As white residents move into historically Black neighborhoods in major cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, the police presence grows. And so does the risk to Black citizens.
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When Donald Trump celebrated the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to remove Obama-era housing protections last month by tweeting, people living the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would no longer have to worry about low-income neighbors, he was sending a clear message: Black and brown people will be pushed out, and white “utopia” will be preserved.
Trump’s coded use of “low income” to describe undesirable neighbors fits comfortably in America’s history of gentrification, which can be described in economic terms but is inextricably connected to race. After World War II, 4 million Black Americans moved to industrial cities while white Americans left for the suburbs. While some scholars argue this “white flight” occurred for economic reasons, the research of sociologist Samuel Kye connects white exodus and the creation of white suburbs to people of color moving into a neighborhood, regardless of the socioeconomic factors.
Donnell Wosson, is the lead consultant for Focused Community Strategies, an Atlanta-based non-profit for community development. The city is well-known for its Black population, but in recent years, Black Atlantans have been moving to the suburbs in increasing numbers.
Wosson participated in a number of protests against police brutality and for racial justice this summer. The protests he has attended were peaceful, like the majority of the protests in Atlanta. Still, Wosson felt the stress in the air, especially after police killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks on June 12. Wosson works in the area where Brooks was killed.
When he heard, “Whose streets?”, Wosson and the crowd responded, “Our streets!” While intended as a hopeful cry of unity, Wosson said he felt the tension in the air as he observed generational and class divides between those asserting their rights to the streets at the protests, and those who own property in Atlanta.
“In just the last four or five protests, I’ve been quietly looking around and observing. I wonder what people really mean when they are shouting that,” he says.
Wosson works to restore, preserve and develop neighborhoods, many of which are historically Black. He says he sees these communities as “living organisms,” but he has come to understand that some developers view them much differently.
For years, politicians propagated a narrative of opportunities for Black Americans in Atlanta. Forbes named it the “best city for African Americans economically.” Known as the “city too busy to hate,” politicians from both parties promoted economic policies that contributed to alienating the Black population. So much so that there has been a steady decline of Black Atlantans since 1980. The city’s growth, which has come at a cost to its Black residents, is a story mirrored in gentrifying cities across the country.
Gentrification in cities is causing the reverse of earlier white flight, now pushing out Black residents previously hemmed into those same areas. Whites leaving urban neighborhoods after World War II meant underinvestment in the increasingly Black areas. The government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation rated neighborhoods’ desirability. The ratings affected access to credit and an increase in property values. The practice known as “redlining” habitually categorized mostly-Black and brown neighborhoods as “undesirable,” a signal to banks to steer clear of granting mortgages or small business loans to residents. The economic inequality created by these practices has lasted for generations.
Wosson and his wife were able to build a house in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in Atlanta, an area with a long history of both Black economic success and lack of investment. But, the nearby neighborhood of Kirkwood is a stark reminder of changes in the city. Despite its reputation as a Black community, white residents increased from 1 percent to 14 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The drumbeat of gentrification not only pushes out Black residents with higher rents, it invites police attention through 311 calls, noise and loitering complaints, and evictions. A 2019 study found Black men have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police force, which is double the odds for men overall. The over-policing intertwined with gentrification means it is not only economic displacement Black residents should fear.
In June, police officers in Lynn, Massachusetts, said they were responding to a noise complaint when they arrived at the apartment complex of Victor White, who is Black. The officers took White and his two friends to the police department on charges of public drinking. White claims he was beaten in custody. A video of the incident spurred an internal investigation and Matthew Coppinger, a white officer involved, resigned.
In 2015, white residents made complaints about Black high schoolers having a party at a community pool in McKinney, Texas. Video showed a white officer aggressively handcuffing Black children and even slamming a Black girl in a bathing suit to the ground. He then drew his weapon on bystanders who tried to help the girl. Again, it was noise complaints that initiated officer involvement and violence against Black people.
Earlier this summer in Atlanta, police received complaints Brooks had fallen asleep in his car, blocking a drive-thru lane at Wendy’s. The incident ended with police shooting and killing Brooks.
