No Trivia: How white people have gentrified the word 'gentrification'

How do you define "gentrification"? There is the "official" definition, here cribbed from the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary website: "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents." That definition only gets us so far, mostly because "gentrification" is now a colloquial term that has escaped from academia and is now used by the gentrified themselves. These days, it pretty much means "when part of a city is changed to cater to a new group of people, which has the effect of generally fucking the shit up for the people who lived there before, who have less money and fewer options."

The past week of local online and "IRL" responses to writer and City Paper contributor D. Watkins’ recent article, "Black history bulldozed for another Starbucks: Against the new Baltimore," shows that white people are more interested in declaring that what happens here in Baltimore as described by Watkins isn't #actually gentrification than they are in considering what the author has to say. Namely, about the very real things that are happening and have happened to black neighborhoods taken over by Johns Hopkins in East Baltimore.

So, I can confidently tell you what is not gentrification, according to these people: It is not whatever a person who is being directly affected by these changes to a city, like Watkins, says it is. Here’s writer Laura Lippman on Watkins’ essay via Twitter: "He has a memoir to sell. I feel comfortable saying gentrification far more pressing issue in NOLA than Baltimore." Just ignore Lippman’s cynical reasoning that Watkins has a book to sell as a way to negate the essay and instead focus on how comfortable she is determining who gets to express concern over city changes. It’s as if there is a threshold of fucked-up-ness, as determined by a famous white author, that must be met before someone can discuss gentrification. Baltimore’s not quite there, but New Orleans is. Lippman’s response also illustrates the white compulsion to change the subject when gentrification comes up. Suddenly, we’re not thinking about Watkins’ experiences in Baltimore and how they connect to gentrification, but how what Watkins has to say isn’t as "pressing" as what Lippman thinks about New Orleans.

Then there are the white people parsing a precise definition of "gentrification" instead of engaging Watkins’ ideas and experiences. The most reasonable was from Justin Fenton, a white reporter for The Sun, who tweeted this to Watkins: "Maybe this is my own bias, but actual gentrification - you could make case old school white n’hoods feeling it more." Fenton is correct in the sense that studies show that gentrification is happening at its most extreme in white working-class neighborhoods such as Hampden or Remington. But these are also studies from mostly white people, so we should be skeptical of their ability to tell more than one side of the story. And white people, because they are, um, white, have many more opportunities, which makes their ability to successfully transition to somewhere else when rich white people boot them out of their neighborhoods a little easier. So, who is "feeling it more" can’t really be quantified.

Also, let’s be clear here: What Hopkins has done, which is move thousands of people out of East Baltimore neighborhoods using "eminent domain" so it can grow larger over the years, is gentrification. I spoke to more than one well-meaning white person over the past week who views what Hopkins has done in East Baltimore as a "service" to the city, improving and even beautifying sketchy or "crime-infested" neighborhoods and so to them it isn’t gentrification at all, which well, yikes. So we have a new definition of gentrification: changes made to a part of a city that doesn't "deserve" it. It’s clear to me that white people in Baltimore don’t want to talk about gentrification, mostly because it makes them uncomfortable, but also because we still feel like there’s some hope for the city and Watkins confidently sounding the death knell over at Salon troubles us. Just consider how limited conversations about Station North and gentrification tend to be. Many are quick to point out that what is happening on say North Avenue isn’t gentrification because no one is being pushed out, because the area, like many parts of the city, is/was full of abandoneds, which again feels more like a moving of the goal posts for what scores as “gentrification” than a sincere desire to be accurate. Certainly, many people who previously walked, worked, or wandered around what’s now called Station North have been increasingly alienated from the area as more art dicks like me hang around, right?

That’s enough to call it gentrification I think, which means I’m a gentrifier, even if Station North isn’t exactly say, Brooklyn, New York or some other absolute hellhole of bougie white occupation. And the inevitable sense that Station North will eventually be taken over by richer, whiter, more-boring assholes than me doesn’t make its current problems irrelevant or less of an example of gentrification. And notice when you mention gentrification, many people (again, almost all white people) place blame on the word "gentrification" itself. See, it’s a "divisive" and "politically charged" word, so it shouldn’t be used. Here, kicking people out of their neighborhoods or just radically changing an urban space is less important than language. It’s another variation on the "actual gentrification" discussion surrounding Watkins’ piece. And I doubt that if Watkins had used a word other than "gentrification," the responses to his essay would have been different or more measured.

This is how white people solve problems, though. We talk down dissent and then we ask the dissenter to bend over backward and explain it all to us, all the while requesting that they adjust their tone and attitude and choose the "right" words that don’t stick in our craw so much, and then we wait to hear what we want to hear.

It seems as though the word "gentrification" itself has been gentrified.

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