Gentrification is a term associated with the displacement of the poor in an area through various means and methods with the idea of raising property values, decreasing crime, and generally making the area more attractive to wealthier potential residents or investors. The idea has been around for a long time, in one form or another, in Western Societies, though the term “Gentrification” itself wasn’t coined until 1964 by British sociologist, Ruth Glass. It has roots in the English social term “Gentry,” referring to the class just below Nobility, and otherwise known as the Landed Gentry. Glass coined the term as she observed the displacement of poor and working class residents from an area of London, one by one, until the whole social structure was changed. That last part of her observation should be what is alarming to those who live in and love the city of New Orleans, “The whole social character of the district is changed.”
Any conversation or discussion on gentrification tends to be filled with very passionate and strong opinions on the subject. Most of the people involved in these conversations have skin in the game; they, their families and their very lives are being or will be affected by it. On one hand, the poor and working class, concerned that they will not be able to afford to live in the area or neighborhood, have lived their whole lives; and on the other hand, the property owners and developers see the rising rents and property values as the means to improving the quality of life overall for the residents in these areas. Unfortunately, for anyone searching for viable solutions and compromises in regards to gentrification, both points of view are expressed with extreme passion, and both sides have elements of truth as well.
Most people who oppose attempts at gentrification are not opposed to seeing the area or the neighborhood improve. They just don’t want continued problems of crumbling infrastructure, struggling businesses, and rampant crime. They also just want to be able to afford to live there.
The problems with gentrification and the barriers and obstacles that prevent it from being implemented in any meaningful and effective way are essentially the very same problems that result directly from poverty itself. Gentrification is just another failed attempt to eliminate the problems associated with poverty in our society without actually addressing the issue of poverty.
If the point of gentrification was to eliminate or even reduce the level of poverty in an area, then it would first address the underlying issue. Gentrification does not seek to address poverty though. It only carries on the great American tradition of simply moving the poor to a different area, so as to pretend the problem does not exist. It’s almost as if the main goal is to protect the fragile sensibilities and insecurities of those who are upset to witness poverty but feel no need or desire to do anything about it.
There are more inherent problems with most processes of gentrification that both sides seem to find common ground on, especially in a city as culturally rich and diverse as New Orleans. We have an example of a more pressing concern about what gentrification might do to this city. We can look at Times Square in New York City and what it’s like today, compared to the sixties and seventies. In one of the most extreme examples of gentrification that we have in America, to date, we saw the seedy, lower class, neighborhood, filled with sex shops, bars, drugs, organized crime, and dominated by street culture, turn into the pristine, sanitized version where we watch the ball drop every New Years Eve. The strip joints and dive bars are now replaced with Starbucks and McDonalds. It can be used as an example of success by the pro-gentrification crowd, as they point out the drastic reduction of crime in the area and increased revenue from tourism attributable to the feeling of safety and security, which could appeal to potential investors or those who seek to visit.
Now all New Orleanians have to do when using the Times Square example as a measure for possible ramifications that it might bring here, is imagine the future of the French Quarter as Times Square now— a future where a super McDonald’s stands where Cafe Dumonde used to be, a Hard Rock cafe replaces Tipitina’s, and where Exxon and Shell stations replace the old hood stores that always had some of the best po-boys.
In short, how much of the distinct, vibrant, and rich culture will be replaced with American corporate culture? How much of New Orleans’ soul are we willing to sell to try and buy a little relief from the crisis of poverty and its daily, enduring effect on its citizens? I think that in a place where culture is as important as it is in Louisiana —generally and especially New Orleans—that even the loudest proponents for increasing unchecked gentrification might have some pause when considering a future where we remember the times when we could get good fresh po-boys, and gumbo.
It seems impossible to consider, that something so distinctively New Orleans could become extinct, but let’s consider that the beginning of the biggest push toward gentrification in New Orleans began after one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the state, and I dont think anyone would’ve taken me seriously if I would’ve suggested back then that we’d never have a Hubigs Pie again.