Terms like “gentrification” and “housing crisis” get tossed around so much that they’re often stripped of their human context, framed as abstract, hypothetical, and overwhelming concepts. Good poetry can take what is unwieldy and make it specific and human, showing viscerally how policy and development translate to everyday lives. As National Poetry Month comes to a close, here are a few poems that capture the physical and emotional consequences of urban transformation. (Be sure to also check out this collection of favorite poems from The Atlantic and CityLab staff, too.)
“Dispatches From The Black Barbershop, Tony’s Chair. 2011,” Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sidekick Lit
jeff got knocked out on east main by a sucker punch that broke up the 4th of july cookout in front of brenda’s hair shop and when he woke up it was a whole foods see that’s why you sittin up here talkin bout you lonely while my rent goin up every month but I still got my name on the door
“There is a Street Named After Martin Luther King Jr. In Every City,” Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sidekick Lit
after all / are you less / of a ghost / if you die on a street / named for a man who / they will say / could have saved you?
“Gentrification,” Sherman Alexie, The New American Poetry Review
Let us write poems
For she who found that wasp nest
While remodeling the wreck.
But let us remember that wreck
Was, for five decades, the nest
For a black man and his father.
“Housing for All,” Tyrone Lewis, The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development
Lewis, from the Bay Area, wrote this when he was 12 about his own family’s struggle to find an affordable place to live.
We’ll Work hard
Day by day
‘til everyone has
A place to stay
I shouldn’t see couches
On the sidewalk
I should see a street
Full of U-haul trucks
“This Is Home,”Deandre Evans, Will Hartfield, and Donte Clark, Off/Page Project
This poem, produced in conjunction with The Center for Investigative Reporting, touches on the mismanagement of public housing in Richmond, California and the dreams and needs of people who live there.
For more, you can find poems about architecture here; explore the role of coffeehouses, poetry workshops, and open mics as third places; or consider the potential of poetry to reintroduce concepts of proportion and beauty to the architectural mainstream.