Photo by Tony Hisgett on Flickr.

Income inequality, gentrification, and neighborhoods changing in a short period of time — put them all together and the question is “who is left behind?” How can change happen in a city without displacing people?

On October 3rd, HBO aired Class Divide, a documentary that provided a look into gentrification’s effects on one neighborhood in New York City. The film examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend the Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.

Last week, we attended a sneak peak that was followed by a panel discussion on how the larger issues in the film are also affecting the DC region. The participants were Class Divide director Marc Levin, 11th Street Bridge Park project director Scott Kratz, and Oramenta F. Newsome, the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Hyisheem Shabazz Calier, who participated in the documentary, also spoke about his experiences living in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project and experiences since leaving to attend college and pursue entrepreneurship. The panel was moderated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell.

After the first half hour of the documentary played, the panelists discussed gentrification, income and racial inequality, and the unintended consequences that come when planning large public projects like the Manhattan’s High Line

We (Joanne and Andrew) attended the event and later watched the full documentary. We discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Andrew Ausel (AA): I thought the documentary was a good segue into a discussion on DC. Particularly because what New York is experiencing is kind of like mega-gentrification. And while what DC is experiencing is challenging, it’s nothing near the extent to which West Chelsea residents are experiencing it.

Joanne Pierce (JP): You make a good point, that New York City shows us this mega-gentrification but DC could easily be a mega-gentrifier in its own way if we’re not watching out for it. Oramenta made a great point about that, which is that developers are “finding” neighborhoods and finding these beautiful pre-World War II buildings they want to turn into luxury condos. These neighborhoods have been here for such a long time, and yet developers come in and seem to just swallow them whole with their shiny new buildings or luxury things.

AA: Absolutely. Neighborhoods with rich cultural and architectural features are attractive to developers and the residents treat them almost like ornaments that add to their property values. Exhibit A… the High Line in Manhattan.

The High Line in Manhattan. Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr.

AA: An equivalent DC example would be Capitol Hill, Union Station, or any of the numerous historical landmarks that have been flipped. Look at the NoMa area as an example: the neighborhood runs just adjacent to the Uline Arena, which is set to become the fifth flagship REI. But look just north of Florida Ave., opposite of the Red Line to NoMa, and development isn’t really happening there, primarily because it is outside of the Business Improvement District. I think more work needs to be done to bridge that gap.

Uline Arena. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: One of the things I liked was how the High Line was used in this documentary. It was one of the three central structures, along with the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects and the Avenues school. Have you been to the High Line before?

AA: I have not, have you?

JP: I have, and I loved it. It’s overwhelming in scale and sensory input.

The brick building in the middle of the frame is the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects and the building at the right of the frame is Avenues: The World School. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

JP: Scott brought up unintended consequences. I hadn’t considered the High Line to be one of those, because it’s so beautiful and it’s brought so much joy to what was a desolate, unwanted piece of transit history. But we see in the documentary that it also created this real estate boom and I don’t think I considered that the High Line had negative consequences because I had no idea there were housing projects nearby. So that brings up questions of privilege and how we can be really unaware of the circumstances that lead to social and income inequality, and how our desire for nice things and amenities has possibly made people complicit in gentrification, even when we don’t live in the areas being gentrified.

AA: It really is a new development, and something that I think we have to start assuming will happen as we try and address urban blight. In generations prior, I don’t think the desire for urban living was there, so we never asked “what happens when we fix this place up?” Now, as we fix it up, there is a demand and a market and its being filled by people who aren’t from the community.

I think the real gap in understanding then comes from the “invading” ignorance to what was there before. The residents who purchase these $15 million condos don’t necessarily appreciate all the different culture that was there before.  Oramenta made a good point when she said that we do live in a free market, and those are the rules of the game.

JP: She said, “we have to remember that in our society, the [income] bar keeps moving.”

AA: But what [Marc Levin] does such a good job of in his documentary is observing the issue from the perspective of the kids. Kids who don’t necessarily want to be viewed as the rich white kids but want to be looked at as humans.

JP: What is wealth today may not be wealth ten years from now and what’s striking about that idea is that people at the bottom won’t necessarily get wealthier just because these areas like NoMa are becoming popular and revitalized. Looking through the eyes of the kids and without explicitly stating it, he showed that children aren’t different from each other in their fears and uncertainties just because of their socioeconomic status.

AA: And he reflected on that during the panel when he said that this generation is truly unique in that they recognize the forces of free trade and the globalization of the economy and they are figuring out, where do they fit in? They are much more reflective and aware and you see this in the film.

JP: Even though the documentary doesn’t really go into globalization, it’s a huge concern.

AA: We have to answer anew, how exactly do we develop communities for the people in the community? Scott Kratz was particularly helpful in coming up with strategies for that.

JP: He was, and I appreciated how focused he was on the collaborative side of the 11th Street Bridge project. He was very clear that he wanted to understand, first of all, did residents even want something like that? It’s a question that I don’t think gets brought up enough.

The 11th Street Bridge. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

AA: Right. It was a much more communicative version of community organizing that represented bottom-up development instead of a planning commission or a developing company telling the people how the plan would look. It was truly encouraging and part of me honestly felt weird feeling optimistic when thinking about this issue. It was almost like I wanted them to dive more into the problem of gentrification so I could understand the issue, while what Scott really did was reject the challenges of community unity and figured out how to make it work. It really sounded like the community was the approval body for a lot of the design. And it made me realize something very important for any effort like this. It made me realize that communities have to have a unified vision and sort of be very homogenous.

