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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.”