The increase in 311 calls is not harmless, nor is it racially neutral. By bringing police into neighborhoods for any reason, Black and other people of color are put at risk. A team of researchers analyzed noise complaints across different areas of New York City in 2018, and though it found complaints increased in all neighborhoods per capita, it increased at a 70 percent faster rate in gentrifying areas.
Anti-gentrification activist Kamau Franklin sees a clear connection between gentrification in cities like Atlanta and over-policing. Community organizers and protesters in Atlanta want to see a transfer of oversight from the police to local community boards. Instead of police monitoring neighborhoods, “We [residents] should have control of the institutions in our community,” Franklin says.
Franklin proposed a dual solution of “demilitarization and decentralization” of the police force. In addition to no longer arming police forces with military-grade weaponry, as is taking place in about 600 Georgia police departments, Franklin wants local control, where “precinct by precinct there should be a board of residents in each city” focused on addressing residents’ concerns.
Franklin said Black politicians of either party are not necessarily allies in supporting the larger Black community. By 2011, the city of Atlanta had demolished all its public housing projects, and distributed vouchers meant to help residents find new homes. At the time, the mayor and president of the city council were both Black.
Franklin has been doing community organizing work for close to 25 years. He is no stranger to the way that gentrification can change an area, fast. When Franklin lived in New York in his 20s, he watched the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene transform. At first, he thought the changes were bringing him benefits as well. There were more coffee shops and bars, but he also saw what he and his friends called “backpack kids.” The newcomers began taking up more and more space, according to Franklin. In 2015, the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Fort Greene was $2,700 a month.
Los Angeles’ gentrification was exacerbated by the arrival of the light rail, but it has its roots in the Jim Crow era. Homeowner associations kept minorities from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods. Deed covenants, which restricted who homeowners could sell their property to, further limited options for people of color nationwide.
Marques Vestal, who researches Black housing in South Los Angeles at UCLA, and an activist with the Los Angeles Tenants Union, watched real estate companies and brokers begin to refer to his Mid-City neighborhood as a part of Los Angeles’ Westside over ten years ago. The Westside includes wealthy areas like Bel Air, Westwood, and Pacific Palisades. Calling an area the Westside signals it is in the “good part” of Los Angeles in “white lingo,” says Vestal. “There’s a layered geography where different groups of people are naming things differently depending on the identities they are trying to erase.”
As Los Angeles invests in public transit, low-income residents close to stops are often pushed out, despite the fact that they could most benefit from being close to public transportation.
Vestal pointed out how movement around the city is tied to race and income, saying, “When I look at rental ads, it’s about a walkability score. On Zillow, one of the main features is a walkability and biking score, which is super fucking white. Black and brown folks, we’ve been riding our bikes.”
Today, walkability in Los Angeles is often connected to expanding Metro lines, which attract more white, college-educated residents, raise rents, and compound pressure on longtime residents, according to Paul Ong, the director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA. Westside real estate agent Robert Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times, “Metro has been a big driver” of attracting residents to the neighborhoods of Jefferson Park and West Adams, where median prices jumped 17 percent from 2015 to 2016.
The police have always been an active tool for changing the identities of neighborhoods. According to a 2017 study by researchers at UCLA that Vestal contributed to, police increasingly arrested homeless people in Los Angeles’ gentrifying neighborhoods.
A 2019 study on gentrification by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found nearly 111,000 African Americans were displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013 all across the U.S.
According to Dr. Sabiyha Prince, who contributed to the study, Black communities are not freely choosing to leave. They are forced to move under the duress of economic conditions, increased policing, and eroding community. “The police have stepped up their scrutiny of these communities as more middle-class, white people come in [to the neighborhood],” she says.
According to Prince, Black locals say even leaning against a fence could bring about a conflict with police. In the same area, she said police will remain respectful of “white people who aren’t social distancing while drinking some chardonnay outside.”
Whether it’s structural racism, redlining, or political gerrymandering, the forces pushing Black people out of developing neighborhoods are working quietly but deliberately. When white people move into a neighborhood they bring with them the entitlement that leads to more calls to police, increased police violence against people of color, and, ultimately, more people of color moving away from the streets they’ve always called home. Many are left to wonder: What spaces will be left for us?
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