yes, but the key is to strive for gentrification WITHOUT displacement, right? Can’t we make many of these neighborhoods more socially and economically diverse, alongside the communities that already live there? That way everyone is benefitted by some of the positives that changing landscapes can bring. That’s what this piece really aimed to understand.

      • Marc Medios

        Huge difference. CAN we? I doubt it. I’m the first one who feels sad when I see the ex-gallery that I rented now being part of a boutique that sells pretty much the soul-less trendy sports apparel now sold at Target, but I can see the owner’s point of view. That piece of real estate is worth more, so he extracts more.

        SHOULD we? I don’t know. Probably not. You’ve got to ask yourself, what does that individual person bring of value? A lot of them, don’t. Some do. But if a person rented a huge warehouse to have a gallery, for example, and that person couldn’t make a business out of it, perhaps he did take all the benefit he could and now it is someone else’s turn.

        • Roshan

          I understand your perspective. The market will wield it’s power. But, everyone who lives in a neighborhood adds some sort of value, whether that is economical or cultural. Embracing each community member’s unique value-added and might prove to make some pretty interesting + diverse communities, don’t you think?

          What are some ways you think we can keep community members a part of gentrifying neighborhoods in the face of rising real estate?

          • Marc Medios

            Sorry if I sound harsh but, no, I don’t agree that EVERYONE who lives in a neighborhood adds value. There are lots of people who live in a soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood only because of the price; they add nothing interesting, nothing unique, they are just there because it’s cheap. Take a look at the neighborhood just south of coral way around 22nd avenue… interesting little homes, but, if you talk to 90% of them, they are utterly normal, neither adding nor detracting value they are just… there.

    • The lack of public transportation is definitely a real issue, especially when neighborhoods like Midtown and Wynwood are already parking nightmares with no Metromover stops. And yeah, Overtown may be at the start of it’s own transformation, for good or ill, depending on who you ask. But it’s the Harlem of the South, with its own historic roots and culture that we shouldn’t overlook.

      • Marc Medios

        Having been from the original Wynwood crowd, the crowd that got pushed out by the crowd that just got pushed out… I think that the “cultural heritage” of Overtown is grossly overstated. There are a couple of nice churches here and there but, by and large, it is like Wynwood was in 2002, dirty, full of half-assed stores, badly kept, uncared for. I go through overtown at least 3 times a week on my way to Wynwood and, no, I don’t buy the “heritage” at all.

  • MiamiParkAdvocate

    Lemon City traces his history to the 1850’s. Bahamians and Afro-Americans were the pioneers. Now many professional artists and many great companies call Lemon City home.

    • Roshan

      Thanks for reading and engaging. Right, it’s no secret that many of the places we see today used to be home to entirely different communities, Lemon City included. Development isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just critically important to ensure those communities are part of the change, and not pushed out because of it.