Gentrification: Is It Ever A Good Thing?

By December 22, 2010Creative Ideas

I live on two islands. Nantucket Island has been my home for forty years and for twenty or so years I’ve spent two months in Key West. I know Key West, as an outsider, but recognize the familiar problems this island has in common with my island. Both islands lack affordable housing, suffer from seasonal traffic, no parking spaces and extra strains on the infrastructure of these fragile places.

While in Key West, my partner and I strode down to the Afterdeck at Louies’ to unwind from the pressures of finding ourselves – a writer and photographer – in the most unaccustomed position of having no assignment. Leisure time is not our forte and we have been working on this attitude adjustment for two months. A Louis’ Passion and a Marguerita at sunset have been contributing greatly toward successful achievement of this goal.

It was five thirty. Ten minutes into our self-imposed regimen we were joined by a local character, Dink Bruce, a regular raconteur familiar to most everyone here. His friend Reef soon joined us.

Our conversation turned to the subject of gentrification found in so many resort areas that, once discovered became overly populated. Dink was in rare form and ever quick with an analogy of the island said,  “Consider this island as the result of a good recipe, Visitors come and enjoy the meal but find they must alter it a bit to suit their personal tastes. So they fiddle with it a bit and clean it up, so to speak. Before you know it they’ve put in too much of this and taken out too much of that and the original recipe is no longer discernable.” Reef, a thirty seven year veteran of Key West picked up the thread, “When you hear the word ‘gentrification; it sounds positive. But if you think about it in the context of change it can mean something totally different. In fact, for us it is quite negative.” Our talk became lively with Dink taking side trips to imitate various characters he’d encountered.

The folks who came to live here so many years ago liked the laid-back nature of the place. Everyone is familiar with its appeal to artists and writers and free-thinking sorts. Today the prevailing attitude is accepting of any number of off-beat factions. It is this diversity of opinion that makes up the fabric of the island and encourages lively conversation at dinner parties. “But we are a dying breed,” said Reef and once the old timers go the island won’t be the same.”

This got me thinking about Nantucket’s gentrification, about ten years ahead by comparison. I commented on how much good had come out of the gentrification of our island in the form of improved services such as the hospital and improvements to the economy in general. But I had to admit gentrification had gotten way out of hand verging on the sterilization of our island. It’s hard to keep things a bit rough around the edges, the very sorts of things that lend character to the place. For example, in Nantucket our charming small houses are being replaced by bigger and fancier dwellings and the charm of our island is being eroded. Suburbia is creeping in. This is happening more slowly in Key West because there isn’t any land left to build on. However, there is more to gentrify here and so it will take a longer time. But this brings me back to the meaning of “gentrify”, a word that sounds pretty okay and so we often dismiss it as not being particularly threatening the way a more odious and contagious disease might alert us into preventive action.

According to Wikipedia, gentrification refers to the process in which low cost, physically deteriorated neighborhoods experience physical renovations and an increase in property value along with an influx of increasingly wealthier residents who typically displace the prior residents. Proponents of gentrification usually focus on the monetary values and benefits.

Artistic and subcultural thinkers often seek out places because of their low prices and their sense of authenticity or “grit”. As the artistic or once “bohemian” character of the area grows, it appeals to “consumers”. Eventually those sporadic consumers edge out the earlier arrivals for a number of reasons, most obviously being “no longer affordable” and lack of “grit.” Locals can’t afford to live in the community and long established businesses close making way for the homogenous chains that can afford the newly risen real estate prices. Places like Nantucket and Key West have a unique style formed by their longtime residents. As newcomers displace these residents, ideas about what is attractive change, and standards for architecture, landscaping and public behavior change as well. Quite literally the people “of gentle birth” have more influence on the place and, over time, the very character that attracted them in the first place disappears.  At first the changes are slow, but at a certain point in time an ever-expanding number of newcomers find the place acceptable for their comfort level.

Is there a solution to the problems that arise from gentrification? Maybe through social awareness. But then how does a community go about policing the rate of gentrification that is acceptable in a free society? This will probably be a subject of concern here for a very long time.

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