Living With the Tensions of Gentrification

By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, November 12, 2005

Q: I rent a great, affordable apartment in an old building. In my neighborhood, like in a lot of the city, low-income, mostly minority residents live in apartment buildings, while young, mostly white professionals are rehabbing town homes and snapping up new, luxury condos. Lately I've noticed a lot of anti-gentrification graffiti and I feel like I'm a target: I'm young, white, financially stable, etc. How do others deal with living in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods? -- Washington

A: First of all, try not to feel like a "target" of anything other than a differing opinion.

In a world, a city, a neighborhood, a community where people often do not get along because of wildly differing experiences, it helps to keep your eye on the larger picture. Put yourself into your neighbor's shoes; it will help you understand why people are expressing themselves as they are.

Imagine most of the people who have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives. They have had to cope with boarded-up buildings, few conveniences, and enough crime to keep away people and businesses who could create positive change. Maybe they have raised families in their townhouses, watched their grandkids take their first steps in their apartments and enjoyed special memories with neighborhood friends for decades. All that while, politicians and other community leaders pretty much wrote off their deteriorating communities -- until a new group of people saw some potentially valuable real estate and began moving in. Now that the government, businesses and others are cleaning up the neighborhood, everything is going up -- property taxes, rents and the cost of living in general -- and very soon, the long-term residents find themselves no longer able to stay in their homes.

In this scenario and in your question, race and class obviously both play big roles, but these are topics so large and profound that I won't try to take them on here. Gentrification is no small matter, nor is it a simple one. Some think that cleaning up a neighborhood and raising property values, even at the cost of pricing out residents who would rather not leave, is good no matter what. They see it as progress and not a form of domestic imperialism.

No matter your view on the issue, your sensitivity to their circumstances is probably the best way for you to personally deal with it. Putting yourself in the shoes of a person will help you develop a tougher skin when you see anti-gentrification graffiti or hear comments that might typecast you as the "bad guy."

In the meantime, go on with your life. You do not have to feel guilty about becoming part of a neighborhood in transition or helping to drive long-term residents out, but you do want to remember the delicacy of the topic and think of how you might feel if roles were reversed.

There is no clear answer to what action you should take, since it is so personal. If you feel compelled, you could start a neighborhood group that allows people to discuss these issues openly, in the hopes that a dialogue may help both sides understand one another a little bit more. You could volunteer to clean up graffiti or plant trees in your neighborhood.

Or you can live in your affordable apartment and hope that the rising real estate prices don't affect your rent, or turn your building into condominiums, and displace you.

Blame capitalism, blame a deeply imbedded racial ideology, blame history and time. But don't blame the people adversely affected by gentrification, regardless of your views of the forces driving it or of the end product it creates. Respect your neighbors, old and new, and hopefully your behavior will inspire them to do the same. That kind of understanding, though I admit it's difficult to imagine, might wipe out the graffiti before the gentrification does.

My landlord, who lives in the building, has been known to hang out in the lobby shirtless, belly hanging out over his pants. Yeah, sometimes it was hot (the weather, not the look), but still. Is this appropriate? -- Washington

Considering that you do not usually buy clothes or groceries from a shirtless salesperson, or do business with shirtless colleagues, I will weigh on the side of inappropriate. You have a business relationship with your landlord, which in my view means that he should treat all interactions in a fairly formal way. Although he does call the shots and could easily institute a ban on the common no shirt, no shoes, no business policy, he is endangering his reputation with his clients, i.e. tenants, by taking his role so casually.

He is supposed to create a safe, healthy living environment for you, and though his shirtlessness is not infringing on his primary duty, he is making you uncomfortable, which makes you an unhappy customer. Of course, this point of view makes complete sense to most people, but you're the one living in this awkward situation.

So how do you deal with it? First, let's hope that the heat in your apartment building isn't so overwhelming that he does this in the dead of winter. (Those of you who live in one of those apartment buildings that sweat you to death for several months a year may find there's a bright side to the rising cost of home heating fuel.) But given that he has probably become accustomed to playing king in the building, you might want to gently broach the subject with him.

How you do it is up to your comfort level with talking to him about his behavior. You can make it less personal by saying you have seen some residents walk around half-naked in common areas and it makes you feel awkward. You can ask him to institute a list of rules that include being fully dressed before entering the building's common zones. To make it all plausible, and while you have his attention, come up with other changes or rule enforcement you might want to see in your building. You could also talk to your neighbors and garner their support before bringing the subject up with your landlord.

Since you are probably a customer your landlord wants to keep, you should not silence your voice in this or any other matter that means a lot to you, even if it's relatively minor.

On the other hand, you and your neighbors could take a different approach and invite your landlord to the gym so that his shirtless look is actually hot by next summer. That way you are inverting the landlord/tenant role, and looking after his health and well-being while perhaps making the lobby view a little more appealing.

Obviously, though, even a hot bod won't change the fact that this behavior is inappropriate. So speak up if it bothers you.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail ataptlife@gmail.comor by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company