When businesses in the NuLu district of Louisville were aggressively approached by Black Lives Matter activists last week, it raised the thorny issue of who benefits when older neighborhoods are revitalized and made more attractive by the creation of new housing and retail businesses. In this process, when older areas begin to be seen as desirable neighborhoods whose desirable locations, rich social fabric, ethnic mix, and accessibility make them attractive to new residents and the upwardly mobile, local activists start their predictable protests against development, displacement, and, worst of all, what they perceive as the dreaded gentrification that defines these older neighborhoods’ current state.
Contending that “The policies and processes of the revitalization of NuLu has [sic] displaced marginalized people from homes their families have often resided for generations, single-handedly progressing the gentrification of Black neighborhoods,” BLM protestors distributed a list of “Occupy NuLu Demands” to businesses “to express the destruction your business has caused to low-income communities, specifically those with majority Black residents.”
Referring to the economic and social rebirth of an entire neighborhood, benefiting rich and poor alike—as a “destruction” of a low-income community, of course, seems to be counter-intuitive, since most municipalities welcome upgrading of their urban cores, particularly when it eliminates pockets of poverty, widens the tax base, creates new housing, reduces crime, and stimulates the overall investment in the locality by housing developers and retail businesses—precisely what has occurred in NuLu.
The BLM activists apparently see any change in the ethnic or sociological character of this neighborhood as detrimental, and seem to aspire to preserve the idealized, and probably unrealistic, community they remember from another era. For this community, what they remember is the former Clarksdale Homes, typical of the classic public housing development which serve as “warehouses” of poverty, concentrating low-income residents in one place with all the attendant social pathologies that typically result: welfare dependency, fatherless families, high crime rates, lack of neighboring viable retail businesses, the absence of market-rate housing, diminished municipal services and a general neglect of public spaces.
So while the activists contend that “Gentrification is a palatable term that sugar coats one more aspect of an oppressive system targeted at Black Folx [sic] for 400 Years,” they ignore the obvious reality that the rising tide of neighborhoods lifts all boats, that even the poor residents of gentrifying areas benefit from an overall improvement in the quality of life of the entire neighborhood. In fact, most of the 700 residents of the Clarksdale project were relocated to what became Liberty Green, a $233 million mixed-use, mixed-income development that was itself a jump-start to NuLu’s revival.
More importantly, no one group—in this case black residents—“owns” a neighborhood or has perpetual rights to remain in place while a neighborhood deteriorates, especially if market forces and community planning can turn an area around it make it more attractive as a place to live, shop, and work. Despite the activists’ demand that the targeted businesses agree that they “played a part in the harm done to Clarksdale’s original residents, who have received no economic benefit from our occupation,” its obvious that the quality of life for these residents dramatically increased, and continues to increase, even though BLM claims, ludicrously and presumptuously, that “gentrifiers . . . destroyed their community.”
It may be true that low-income black residents who lived in public housing have had no control over the growth of their neighborhood, and may not realize how their lives have actually improved, but those black property and business owners who invested in the neighborhood prior to the gentrification are certainly not complaining about the appreciation they may well have experienced on their properties.
But even if BLM activists could claim that NuLu is theirs, that black people “own” and therefore should control what happens to the neighborhood—which is demonstrably false—their current tactic of approaching established businesses now and presenting them with a list of onerous demands is not only contrary to the way that community development normally happens, but borders on illegality, since they are demanding that complying businesses hire a certain percentage of black workers; purchase products from black vendors or make required monetary payments to black non-profit organizations; require “diversity training” for all employees and owners; and publicly show support for this reparations and social justice program.
Housing activists and non-profit groups regularly participate in negotiations with municipalities and private developers during the planning stage of large re-development or development projects and use that opportunity to extract benefits for their communities and stakeholders. In Boston, as one example, developers of large luxury housing projects could voluntarily pay into a “linkage” fund to subsidize affordable housing in exchange for profitable variances or tax abatements for their projects. Other developers received these benefits through “inclusionary zoning,” where the developer committed to including some portion of affordable housing within the new development and, for that concession, was offered various incentives to make the overall project more affordable.
But, significantly, these negotiations were conducted prior to the project being developed, and, more importantly, compliance was voluntary on the part of the developers. So the notion that BLM activists can suddenly appear at the door of ongoing, thriving businesses in the newly-viable NuLu neighborhood and extort owners by threatening boycotts, demonstrations, social media libeling, and other aggressive, and destructive, tactics if businesses do not comply with their demands is misguided and, frankly, outrageous. Not without justification, some of the targeted business owners, including Cuban restaurateur Fernando Martinez (who vigorously declined to participate), have compared the BLM tactics to the behavior of the Mafia, where the failure to pay for “protection” would expose the subject business owner to financial or physical harm.
Rather than condemning such gentrifying neighborhoods to a state of perpetual stagnation—characterized by distressed residential and commercial tracts, declining property values, and widespread poverty—does not a new model of economic growth hold more promise? That is the very question that BLM should have considered before they condemned—without thoughtful analysis—the wide-ranging, comprehensive upgrading in the social and economic conditions of Louisville. They can continue to mistakenly characterize gentrification as a perverse process of social and economic Darwinism, or they can make an honest assessment about the critical and substantive benefits realized by all residents of a community undergoing positive change: jobs, better municipal services, decent places to live, thriving commerce, and the hope that a whole community can start stepping out of poverty once and for all.