March 5, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 10

Dr. Wes

Spike Lee’s words on gentrification hit home. People, not places, are what make a neighborhood

By Dr. Wes Browning

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Spike Lee’s family bought a house in Brooklyn in 1968. His dad’s been playing guitar in it since then. And last year new neighbors called the police on him for being too loud. He wasn’t too loud for 45 years, but now the neighborhood has been gentrified, and he’s all of a sudden too loud for people who just showed up. Mr. Lee’s recent recorded rant on this subject uses a lot of choice present participles, and I can’t blame him.

I’ve had my own brush with gentrification. I’m mostly over it now, so I can begin to speak of it without curling up in the fetal position.

My first home in Seattle was the house my father’s father had built. When my dad was born the family lived in Auburn. By the time dad started school, the family had moved to a wooden house on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, and dad lived there while he was growing up. Then, while dad was away careering, first in printing and then in soldiering, grandfather had a new brick house two addresses down Beacon Avenue. It had a 50-by-100-foot lot in back that was home to rabbits plus various trees including an apricot, a pear, a plum and an apple. By the time I saw it, when I was 6 years old, my relatives had eaten the rabbits.

When my father retired from soldiering we ended up living in the brick house with the lot, and as a result I went to the same schools my dad did and sometimes even had the same teachers. Since my father was a famous straight-A student, this led to amusing expectations. For example, my first English teacher at Cleveland High School was Mr. Snyder who, hearing my name and studying my face, said, “Browning, you wouldn’t happen to be John Browning’s son, would you?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“Oh my.”

He could have saved that “oh my;” it wasn’t applicable. I was not the model student dad was.

Still, I got into a graduate school and tried my own careering. Then, circumstances brought me back to the brick house where my parents died.

All this time, our Beacon Avenue neighborhood was working class and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S.

The median strip set the tone. For about three miles, Beacon had a wide dirt strip down the middle that residents and visitors used as a parking lot. There’d be old rusting cars out there. The kids’ hot rods would be out there. Commercial truck drivers would park their semis out in the strip while liquoring up at the neighborhood bar.

But just as I got back, some people were getting it in to their heads that Beacon Avenue wasn’t pretty enough. So they set about prettifying it. In particular, they landscaped the strip, putting in curbs, grass and trees to make Beacon into a beautiful boulevard.

I’m sure it’s wonderful living on Beacon Avenue now. Congratulations to the people wealthier than I was who managed to hang on to their homes through all that prettification. I hope they like my old neighborhood, my schools and my former backyard as much as I did.

I’m happy where I am now, but I hope and pray every day no one comes and makes it prettier than I need it to be. I’m tired of being displaced by people with more money.

The word “gentrification” is so appropriate. It doesn’t say “improvement,” as well it shouldn’t. Gentrifying isn’t about improving a neighborhood, viewed as people. It’s about using development to attract a gentry into a neighborhood viewed only as a place, so that money can pour more freely into businesses at the expense of the dispersed former population.

The real neighborhood made of the former inhabitants is no more. Not improved; just dead. Like I say, I have colorful adjectives for this situation, but I’ll leave them to all your imaginations.

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