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Is Gentrification Always Bad?

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My old neighborhood in New York City has become a bit of a yuppie den. My current neighborhood in Los Angeles is apparently being overrun by hipsters.

Can any of us escape gentrification?

As I wrote recently, Latino neighborhoods have increasingly become gentrified as white people move into what used to be called the barrio. This process is either a solution to urban blight or a desecration of Hispanic culture, depending on whether you're the gentrifier or the gentrifee (yes, I made those words up, don't bother to comment on them).

The cultural effects of gentrification are often subtle, even debatable. If a Gap store opens where a mom-and-pop retailer used to be, is it gentrification or just the march of capitalism? If young white people are ducking into pupuserias, are they expanding the restaurant's horizons or altering the character of the place?

Much of the conflict wrought by gentrification is the clash between Latinos who resent the newcomers, and fresh transplants who say, "This neighborhood would be perfect if we just got rid of that divvy Mexican bar on the corner."

Furthermore, even in communities of perfect ethnic diversity and racial harmony (please feel free to contact me when you locate this utopia), concrete problems arise whenever a formerly obscure area becomes a hotspot. These are not issues of perception or discomfort, but of simple economics. The classic conflict is when rents skyrocket and longtime residents -- the people who nurtured the neighborhood in the first place -- are forced out.

"Our community institutions can suffer, and our businesses can get bought out if the rate of rent increase moves too fast," says Julia Ahumada Grob, co-creator and lead actor on East WillyB: An Original Web Series. "I think you see that across the country."

Ahumada Grob set East WillyB in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, and the theme of gentrification runs throughout the series. The show is an example of how artists, often in the crosshairs of gentrification efforts, are responding to an issue that didn't even exist a generation ago.

Ahumada Grob says that East WillyB is "not a soapbox story about gentrification," but an attempt to explore the complexity of the issue "in a playful, entertaining way."

Indeed, East WillyB is very much a comedy. This approach reinforces the idea that gentrification, while complex and often problematic, need not be a tragic development in the history of a neighborhood.

By its very nature, gentrification means more upscale residents and businesses move in. It implies that eyesores are removed and shady areas cleaned up. As such, it's misleading to say gentrified communities deserve our pity.

"I always hear both sides," Ahumada Grob says. "Fans from Bushwick write us saying how much they appreciate having coffee shops, bars, and new restaurants in the neighborhood, so there are definitely benefits, especially for emerging businesses. But other fans feel like they've lost their neighborhood."

Achieving that balance between community improvement and neighborhood assassination is, to say the least, a difficult balancing act. Some say that it cannot be done.

However, the fact this issue exists at all is because there is something -- often intangible or abstract -- about a given neighborhood that attracts people of different ethnicities and backgrounds. There is a reason people want to live there, and tapping into that shared affection may be the key.