I live in a frame style Chicago three flat building. It was built in 1907. The previous residents lived here for forty years. The owner and his wife maintained a multi-generational living situation. Their son lived in the top floor unit while they occupied the first floor. Eventually, the couple felt the building was too much work to maintain and listed it for sale because they were ready to downsize. When we moved in, we quickly understood their relationship with the neighborhood. Both neighbors on either side of our home were long term homeowners, having purchased their properties over twenty years prior. My husband introduced himself to residents on the other side of the street; they were renters who had been in place for over twenty years. One neighbor explained to us that the five houses consecutively adjacent to our property all were owner occupied, and all residents had been there for at least fifteen years. We were clearly the outsiders on the block. Nonetheless, when we showed interest in building relationships we were greeted warmly. Neighbors shared lawn tools, beers on warm summer afternoons, and vegetables from their garden with us. Still, I could see our introduction was disruptive to the social order. We heard stories about the Christmas light competitions the former owner of our home initiated, and could see that the row of homes used to pool resources and purchase fencing, lighting, and outdoor landscaping together.
The day we moved furniture into our new home, contractors were replacing the roof of a single family home across the street from ours. After a few days, it became evident the house was being flipped. We moved into our building in late November. The street was dark and quiet during the winter evenings. Our rental unit remained vacant because we quickly realized it needed work. Although the tenant space had looked cosmetically move-in ready upon purchase, it actually needed a major system renovation. We dropped more money into a gut rehab than we had prepared for and learned that maintaining affordability of the unit was not as straightforward as we had imagined it would be.
The street was dark because no one sat in the front room of their homes. We heard stories of how bullets used to fly through the streets. We live in an area full of one way streets and cul-de-sacs with dead-ends. This made it harder for police to chase shooters, but opportune for action. It occurred to us that the street-facing living room in our unit was not used much by the prior owner either. The TV room and bar was in the back of the house. A well used couch had been left behind when we arrived. When we attempted to remove it, we noticed drywall had been removed from a wall to insert the sofa. Nine months later, a White middle-aged couple purchased the newly rehabbed home across the street. They never step in their front yard except to catch an Uber. However, their living room lights are always on in the evening.
We saw very little housing development in the following three years. Still, there was one vacant house on the block that seemed like an opportunity for rehab. Even in a changing neighborhood, few argue that removing a blighted property is a bad idea. These eyesores devalue other properties on the block and sometimes attract crime. If no one lives there, no one is being displaced by the redevelopment; at least not on an individual level. A neighbor tried to find the building owner without success. ‘For Sale’ signs appeared and disappeared on the front gate with regularity. Sometimes the boards on the windows would be taken down, only to be reinstalled a few short weeks later.
Three and half years after we moved into our home, the boards on this vacant house were taken down and a dumpster was delivered to the street in front of the building. Within weeks, the siding was being replaced and new windows were framed. The house was going to be rehabbed and flipped for a profit. I understood this development would both improve the block and take from the community at the same time. I was also curious. When I would walk past this house to the nearby produce market, I would try to peer into the window to track the progress.
One sunny summer afternoon, I paused to watch the work through the windows of the property as I walked past. The developer was on the porch and noticed me. “Do you want to see the house?” he asked. It seemed he thought I might be a potential buyer. I was hesitant, but my curiosity won. As a teenager, I had spent a year of my life as a construction worker and relished seeing 2x4 planks and drywall transforming from boards and plaster into rooms and spaces. I stepped inside and asked him about his plans. It was to be a five bedroom home with finished basement. It sounded nice, although I could see the rooms would be small.
Then the conversation surprised me. “I grew up in this neighborhood. It’s a great area and it’s changing. My parents still live three blocks away. The house will get a good profit when it’s done.” the developer told me. He further explained, “this house was in demo court — it has been vacant for ten years. Before that, they sold drugs in and out of this home.” I did not fact check his story, but as I was leaving his father stopped by and I was introduced.
Neighborhood stories are complex. For all the stories of residents that are pushed out of a neighborhood that becomes unaffordable, there are stories of long term homeowners that sell to take advantage of rising property values and recapture their increased equity. There are owners who move to downsize, and there are residents who move because of a changed life circumstance. There are children of long-term residents that do not want to stay in the same neighborhood when they become independent. There are opportunistic developers who do not care about the community beyond what they can extract, and there are developers who are part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Some developments remove blight from a community. Some developments push the boundaries of property values upwards. This vacant house was the first property on the block that sold for more than half a million dollars. Five years ago, single family homes on this street, although not newly rehabbed, were selling for half this price. In this case, the developer that benefitted from the sale of the property was also an individual from the community. A White couple moved in. The living room lights in the front of the house are always on. The block is becoming a little brighter on dark winter evenings.
Place is significant. Even when we identify home as the place we share with people we care about, these relationships and memories happen within physical space. We become attached to the places we spend consequential amounts of time. No matter how much our primary communities transcend the boundaries of our lived existence through technology, our human bodies will continue to occupy finite physical space. Perhaps with a growing digital divide, the role of physical place in individual lives will have a widening experiential gap as well. A standard definition of the digital divide refers to access to computer hardware and internet, but this should be updated to include all the ways modern technology is changing the boundaries of our lives and possibilities. In one possible scenario, those with less access to technology may place precedence on homes and local communities, while those with more will increasingly divorce themselves from relationship to physical place.
Gentrification changes communities, but technology is also rapidly changing the way in which we interact with those same neighborhoods. We do understand some ways our current pandemic is exacerbating disparities, but these factors have been in motion for quite some time. Although people have moved for opportunity throughout human history, technology has reduced the risk of loss of significant relationship when we move. We can now call, text, or video chat with loved ones with a single touch on our devices, which we always carry on our person. Our primary relationships have expanded nationally and globally and are no longer centered locally, and the dynamic has changed our interaction with our geographic location permanently. We must consider these factors when we discuss gentrification, and include these unknowns in the ways we solve issues around housing access and affordability.
This series will explore gentrification over several weeks.