Loving Cities As They Are

To learn more about this issue and things we must consider before moving to gentrifying communities.I didn’t grow up in Venice but I connect most of my childhood memories to that area. My grandmother lived in a 4-bedroom house on Milwood Avenue, about a 10-minute walk from Venice Beach. I remember playing basketball and football in the street and alley, throwing rocks against the graffiti-covered garages, the cement stump in the alley where my cousins and I would sit with a little walkman radio listening to rap songs and talking about whatever young kids our age talked about. We’d occasionally walk over to Oakwood Park to play baseball or to 7-11 for slurpees. Sometimes, we’d stop off at Joe’s Liquor store for baseball cards or head to Wherehouse Music for a cassette tape. What do all these things have in common? Nothing really except the memories attached to them. But memories go a long way, especially in Venice since most of what was, is now no more.

I can’t even begin to do justice to the stories of all the people who used to live in Venice. I can try and give you a sense of the unity and family that thrived throughout the neighborhood, but their stories and experiences go much deeper than I am able to share. The Oakwood area of Venice consisted primarily of Latino and African-American families. For the most part, everyone in this community knew each other. They went to school together, played sports together, hung out at local parks and basically lived life with one another. It was an actual community. There was a sense of family and togetherness that permeated throughout this community. However, in recent years, much of that has faded away.  New people have moved in.  New businesses have popped up. And many long time residents have been pushed out. Venice is undergoing gentrification, something that we see happening throughout many parts of our city.

Gentrification is a complex issue and people look at it differently. Some see it as good for the city because it boosts local economies and property value as outside wealth pours in and the communities undergo some sort of “renewal”. Many others simply see it as a process that forces out lower-income, minority people from areas that have become more desirable for wealthier and usually whiter individuals.

There isn’t really one solid definition people use in defining gentrification. The definition I like to use is from David Leong’s book “Race & Place”. He describes the issue as follows: “…the process of redevelopment, transition, and the subsequent displacement of lower-income people that occurs in allegedly blighted neighborhoods” (pg. 131). I want to focus on this aspect of displacement and the changes that occur due to gentrification. To go along with that, as Christians, I believe there are some biblical principles we can apply as we think about and engage in gentrification, specifically in regards to how we love our neighbors/city.

First off, before jumping in to gentrification and its effects, it’s important to recognize the communities and their make-up. Many of the neighborhoods undergoing gentrification have been predominantly African-American and/or Latino communities located in urban contexts. Many of these neighborhoods were historically red-lined and seen as “less desirable” places to live due to the subsequent large minority presence (usually Black or Latino). Some of these areas were once home to many white residents but once minorities began moving in to these areas, white residents took off to create a sub-urbanized lifestyle. Unfortunately, many of these areas were neglected by the city and resources weren’t as plentiful. Also, many residents of these communities didn’t, and still don’t, have the option to live wherever they want to live because of economic limitations. So you have communities where many lower-income minorities were forced to live, really had no choice to move elsewhere, and were left neglected without many resources enjoyed by other communities.

Yet in spite of the disregard shown to these neighborhoods, there is a rich history and culture that have characterized these communities for many decades. You have areas like Leimert Park and West Adams where there is a deep sense of African American cultural history. You have neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and areas west of Downtown where large populations of Latinos live and have developed their own culture and character. There is culture, experiences, history, and personal stories that have been developed over many, many years and have become familiar and “home” for the lifelong residents living there.

But now with gentrification, many of those residents are displaced; shops and businesses are bought out for newer more pricier spots catering to new people moving in. You have neighborhoods being re-shaped and changed for the sake of newcomers who did not have to go through the experiences many lifelong residents had to go through, both good and bad. Communities are no longer fit for the lower-income black and brown people who have known no other home aside from the community they now see being redeveloped.

There are countless changes taking place in our city and many people may not think twice about it because the promise of something “new and better” seems alluring. But often this comes at the expense of those who’ve lived or operated businesses in those communities most of their lives. Rents are increased to where lifelong residents/businesses can no longer afford to stay. Properties may be sold, destroyed, and rebuilt, increasing costs for residents and displacing those who used to call it home. Historic landmarks are shut down and replaced with trendy coffee shops, multi-million dollar homes, boutiques, restaurants, and markets that many of the local residents cannot afford.

Many of the changes cater to wealthier individuals who might not consider the history or culture of an area. They may be caught up in the new changes and how it best fits their lives- how they can have the lifestyle they want in an area they want to live in but without the previous culture/character being present. All the changes come from the outside and cater to people from the outside. Because of that, lifelong residents who’ve called these communities “home” are displaced, leaving behind the familiarity of jobs, churches, schools, establishments, and experiences.

Imagine if you were in this position: the place you call home, where you’ve developed your life is being torn down and you’re being forced out to cater to a group of people who don’t necessarily care if you are gone. How do we as Christians think through this issue throughout our city? I think it’s important to really understand what loving our neighbors looks like in this context.

We aren’t going to stop the process of gentrification. It is a macro-economic movement that is beyond our individual (or even corporate) direction or control.  But that doesn’t mean we have to simply go along with it or participate in it in the exact same way the world around us does. As Christians we are different. We are not of this world. And how we live in our gentrifying communities ought to be different, too.

We can develop a heart’s attitude of incarnational living amongst those in our communities, not having consumer mindsets but investing in the community as it is and not waiting for it to become something we want. We can be mindful of what we say or think regarding an area and the people living there, standing up and being a voice on behalf of those who are being displaced, and looking for opportunities to love people rather than isolating ourselves in our own bubble. We cannot and should not pick up and move further into the city and recreate a sub-urbanized, closed-off lifestyle that disregards the people already living there as we hope or wait out for all the developmental changes to take place. If we’re going to move into a community we ought to do so embracing the entire community. We ought to move into it in love of the community that it is, not simply in hope of the community it might become.

Countless times throughout Scripture we hear about loving our neighbors. If you are one who will or has already moved into a gentrifying community, consider what this command means. Your neighbors are all around you. We are called to love them, invest in their lives, build relationships, consider them more important than ourselves, and look for ways to minister to  and care for them. Does that define believers in a gentrifying community? Or are we more caught up with the changes taking place and waiting for that pricy food spot or cool coffee shop that we used to have in another part of town? Are we so focused on what areas could become that we neglect to love our neighbors who are here now, the ones struggling with all the changes and possibly facing displacement? There may be opportunities to radically love others and point them to Christ- but if we choose to consume rather than invest, we can easily miss out.

Also, there are usually many issues facing some of the communities being gentrified. Perhaps a lack of educational resources, high crime, poverty, etc., are present and the temptation may be for “those problems” to be moved elsewhere. But think about the chance to minister and share Christ in the midst of those issues. This isn’t about having a savior complex and thinking that if people adapt to how we live then problems will be fixed. It’s about going to people where they’re at and loving them the same way Christ came to us and loved us. Loving neighbors isn’t about moving sin elsewhere or waiting for different neighbors to arrive. It’s loving those who God has placed us around and not neglecting them. Christians should enter gentrifying communities with a humble posture, seeking to consider others, specifically lifelong residents, more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3). If we don’t take the time to do so, we will only stand to remind the lifelong residents that they are no longer a part of a community they helped build culturally and historically. Christ’s love looks different.

I encourage us to consider these neighborhoods, consider the people, consider the history of these communities, consider the difficulty many people face as gentrification impacts so many lives, and consider how to love our neighbors. James 2 speaks on showing partiality, specifically in a church setting. It encourages believers not to be impartial to the rich while disregarding the poor. I believe that is a good heart attitude to have even with something like gentrification. We should be careful not to disregard the poor when moving to communities where the agenda focuses on making it wealthier, hipper, and more cool for people to live. Disregard will eventually lead to not caring as people are displaced. Christ calls us to love and care for neighbors. Be radical, be investing, consider and love your neighbor.