Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Gentrification.

2 new homes have been built across the street over the past year or so. One was built where a condemned house once stood, the other 10 feet away on what used to be a lawn. I watched a team of maybe 3 guys knock that old house down by hand over the course of one weekend. They said I could have anything I wanted, so I dragged old lumber (nice lumber!), tin roofing, plywood, and rebar across the street and into my backyard. Material from that house made the chicken coop, rain barrel supports, sawhorses, and the frame for the patio and its bench. And I still have a huge stockpile.

The house that rose up from the ruins is hideous. I can't imagine why anyone would have bought it. I've casually met the tenant and pray she's just renting. But it's better than the boarded up death trap where kids and drug addicts once competed for the most dangerous place on the block to hang out.

I have a hard time reconciling my feelings about gentrification and my role in it. I was thinking about it the other day out back relaxing with a chicken (Boutros Boutros Chicken) and a beer.

How did I appear to my neighbors while I physically participated in the transformation of my block? Carrying timbers from a decrepit house that had been there as long as anyone could remember into the backyard of my new house? Were they resigned to change? Resentful of it? Happy? All of the above?

Am I gentrifying? I think I have/am. I haven't lived in a suburb since I graduated high school. I've never bought property, but for the last 12 or so years I have always rented in areas undergoing gentrification. And I'm talking some places where I was the white dude everyone knew. Cause I was practically the only white dude. And I'm friendly.

Once, while walking home from work, a woman dressed in her Sunday best yelled at me to "get out of Harlem white boy, and take that white trash with you." (referring to my girlfriend who was walking alongside me) And this was on Frederick Douglass Blvd. a block North of Central Park. We didn't say anything back- I was just shocked. But as I was silently contemplating the irony of the street name, a few of the ubiquitous corner guys who saw it go down approached and apologized to us. I appreciated that.

I'm not sure how to feel about the woman though. She was at least 60 at the time. Maybe she had a point. Maybe she had horrible experiences in the 50's and 60's in the south, moved to New York only to endure the 70's and 80's there. And just when Harlem was turning around and getting safer and nicer, all these newcomers started pushing longtime residents out. I'd probably be mad, too.

My block in Austin is diverse. Oddly diverse. And it is a tiny slice of East Austin. This really is my block: Poor college kids. Middle class, lower-middle class, poor people. Crazy people living in a defunct Winnebago in the side yard of a house full of maybe 8? people. Hispanic Multi-family compound- double digits. White yuppies that make at least 6 figures. African American families who've been in the neighborhood since segregation when East Austin was the only place they could settle. Even an Asian guy.

But it's clear which way the winds are blowing. And this close to downtown, money more than anything is the determining factor. Taxes will keep going up and jobs for unskilled workers keep disappearing. The incentive to sell to developers and move elsewhere will be unavoidable. This could be Hyde Park in 50 years.

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