How conversation helped me connect with longtime residents in my rapidly changing neighborhood.
Back in June, my neighbor Jess proposed holding a party in our shared back alley. She emailed a handful of us with the details and added, “Please spread the word! We'd love to extend this to all the neighbors.” Her point, I knew, was to ensure that the party wasn’t just white people like us, but an actual representation of our Truxton Circle neighborhood, formerly a predominantly African-American community in central Washington, D.C. that’s now about evenly split between blacks and whites.
But when the party finally occurred, all the guests at the shindig were—surprise!—young, professional, and white. We were “those gentrifiers,” the ones who interact only with other new, white residents. I overheard Jess complaining about it: “There's always this separation. I don't know how to get around it.” But she admitted she’d barely mentioned it to longtime black residents. “I just didn’t have people’s emails,” she shrugged.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve gotten used to seeing. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for four years and have been closely observing it for the past two while working on a book about the community. I’ve watched newcomers like myself—young, white, well-educated—arrive here, excited by the area’s diversity and with plans to join the civic association and get to know all the neighbors. But we repeatedly fail to connect with longtime residents and eventually give up, believing it’s just not possible. The two communities wind up simply coexisting, rarely overlapping in a meaningful way.
In my own struggles to be a “good” gentrifier—or at least a not-awful one—I’ve tried to bridge the gap between new and older residents simply by talking with my neighbors—as often and as directly as possible. It’s the single thing I’ve found that makes a difference.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Take that alley party in June. If Jess and others had really wanted a mixed crowd there, they would’ve had to determine which neighbors weren’t on the email thread and then found a way to get in touch with them, possibly by knocking on doors. They might’ve even gone the extra step of making fliers so neighbors had a tangible reminder of the event. All of that takes intention and effort beyond casually tossing off an email or Facebook message.
Arriving at self-awareness
Living in a low-income community can be fraught with mixed emotions for someone with more social capital. “Sometimes, [new] people feel their societal power and privilege is going to so overwhelm the neighborhood that they tiptoe around,” says John Joe Schlichtman, an assistant professor of sociology at DePaul University who is working on a book about gentrification. Others, he says, ignore the neighborhood’s history and existing institutions, viewing themselves as “pioneers.”
Sometimes our underlying perspectives and biases are illuminated to us only through our actions. “We make choices, intentionally or unintentionally, to be more accessible to some people,” says Don Edwards, CEO of the D.C.-based Justice and Sustainability Associates. “What we have to work at is overcoming our tendency to make assumptions.”
I saw those dynamics in myself. I’d thought I was a friendly person, but gradually I noticed that I only said hello to certain people: those who seemed solidly middle class. There was a wide swath of apparently low-income people, almost all of them black, whom I simply ignored.
Trying to fit in
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. “No one speaks,” complained my neighbor Carol, an African-American woman in her sixties who grew up on my block. I’d heard that from other neighbors, too, who felt disrespected when new residents didn’t bother to say hello on the street. Long-timers might not hold newcomers responsible for the changing housing or economic landscape, but they do resent being treated as second-class citizens when people ignore them.
But that’s not just the result of racism or classism. As in many other poor neighborhoods, life in Truxton Circle has always been lived in public, with people constantly greeting one another on sidewalks or spontaneously gathering in front of houses. For those of us who grew up in quiet residential communities, the sociability of many established urban neighborhoods can be overwhelming.
I made a conscious choice to try to fit into the neighborhood’s culture, and began saying hi to everyone. A few people responded warily, but most warmed up quickly. People I’d never spoken to before began smiling at me and starting brief conversations, and little by little, I began having more substantive discussions with a range of neighbors. I wound up getting to know four generations of Carol’s family, who filled me in on some of the community’s deep history.
Changing my conversation strategy
Neighborhood blogs and email lists are incredibly convenient for those who are comfortable online, but they exclude a big segment of the population, particularly people who are older or poor.
In a subtle way, the lack of hard-copy announcements says to people, “Your opinion doesn’t matter.” And while new residents might identify as well-intentioned liberals, intentions aren’t what matters, says Sylvie Tissot, a professor of political science in Paris and the author of Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End. “The result can be growing resentment from low-income people who see their neighborhood appropriated by a very different population.”
This can happen on both a personal scale and an institutional level. In my neighborhood, civic association agendas are only posted online; if you don’t keep up with them, you might miss an important discussion about a new development. Including everyone involves more old-school tactics, such as hanging up flyers and knocking on doors.
Tackling interpersonal problems
When we first moved in, my husband and I called the police on our hard-partying neighbor, Ney, when she kept us up at 2 a.m. It was easier than risking a potentially ugly personal showdown. But after running into each other almost daily for a couple of years, we finally became friends, and one day she said to me, “If I’m a little loud, be honest and tell me. Don’t call the cops on me.” She was right.
Talking directly with people who seem very different isn’t necessarily easy, particularly when complicated race and class differences are thrown into the mix.
But while fostering a sense of friendliness won’t ameliorate any of the fundamental, troubling issues of gentrification, like the loss of affordable housing and displacement, making an effort to get to know veteran neighbors is the most significant way to reduce tension in a gentrifying community—which can often be formidable. Above all, I’ve learned to scrutinize my tendencies and repeatedly remind myself to reach out—even when I’m not sure how it will go.