Investment Without Displacement: Communities Gather to Discuss Gentrification at the Voorhees Center Symposium

By: Charles Dabah

On May 1 the Voorhees Center hosted Taking Control of Our Neighborhoods’ Future, a symposium to discuss the Center’s recently released report on gentrification and neighborhood change titled The Socioeconomic Change of Chicago’s Community Areasalso known as the Gentrification Index. Over 50 people from around Chicago — professionals, foundation officers, community activists, students and professors — participated. Many shared their personal and professional experiences of confronting neighborhood change, creating a space for individuals from all corners of the city to partner and develop collaborative solutions that address the impact gentrification can have on communities. A common concern is the real and potential displacement of lower income families from these neighborhoods and the seemingly lack of control over gentrification once it starts.

John Schlichtman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at DePaul University, delivered an insightful talk on gentrification beginning with Ruth Glass’s examination of London’s social conditions that supported the re-entry of the gentry in the 1960s. Schlichtman situates gentrification in the larger socio-economic restructuring that began with de-industrialization and suburbanization. Much of his presentation focused on the “re’s” and “de’s” of gentrification and emphasizing the connections between reinvestment and disinvestment, revitalization and devaluation, and many other push and pull forces that set the stage for and help solidify gentrification in particular communities. He demonstrated how gentrification is heavily tied to the creation over time of the rent gap, which he defines as “the difference between the potential value and the actual value under the current use.”

Schlichtman describes gentrification as a showcase for middle class life; his goal was to get us to take stock of how, if in any way, we are all involved in the process of gentrification which is ultimately tied to capitalism. Linking the middle class and gentrification provided an interesting backdrop to the findings in the Gentrification Index. The Gentrification Index examines neighborhood change across Chicago over a 40-year period, from 1970 to 2010, and uses 13 indicators to measure neighborhood growth or decline over time. With the addition of 2010 data, the Index shows growing inequality and polarization in Chicago, which has led to a hollowing out of the middle class and a greater number of neighborhoods suffering mild to serious decline.

What can we take away from the Index? There are neighborhoods that have gentrified over the 40-year period (primarily north side communities along the lakefront) and there are a handful of neighborhoods that are trending toward gentrification, with an increasing number of higher income residents concentrated in these neighborhoods. Yet, there are also a growing number of neighborhoods that have been in decline for decades and where poverty has increased, also with a growing number of residents concentrated in these neighborhoods. Janet Smith, Co-Director of the Voorhees Center, spoke to this “deepening divide” noting the growing rate of neighborhood polarization in Chicago.

In addition to providing information on the socioeconomic landscape of Chicago’s neighborhoods, the symposium was also a platform to offer up and generate new ideas about what we can do to productively address the negative effects that gentrification and poverty have on neighborhoods. In tandem with its release of the Gentrification Index, the Voorhees Center released a supplemental toolkit of strategies that community residents, local organizations and businesses, elected officials and developers could use to respond to gentrification – to take control of their neighborhood’s future. Each tool has examples and guidance for use along with pros and cons to take into consideration.

To close the symposium, the Voorhees Center invited Kevin Jackson of the Chicago Rehab Network, Michael Burton of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation and Angela Hurlock of Claretian Associates to discuss the strategies and models of engagement that frontline organizations are using to manage the pressures of gentrification—most in the toolkit. Each of the panelists drew from decades of experience with neighborhood change to provide advice and insights to attendees grappling with similar challenges.

Gentrification is a loaded word whose many meanings are perceived differently depending on who you ask. Books and articles are still being written to try and keep up with the evolution of “gentrification” and how people relate to it. What is certain, however, is that the social and economic forces connected with the gentrification process are being felt in urban centers across the United States. From Brooklyn to Chicago to San Francisco, gentrification is shaping our cities and our relationships to the communities we call home.

Please visit us here for more information on our symposium.

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