08/17/2011 12:45 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2011

The Highlands and Harlem: Has Pollyanna Been Displaced by Gentrification?

An interesting feature appeared in last Sunday's New York Times. It appears that Harlem, New York City's historical and cultural landmark, is grappling with a somewhat similar problem troubling Denver's historical and cultural landmarks, the Highlands. Several weeks ago, the Denver Post reported a spate of car break-ins that muddies the marketing vision promulgated by developers and real estate professionals. The glitzy and polished patina glossed over the neighborhood in marketing materials occasionally references the neighborhood's cultural diversity and traditions, but according to some reader comments following the online article, the diversity blunts rather than burnishes the patina over the neighborhood's newly minted image.

While car heists in the Highlands aren't as explosive as recent gunfire in Harlem, the two accounts share more than a criminal element. Disparate populations reside in both neighborhoods, the disparity being an interesting amalgamation of white affluence coexisting alongside minority insolvency. Both the New York Times and the Denver Post highlighted conflicts that often accompany gentrification of formerly impoverished and dilapidated neighborhoods -- gentrification and transformation can be a laborious and frustrating process. And both newspaper accounts amply presented the economic demarcation, but only the Times made mention (and then only sparingly) of racial and/or ethnic divisions. But the article's title tells it all: "Shooting in Morningside Park Tests Harlem's Bond With Past."

Harlem's past is glorious, influential and riveting. It's also driven and defined by the black experience. When one thinks of Harlem, that experience conjures great art, intellectual innovation and the Apollo Theater. Conversely, it also includes generational poverty, limited opportunities, and socioeconomic disadvantages. The test for both Harlem and the Highlands is confronting frictions and fissures that arise when their pasts confront -- and collide with -- their future. While the bond to the past might be more tenuous and increasingly less obvious, the past is still present in each neighborhood, incarnated in the blacks and Hispanics still populating the areas.

The past and future can co-exist and even cooperate in the present. The benefits of gentrification aren't completely one-dimensional. For those residents (primarily minorities) whose socioeconomic circumstances remain rooted in the past, the neighborhood's most recent renaissance (at least in Harlem's case) hasn't completely abandoned them. As the Times reported:

The park, which has benefited during gentrification, also provides an outlet from it, accessible to the people who cannot afford the new beer garden or upscale pet store. On good days it is a model of diversity, where families of different races and means enjoy a spectacular vista, with the hills landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux rising steeply up toward Morningside Drive and Columbia University. But it is also a place where neighborhood tensions play out.

Those tensions continue to confound leaders, citizens and the media alike. How do people confront the problem, let alone solve it, when they're skittish about even identifying the cast? The Highlands, both East Highland and West Highland, have been Hispanic hamlets for decades. Previously, the Highlands hosted an array of struggling immigrants. Long before the LoHi tag became fashionable, East Highland's more practical nickname was Little Italy. It might surprise some, but Northwest Denver and LoHi are home to not only Root Down and Lolas, but also former home to Tom Tancredo and a huge Italian population, many of whom resided and worked "without papers." One of the neighborhood's most celebrated characters, Mother Cabrini, is the patron saint of immigrants. (The ideological dichotomy between Tancredo and Mother Cabrini, two of the more famous Italians who spent time in the 'hood, is an interesting irony.)

Some of the commentary from readers of the online article in the Denver Post seems affronted, even angered, by the newspaper's decision not to speculate whether the thieves breaking into cars were Hispanic, claiming the omission nothing more than politically correctness. However, unless charged and convicted, the newspaper couldn't identify the thieves' ethnicity. There weren't even any allegations by witnesses concerning who committed the crimes. Having stated that, it's no secret that at some of the neighborhood's Hispanic youth collide with the law. Long-time Hispanic residents worry about and bemoan the effects of drugs and poverty on the area's Hispanic youth. Gangs and crime are a readily available but devastating temptation. The issue shouldn't simply be about blame, but also assistance and effort. In other words, rather than identifying the race or ethnicity, it'd be more productive and humane to address the causes and possible remedies.

It's informative to regard the dictionary definition of gentrification:

The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

This might be a Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky thought, but I'll throw it out anyhow. Wouldn't it be more moral, more satisfying if the definition of gentrification could embrace people along with physical locations? Rather than merely improving property values and displacing low-income families and small businesses, wouldn't it be utopia if gentrification involved improving lives and reviving low-income families and small businesses? But it's far easier to endure the tensions, ignore the inequities and await the displacement. Most likely, Pollyanna and her brand of optimism have been displaced from places like Harlem and the Highlands.