JP: I looked up some information on the 11th Street Bridge project and the website says there are 76,000 residents within a two mile radius of the bridge. The kind of collaboration required to get as many of those voices heard seems stunning. I think the documentary brought up an interesting point about homogeneity by class, and not race: that the residents of the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects aren’t excluded because of race, but because of class.

AA: It’s definitely a good point and may make for a good lesson learned from the film, that communities are only as equipped to fight the forces of development as they are unified and empowered to fight it.

JP: What do you think about Ornamenta’s point about race, that it’s always present but in many cases what neighborhoods want to preserve is history and that is sometimes African-American history. Her example was Anacostia, which she says has only been an African-American community for two or three generations.

Anacostia. Photo by Axel Drainville on Flickr.

AA: I think that’s true. To observe the inverse, Alexandria, which is a predominately white city, does a lot to preserve its history and highlight the positive aspects of their colonial culture. You don’t see a whole lot of African-American festivals in Alexandria and that’s for a reason. So much of human history is tied up in race, likely because so much of human identity is tied up in race. Which raises the question, is the only force that prevents equitable development economic?

JP: Alexandria has a lot of African-American history and there should be more opportunities to emphasize it. But we also have to talk about which Alexandria we are referring to. Old Town, the West suburbs (Seminary Hill), or Fairfax County and the immediate Route 1 corridor, which is probably more Hispanic and African-American.

AA: Very true. But that is arguably a more recent development. I think the important point here is that Americans in general feel a sense of community that is strongest with those who look most like them. That is true in DC, Alexandria, and NYC, among others. We need to be actively figuring out ways to compensate for this and foster communities of understanding and, really, pluralism.

JP: I read that immigrant communities aren’t actually that mobile. They find an area they like and tend to stick to it. I think it can be trickier than that. Maybe on a more general scale, people do want to be homogeneous but there are some aspects of racial identity that may make that difficult. Anecdotally, I think younger Asian-Americans, for example, yo-yo between wanting to hang out with an Asian community and conversely don’t think that’s the most important or relevant. It does help if your “community” is all over the Northern Virginia and DC area, though. East Asian-Americans do have that.

AA: True. I think the documentary was revealing in the way the high-rise condo community treated the minorities who lived in their building. [One of the documentary participants] reflected that he often gets looks like he doesn’t live there. But the interesting thing is that often times the white kids who lived on the top floors of these places didn’t want to fall into that stigma. They wanted to understand. The challenge becomes how do we fight stigmas then.

JP: This is a pretty old question. We’ve had cultural and racial stigmas for a very long time. Gentrification seems to exacerbate that, in that you sometimes see the developers coming in and they’re all well-educated, relatively wealthy people. They are proposing a dream that in some cases, means pushing other people out. As Scott said, it’s “cultural displacement.” The stigma behind that can be race or socioeconomic status, and what Scott and other community-focused organizers seem to focus on is bolstering the voices of people who would be marginalized or ignored by the planning community. Using their well-educated, relatively wealthy status for good and not evil, I suppose.

AA: It is a very old question, but the truth is that communities don’t do the hard work to answer it and find ways to live together effectively in the face of the prospect of gentrification. There is a blind allegiance to the ideology that promotes quick development. But you are right in that the 11th Street Bridge Park team took the time to lead that discussion and really bolstered the voices of those that would have been washed out.

JP: I think Oramenta spoke about that as well. She said that there’s a difference between diversity you see on The Mall and diversity in her neighborhood, whether it’s due to income or race. She said there are people who can go home to a comfortable place, and she wants to create more opportunities to see others and be like, “I could live there.” To me, that seems to also focus on preserving a neighborhood but also encouraging growth in a more organic way. Leading new people in by showing them what the neighborhood already has to offer, and how it’s going to be progressive about its growth, but not doing it through only having shiny luxury goods and condos.

AA: I also thought that a big issue that was presented by the panel was the idea of renter empowerment. What were your thoughts on the strategies presented like community land trusts and homebuyers clubs?

JP: They mentioned TOPA, which is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. It allows renters to have first opportunity to buy their rental properties before a landlord can sell the building. I think TOPA is great but it also requires extensive education and understanding of DC housing processes and that’s one area where the homebuyers clubs can really step in. They can provide that education. A lot of times, what shuts people out of the process, whether it’s democracy or planning their neighborhood, is that it’s overwhelming.

AA: Sure, and the challenges can seem larger and influenced by so many more things than one community can prevent. I think dispelling that narrative and empowering low-income residents to protect their homes through effective policies is an important lesson I took from the panel. Luckily for D.C. it sounds like they have a lot of good laws in place to protect the tenant

JP: We’ve seen through examples like the Wah Luck House [in Chinatown] that sometimes these fights take many years. I hope in the future that it won’t be so hard.

AA: I’m hopeful. The panel actually really helped with that!

JP: It presents a good blueprint for that kind of collaboration to take place. It’ll be interesting to see how the 11th Street Bridge project moves forward.

AA: Indeed. I think it’s in a very preliminary stage which may mean I should temper my excitement just a little. Regardless, it sounds like they’re doing everything right.