I'm tired of the current fight over gentrification. Recently, Spike Lee, himself an affluent member of a privileged class, lambasted the cultural encroachments of gentrifiers in Brooklyn. A firestorm ensued, with salient points on many sides. As one blogger rightly stated, "the current discussion about gentrification in NYC isn't helping anyone." What discussion should we be having instead? How can we build progressive, thriving communities for people of all socio-economic backgrounds? As another columnist noted, "Small, personal decisions, like buying your coffee at the local place instead of at Starbucks, can give gentrification in your neighborhood a more organic, human character." Yet it is not merely where you choose to caffeinate that indicates the character of your culture. It starts with small personal interactions, the building blocks of community.
Racism, sexism, classism and ableism are decried in the court of public opinion as vague, monolithic concepts that are only identified when an obvious tragic example presents itself. Yet these ills are perpetuated at the micro-level on a daily basis, through a lack of earnest interaction. You can scowl around your neighborhood in anger or disdain, or try to create a bubble of silent isolation, but this only breeds anger, disdain, and isolation in return. Sometimes all it takes is a smile or a nod to open communication. Taking it to the next level is knowing your neighbor's names, maybe even their kids' names, where they're from, how long they've been there. Then show your support! Help an old lady across the street. Don't call the cops on the neighbors' teens skateboarding up and down the sidewalk. Growing up in a diverse New Orleans where racial and class tensions often ran high, I learned early on the power of a neighborly gesture to make people feel welcome and included. A little goes a long way, and engenders goodwill.
What does not engender goodwill is excluding rent-stabilized tenants from accessing the in-house gym, kicking the African drummers out of Marcus Garvey Park, limiting dates available to Soul Summit, or any other of the numerous cultural aggressions being played out in New York, New Orleans and across America. You can't ask a complete stranger to change their behavior and lifestyle for you, as they have no incentive to do so. But you can ask a friend and neighbor to change their behavior for you, if you are willing to make equal concessions to ensure mutual happiness. Basic negotiation principles dictate that in order to ask a concession from someone, you must have one to offer in return, and to create mutually beneficial arrangements, you must have an earnest understanding of the other party's interests and goals. We are negotiating for the cultural soul of our communities and that must begin with an honest dialogue. Where there is no goodwill, the dialogue cannot begin, and there is only polite silence masking anger and distrust.
How can we build progressive, thriving communities for people of all socio-economic backgrounds? By bringing everyone in the community to the table when decisions about that community are made. By providing space for people to continue their pursuit of happiness as much as they can while they can still afford to be there. By acknowledging the privileges we each hold based on our skin color, gender, education, earnings and abilities, and by responding to the people we encounter daily in an empathetic way. We can take a legitimate interest in what is going on around us and know that we can either make it better or worse by our contribution. Some successful examples of people coming together to build community can be found across America with programs like Habana Works, or the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham, or the Ashé Center in New Orleans. What are some other organizations in your communities doing good work to bridge the gaps? Shout them out in the comments. Then get more involved. I'm committing to action over arguments today.