Gentrification: “Angriest Issue In Urban America”

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Trailers in the Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd. on April 17, 2014. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Gentrification: Some extol its virtues, some believe the benefits outweigh the negatives, some think the negatives outweigh the benefits, and some think it’s purely sinister. Everybody seems to be talking about it, but not necessarily in the same room.

Three different luncheon programs were staged Monday in San Antonio to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the growing influx of people and new development in the city’s fast-changing urban core. Three events on a single topic on a single day certainly reflect a much-needed focus on a critical issue, but the competing choices also represented a divide among the many constituencies affected for better or worse by the redevelopment of San Antonio’s inner city and its historic neighborhoods.

“Today’s program is the start of a long and important conversation,” said Pat DiGiovanni, CEO and president of Centro San Antonio, which was first among the three entities to organize an event devoted to the subject of gentrification. Centro’s event also was the largest, drawing hundreds to the Wyndham Riverwalk Hotel to hear Tulane University professor, geographer and author Richard Campanella speak about the “Category Five gentrification” of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read his article on the topic in New Geography.

Tulane University professor, geographer and author Richard Campanella speaks at Centro San Antonio's Urban Renaissance Luncheon, "Gentrification: Let's Fill in the Blanks." Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Tulane University professor, geographer and author Richard Campanella speaks at Centro San Antonio’s Urban Renaissance Luncheon, “Gentrification: Let’s Fill in the Blanks.” June 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

At the same time, the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects was at Luby’s downtown, hosting District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor for a discussion on the same subject. The two groups arguably would have benefitted from combining events, but were unable to agree on a single event or sequence of events.

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center held what it called a public town hall meeting at the Central Library that was offered as a counterpoint to Centro’s event and an opportunity for inner city residents who couldn’t afford the price of the Centro luncheon to engage in the topic.

The respective audiences represent the two sides to the gentrification debate, although there is much nuance to be found between those who hold absolute views for and against gentrification. The Centro and AIA audiences consist largely of professionals devoted to transformation of the urban core. The Esperanza Center represents inner city residents whose neighborhoods and way of life are threatened by the movement of people into the urban core, and activists working to defend their interests.

Gentrification brings often moribund neighborhoods back to life and revives urban core districts with new jobs, social activity and new tax revenues. On the downside, the process can disrupt longtime residential populations, lead to reduced ethnic, racial, economic and age diversity, and, where housing is scarce, lead to rising rents, higher housing values and rising property tax bills. Gentrification almost always means higher-income individuals moving into lower-income neighborhoods. An income and education divide can create tensions, although just as many revitalized neighborhoods retain their ethnic, racial, income, and age diversity as new arrivals blend with longtime residents without undue friction. Everyone benefits from the investment. In the end, the presence or absence of empathetic civic leaders and sensitive public policies to guide the process and protect the interests of all parties can be the deciding factor in how gentrification is seen in a given city or neighborhood.

Many homes on Dignowity Hill, though right next to each other, seem to be from different worlds – one of many complex signals of gentrification. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Many homes on Dignowity Hill, though right next to each other, seem to be from different worlds – one of many complex signals of gentrification. Photo by Iris Dimmick

The Rivard Report signed up to cover the Centro event more than one month ago, and only learned of the two competing events Monday morning. We have open invitations to both the San Antonio AIA and the Esperanza Center to submit articles on topics of interest for publication here. We hope to hear from them about their luncheon programs on gentrification.

“Gentrification is a word that has prompted some heated debate, most recently during the rezoning of the Mission Trails mobile home park and in Beacon Hill,” DiGiovanni told the Centro audience while introducing Campanella. “Gentrification can mean different things to different people … It can be a term used to describe positive community development, including increased home values, new business and job opportunities, and safer streets and neighborhoods. But it can also be a term synonymous with displacement; current residents are forced to move because they can no longer afford to live in changing neighborhoods.

“Centro was created to be the keeper of the community’s vision for downtown ‘the heart of the city and everyone’s neighborhood,'” DiGiovanni said. “So, we are sensitive to how downtown revitalization can have its unintended consequences. As we continue our efforts to recreate a thriving downtown with an infusion of new people who will now call downtown ‘home’ for the first time, we cannot ignore or forget those who have been calling downtown ‘home’ their entire lives.”

Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Campanella spoke about New Orleans, specifically, and generally about gentrification and did not address developments in San Antonio in any detail. He described urban neighborhood transformation, typically seeded by arriving artists in search of affordable housing and studio space, along with musicians and hipsters. Their presence attracts young creative class types who in turn attract older, wealthier empty nesters. All of these groups are either creating “cool” or in pursuit of “cool,” Campanella said, noting that by the time people recognize a place for its cool factor it’s probably already starting to lose it.

“Gentrification has become one of my least favorite, and most important issues,” Campenalla joked in a nod to how divided communities can be on the topic. The title of his presentation was “Gentrification: The Angriest Issue in Urban America.” He defined gentrification as the “movement of a better educated, higher income population into spaces occupied by a lower income, less educated population.”

Campanella traced the development of federal housing policies and laws starting in the 1930s that led to the first public housing projects for the poor, and government-guaranteed mortgages for middle class first time home buyers, and how abandonment by the middle class of the inner cities in much of the second half of the 20th century has been followed by a reversal of that trend as young professionals rediscover urban life and reject the attractions and values synonymous with suburban living. With most inner city neighborhoods dating to before World War II, a scarcity of housing often triggers the trends that have come to define the negative side of gentrification: rising housing prices, increased rents, higher property taxes, and population displacement.

Campanella talked about the “Seinfeld Effect” that leads many people today to want to abandon their vehicles and long commutes in favor of walkable communities where they can live near their jobs in an ambience of “urban authenticity.”  Traditional inner city problems, such as illegal drug use, he said, are now becoming suburban preoccupations.

He also described the “Venice Syndrome” that has beset its city, where tourists outnumber residents on any given day, and real estate prices in cities like London, New York and San Francisco often lead to wealthy absentee investors buying so many higher end residences that exclusive neighborhoods appear to be vacant of actual residents. While global investors have barely touched San Antonio, the city from the late 1960s through the beginning of this decade had more downtown visitors than residents. Developers still say downtown residential conversions are not happening because rents can’t match the costs of acquiring land and buildings and making the necessary improvements. In other words, there is more money to be made from tourists and conventioneers than locals. That, it seems, is slowly changing now.

A street vendor pulls his cart of ... unrelated merchandise infront of the Alamo before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A street vendor pulls his cart of merchandise amid tourists and locals in front of the Alamo, Mission San Antonio de Valero, before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Campanella cited several tools available to cities and developers to mitigate the negative aspects of gentrification while pursuing its benefits. Those include community land trusts, cooperative agreements, and public policies or ordinances that “invest in the stayers.” Such policies protect longtime residents from rising property taxes by grandfathering housing values at certain levels or deferring new taxes until they sell their properties and realize a gain. Taxing speculators to prevent “flipping” can reduce housing turnover, he said, along with adoption of inclusionary zoning and infill development of new housing on empty lots.

In the end, Campanella said, “empathy” may be the most powerful tool in managing gentrification: “When people truly understand what it is like to be on the other side of the conversation … then the strident tone goes out of the conversation.”

*Featured/top photo: Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd, a recently controversial development site. Photo by Robert Rivard.

 Related stories:

Jump-Start Performance Explores Southtown Gentrification

The G-card: Defining Gentrification in Dignowity Hill 

Conversation: Renting in San Antonio’s Urban Core

With Little Neighborhood Support, Others File Suit to Stop Eastside Brewery

26 thoughts on “Gentrification: “Angriest Issue In Urban America”

  1. If the poor want to sponge off those who can afford to support the welfare class, they can not also make demands for their location preferences to be paid for as well.

  2. As long as taxes are based on property values and not income, gentrification hurts even the gentrifiers. how many of us receive 10% raises every year? Yet our property taxes have increased that much each year for the 10 years we’ve owned while our income has decreased.

  3. Paddy, so the poor should just allow you to move them around whenever you want? You don’t own the poor my friend. Your paying taxes does not provide you with a preference over them. You are no more valuable than they are.

    • We are now fighting against our city goverment who plan to build a green garden (named after eco district) by clearing our houses which we built since 1950s. I believe this is eco gentrification for the mayor’s ambition alone. We are against this initiative. We believe that eco district concept should be executed by community participation, not by gov will alone. Beside, our district have already have 3 open garden around us. Garden need is not our problem. Meanwhile the mayor himself has not seriously handled our environment problems. Many road ditches are full with soils and rubbish. Our walkways are in bad condition and used illegally for parking place. Our district streets also occupied as parking places, companies and universities do not have their own parking places. How could we get our human rights?

  4. In general we like to promote as Americans we are here to help each other. It sounds patriotic. But the reality is our philosophy is built off of democracy and capitalism. Both of which do not favor the other or the minority. They do not encourage representation of the “other”. Democracy means the majority rules. Which many times can be a good thing when we traditionally think about democracy and the needs of many over the needs of the few. But since our democracy is representative, our representation is voted in and the current campaign financing models used, favor the “few” with money to have a voice over the “many”, thus our democracy is broken.

    Then you add in capitalism, which at the root says nothing about ethics, but instead promotes this:

    the profit over others

    So this means “helping others” is no where on the radar yet. So when we speak of gentrification and the difficulty of truly working with the “other”, the minority, the under represented and the ones we profit over, we must truly care about helping “others” in order to make a real impact.

    And to me this is the scary part of being a modern day American, the right and left are so worried about their rhetoric, our ability to empower the disenfranchised is lost in the gaining of political power and the profit over others.

    In San Antonio I there is an under tone (and out right spoken) of people saying they want a downtown town where we can have middle class “creatives” live and have access to the amenities of a modern city. I used to agree. This sounded cute and being from Austin I could see it.

    But we are not Austin. We are not geographically limited in space. Our river is more fake then the Colorado river in Austin.

    Our space is not limited, we are physically the 7th largest city in the nation by sq miles. We have sprawl! We have miles and miles of under developed under utilized suburban space. But instead we want to place a focus on downtown revitalization.

    I ask everyone who has this dream of downtown to take their wish list and then look at La Cantera and realize it is all there:

    Walkable live work spaces, biking spaces.

    Business both local and national.

    Lots of housing.

    Major attractions and theme park.

    A GREEN BELT!!!! I emphasize this because we have been gentrifying downtown for this whole reason of middle class “urban” people wanting a green belt when one already exists from 1604 and IH10 to culebra and Grissom!

    There is both dense and open living accommodations. Both old and new homes to buy. There is also still land to purchase.

    And get this!!! There is a large public institution across the street called UTSA!!!

    So why are we so set on creating that space again in downtown when it already exists in our town?

    For hipsters?

    For middle class creatives who think they have to buy old house in poor neighborhoods to take advantage of the neighborhood current economic deficiencies?

    Why not move to the la Cantera oasis and advocate for these low income areas of downtown and other SA spaces have their roads fixed, their drainage fixed, lighting improved and community centers developed without trying to take over their spaces?

    There is more then enough geographical space in this town for everyone. Creating false economies by speculative outsiders to out middle class Americans more in depth and to displace families who have lived in their neighborhoods for generations is just not in the vain of helping others.

    But it can be democratic if enough people want it. And there is definitely a profit to be made!

    Sorry for any grammar or spelling issues.

  5. I think positives will outweigh negatives in the long run, spoken by someone who grew up in a neighborhood that seems to be on a small route to gentrification. Now with the new HEB being built off Nogalitos I think spill over from Southtown will start creeping into the west side. I’m for it.

  6. One of the things that bothers me most about the gentrification debate is how some of the ideas that underlie opposition to gentrification tend to go unexamined and unquestioned, being given a kid-gloves treatment whereas under the surface there are actually some very controversial ideas in currency on that side of this debate.

    Most obvious, perhaps, is the disrespect opponents of gentrification seem to have for basic notions of property rights. In the case of the Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, for example, the fact that the people living there are tenants (as opposed to owners of the land) seemed to have little bearing upon the question of their “right” to stay on that land. One question for those opposing that development should be whether they think property rights should be abolished across the board or just in this select circumstance. As a rhetorical question to prove a point, I would also like to ask them whether they think a landlord should have the “right” to have tenants that don’t move away. Thus, there are two sides to that coin but no ambiguity whatsoever in regards to the accepted nature of the property rights involved—the difference between owner and tenant having been enshrined in our society for hundreds of years. To the extent opponents of gentrification seek to overturn this order and abolish property rights, they should be honest with themselves and others about that intent and what it means. You really can’t be selective about “rights” without undermining the notion of a “right” itself.

    Another controversial idea underlying much of the anti-gentrification movement is what you might hear referred to in other contexts as “nativism.” For example, this is the idea that people born in the United States or with several generations of roots in the United States should have some superior legal rights or status to immigrants of even those whose families arrived more recently. In that context, I think all decent people seem to recognize such an idea as inherently wrongheaded and truly un-American. In the context of gentrification, however, you see many of same people who so passionately fight against all real or perceived instances of nativism at the national level openly propagating the same basic ideas at the local level. In other words, people who have lived in a neighborhood for ten years, twenty years or maybe even have several generations of ancestors in the area somehow have special or superior rights or status to those that have arrived more recently or may be arriving in the future. To be fair, such notions are found in community discussions in more established upscale neighborhoods as well. The only difference I might identify, however, is the fact that while such notions in more upscale neighborhoods will routinely be mocked and labeled as snobbery or even racism, the propagation of the same belief in the context of less upscale neighborhoods seems to get a free pass. If there is some critical difference that makes this kind of prejudice and privilege based upon term of residence acceptable in the context of lower-income neighborhoods or the gentrification debate, I would love to hear an explanation that is logical and consistent. In my opinion, these sentiments deserve to be rejected and forcefully so.

