Gentrification is a topic I have written a lot about here (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and, finally, here). And, of course, I wrote a book about Griffintown, Montreal. In other words, I think about gentrification a lot, occasionally curious about it, occasionally appalled by it.
Last week, a Denver coffee chain found itself in the midst of a firestorm over a really stupid sandwich board sign outside of its outlet in Five Points neighbourhood. Of course, the name Five Points carries with it various derogatory ideas, largely connected to the original Five Points in Manhattan, so the gentrifiers of Denver’s Five Points have re-christened it RiNo (or, River North Arts District). The Five Points ink! coffee shop placed this sandwich board outside its shop:
Ok, then. A few things to note. First, the sign is on dirt/gravel, next to what looks like a new(-ish) sidewalk). So clearly, gentrification is apace here. Second, Five Points is historically home to pretty much the entirety of Denver’s African American population. And, as anyone who knows anything about urban history will tell you, this also means that the congregation of the black population of the city here was not entirely always by choice. And, of course, who loses in the gentrification of traditionally African American neighbourhoods? African Americans, of course.
Third, the gentrifiers want this neighbourhood to be a centre for the arts. Not surprisingly, the arts that are native to Five Points are not all that welcome in the newly re-imagined RiNo. Why? Because hip hop is still seen as a black art form, and that makes a lot of white people uneasy, even today after hip hop has gone global.
And while the people at ink!’s Five Points shop may have thought they were being edgy and funny, they were not. They were being stupid. And offensive. Yes, gentrification usually means you can get good coffee in your neighbourhood, but at what cost? And who benefits from gentrification in the US? The answer to the latter question is predominately white, young, urbanites with well-paying jobs.
And that means that those who lose from gentrification are people who do not look like them, these urban explorers. Gentrification is, I think, as close to an inevitable process as we have. But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be brainless and lead to the displacement of the residents, and it doesn’t need to mean a whitewashing of neighbourhoods traditionally of colour.
And to joke about this whitewashing? Well, that’s frankly offensive and stupid. And Keith Herbert, the founder of ink!, comes across as especially daft in his Twitter statement, but at least he’s trying. That’s something, I guess: