Understanding Gentrification, Modern-Day Colonialism, and How it Affects Latinos

Gentrification BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of planning.org

Latinos have been experiencing the slow and unjust effects of gentrification now for decades. From the Mexican community being priced out of San Francisco’s Mission District to New York’s Lower East Side housing market pushing out Puerto Ricans, gentrification is the process of communal change in lower-income areas caused by an influx of higher-income residents.

Who’s to blame? Market pressures, limited housing, opportunists, and a lack of politicians’ concrete efforts to preserve Latinos’ cultural history in cities and neighborhoods across the United States. Year after year, Latinos are being displaced from the places they have called home in major cities for decades. 

It’s hard to imagine an artistic masterpiece like West Side Story ever being made if the Sharks hadn’t staked their turf against the Jets in Spanish Harlem back in the day. The housing market and political agendas are erasing a city’s history and the integrity of an entire community. 

Just how Latinos will maintain their, ahem, turf, is still difficult to determine. But here is some of the back story to the gentrification problem and how community activists see possible solutions. 

With government help, whites moved from the cities to the suburbs and back again

It is hard to stomach, but the ugly truth is that the U.S. government created segregated ghettos. NPR reports that in 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the federal government under the New Deal began a program explicitly designed to increase America’s housing stock by segregating whites from people of color. 

The government plan provided housing in suburban communities to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families, while Latinos and African-Americans and other people of color were left out and pushed into urban housing projects.

“Center cities were hugely abandoned, and space was available and cheap, and people who were either not wealthy enough or the wrong color or otherwise couldn’t participate in suburbanization were able to find places to live,” Benjamin Grant, an urban design policy director told Brick Underground. “People of color and immigrants… did their best to ride out the disinvestment.” 

When the 1990s rolled around, and folks began to rediscover cities and grow bored with the suburbs, prices started to rise again in cities. Wealthier buyers and renters, seeking walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods that lower-income communities sought or happened to be stuck in, began competing with these communities for limited housing. 

In Alexandria Ocasio Cortez‘s words: “Gentrification represents a potent issue at the intersections of economic, social, and racial justice. It’s about political corruption, foreclosure & rising rent, criminal justice, immigration, organizing, and more.” 

The Hipster as the New Colonizer

What urban sociologists have come to discover is that gentrification is a lot like settler colonialism, but with modern-day hipsters instead. Suppose you begin to study the similarities of European colonizers like the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors who came and staked out lands in Latin America, or how the British colonizers on the Mayflower sought expansion opportunities. In that case, you’ll notice the parallels with what is being called hipster-caused gentrification.

These so-called hipster colonizers come into low-income neighborhoods with higher incomes and cultural influences and wind up slowly wiping out a people’s traditions. The paradox is that modern gentrifiers are usually open-minded people, anti-racists at heart, but they don’t realize that they are part of the problem, and here is where the problem lies.

I still remember a beloved journalist and an El Barrio activist friend of mine who, in the late 1990s, would spot out white people on her block or at a bodega and ask them flat out: “Are you a gentrifier?” Needless to say, she’d leave the person looking quite perplexed.

It’s the same vicious cycle around the world.

First, a few young, creative, and artistic types who are attracted to low rents in communities with a majority of people of color, move in and are later followed by real estate developers who then claim there’s been an “urban renewal” to attract more affluent profiles to the neighborhood. 

While it’s true that these higher-earning individuals help increase the local tax base, which can lead to improved public services, it also increases rent and house prices as well as goods and services in the area, so that ultimately Latinos and other people of color are displaced from their homes.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, a research associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, studies how the globalization of neoliberal urban policy has made the cities less welcoming, liveable, accessible, and friendly for lower-income city residents around the world.  

“Gentrification can be romanticized by hipsters as living on the edge. As they move into the ‘Wild West’ of lower-income neighborhoods, dressed like 19th-century colonials, hipsters often think of themselves as ‘adventurers’ or ‘pioneers’ who are striking out into the urban jungle’s ‘unsettled frontier’… Many hipsters don’t recognize the colonial overtones of their hipsterifying practices. Even when these are pointed out, some refuse to accept ’gentrification’ guilt.  But that’s another manifestation of their relative privilege,” writes Myambo. 

At a talk at the Pratt Institute, the film director Spike Lee referred to New York hipsters as those with a Christopher Columbus syndrome.

“You can’t discover this. We’ve been here!” He criticized hipsters for displacing people of color and for wanting to live in places like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Williamsburg, and that eventually, when the gentrification is complete and when these places become too “mainstream” for them, they move out. By the time this happens, many Latinos and lower-income families have long been kicked out, never to return again. 

‘Gentefiers’ to the rescue

There is one thing that could make the burn of gentrification less hurtful. Back in the mid-2000s, during the height of Latino housing displacement in Boyle Heights, a bar owner named Guillermo Uribe fused the Spanish word gente with gentrification to form the Spanglish word gentefication, reports the Chicago Tribune

“If gentrification is happening, it might as well be from people who care about the existing culture … it would be best if the gente decided to invest in improvements because they are more likely to preserve its integrity,” Uribe told L.A. Magazine in 2014.  

While gentrification doesn’t seem to be fading away anytime soon, at least these Latinx hipsters, who have either lived there before or are new to the area, and who can afford rising rents in urban barrios, match the neighborhood’s Latino makeup ethnically.

Ultimately, what matters the most, is preserving Latino cultural institutions and boosting mixed economic development in these neighborhoods.  Politicians and community members must continue fighting for affordable housing for long-time low-income residents and a sustainable local business market. It’s the least they can do because we all know it was our turf long before it was theirs.