    As to the specific context of San Antonio, any fair examination of the relevant facts (i.e., rental rates and home prices across the city relative to the nation as a whole, price of housing vs. construction costs, etc.) should prove the point that if someone can’t afford housing in San Antonio, it really has nothing at all do with gentrification. Rather, I think it is pretty obvious that any issue with affording housing in San Antonio actually stems from a lack of income, rather than some problem with housing being too expensive. Some may label such analysis as insensitive to those who struggle, but it really amounts to just being honest about the situation in San Antonio where housing prices lag behind the averages for other major cities in Texas and pale in comparison to many other major cities in other parts of the United States. The question of why some people aren’t earning enough money is a very complicated question as is the question of how to help increase incomes in the community. I would not pretend to offer any comprehensive views of such a subject, or pretend to know the solutions. The one thing I can say for certain, however, is that railing against “gentrification” or trying to stop it, slow it down or mitigate its effects will do nothing to increase people’s incomes. Rather, it seems to me that the attitude underlying these sentiments actually threatens to slow the very economic progress that could potentially increase incomes across the community. To the extent San Antonio becomes known as a place that does not respect property rights or as a place that does not welcome newcomers, this will only hinder economic development.

  7. Very good article! Interesting, informative, insightful, & helpful for me to understand the issues more clearly.

  8. I wonder why the author feels entitled to take and post with comments photos of other peoples’ homes in San Antonio with this article? Could Rivard and Dimmick please post photos of their homes so that we can better understand what gentrification does or does not look like in San Antonio?

    Obviously, this won’t help as gentrification is not an aesthetic. Nor is beautification (as determined by the occupant) gentrification. Rivard and Dimmick might not like the looks of my house or vice versa, but if any of us find ourselves not able to afford where we live due to a sudden change in population, property valuation, everyday costs or wealth-creation opportunities (noting the targeting of downtown street vending with this article), that’s gentrification.

    A take-away from the Centro Alliance luncheon not mentioned above is the need to direct city historic preservation resources away from simply regulating certain properties and creating wealth pockets to ‘re-habbing’ properties for use as affordable housing – in order to address economic segregation (which San Antonio currently leads the nation in) and help create mixed-income areas throughout the city, including in the most ‘desirable’ areas of the city. Campanella suggested Amsterdam as a model, noting the integration of affordable housing with commercial operations and market rate housing along that city’s tourist-friendly canals as a compelling vision for San Antonio’s river and tributaries.

    At the luncheon, Campanella also warned of the global trend towards ‘land banking’ via the construction of high-end developments that sell quickly (often to foreign nationals) but are loosely occupied and do not address local housing affordability or economic segregation concerns. This seems to be the type of ‘housing’ stock that the Centro Alliance has specialized in to date – although new leadership and desire for dialogue about gentrification is a hopeful sign.

    • @tirpakma:

      I’ve illustrated this piece with photos of places and concepts mentioned by Campanella during his talk. Campanella used the Dignowity Hill photo above to illustrate the concept of gentrification, so I found it fitting. You are correct, it’s not an aesthetic, but I think this photo demonstrates what an aspect of gentrification can look like. No judgement is implied on whether or not I “like” either home more.

  9. I guess we’re coming from ‘different worlds’ – but there’s obviously judgement involved with the photography work, framing, selections and captioning involved with this article – including obscuring some key points from the luncheon more critical of new segregated infill and tear-down housing development in the city.

    Campanella did not have much to say about San Antonio’s existing low rise residential neighborhoods (which dominate the photos here) except to argue the city’s need to prioritize their ongoing use as affordable housing, make the most of the existing building stock and provide assistance to long-time residents (not simply regulating and taxing them) as a means towards economically de-segregating these and other areas of the city without displacing long-term (10+ year) residents.

    The inability of the city and Mission Reach developers to imagine a future where current residents and new residents could co-inhabit the same parcel and enjoy shared access to the (long-term resident-funded) Mission reach extension is one of the dangers of continuing to present gentrifcation in San Antonio from a ‘different worlds’ / different rules and amenities for different people perspective.

  10. If this issue interests you (any of you that is) I highly recommend also watching “Urbanized” ( a documentary by Gary Hustwit – available instantly on Netflix!). What sticks out to me is that the most important thing is to always tai into account what the people living in that area want. We over to the south-ext edge of Lavaca to have walkability and friendly neighbors, but also some cheaper housing. I know we have neighbors on fixed income who have lived here many years, and I do not want them to get booted out (or us by the ridiculous property tax system – which is another issue, but yes, income tax means you pay according to what you earn, and lower property taxes allows for better income diversity within a neighborhood which i find rather advantageous). It is a very contentious issue, and as the article states, if you have sensitive leadership that listens, and maintain excellent and constant community involvement (meaning they have a real voice in what happens t their own living space) things can work out.

  11. Gentrification can be done ethically, I agree with that. SA has an opportunity to do it right, unlike other cities, gentrification is not entirely a racial issue either, but it does focus on income disparity. The artists, the youth, and the techies are typically the gentrifiers, and as prices rise, they will also have to afford more or move out. What can help this issue are communes and more collective housing that favors the community.

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