Gentrification: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Gentrification: Won’t you be my neighbor?

As a kid I grew up with a show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It began with a song,

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

The song carries on talking about the beauty of the neighborhood and Mister Rogers’ longing for a neighbor, “you” — whoever you are — to be exact. It ended with a simple question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

This question of being neighbors is a complicated one in places where gentrification is happening. You have a mix of views that emerge. You have those who feel the neighborhood is being invaded or taken over — forced neighbors. You have those who feel like they’re being asked, will you please not be my neighbor — displaced neighbors! You have those who feel unwanted in a community they have chosen to embrace — rejected neighbors. You have those who don’t know and don’t care — unaware neighbors. All of these types of “neighbors”: forced, displaced, rejected, and unaware, add up to tough odds achieving a Mister Rogers’-approved neighborhood.

I live in such a neighborhood. My mom started a business in this neighborhood over 20 years ago when no one wanted to be there. She was, in fact, one of three anchor businesses before any popular stores were in the Columbia City area.

I had my own encounter with this reality one day as I was on the phone with the bank trying to report a vandalized or broken ATM machine. As I waited on the phone, a newcomer to the area, who I wouldn’t have ever seen on those streets just a few years earlier, wanted to assert his ownership of the area to me. “Miss, you don’t own this neighborhood.” Now, I could certainly understand his desire to get cash and his confusion as to why it was taking me so long. He missed my telling the people behind me what I was doing. However, his words were unmistakable, “own this neighborhood.” He was probably even more shocked at that reaction of the Hispanic gentleman and Caucasian woman behind me. Their look of horror at him followed by the Caucasian lady’s comment, “Sir, that is uncalled for. She’s reporting the vandalism of the ATM machine in the rear. This is our neighborhood!” She was thankfully quicker and kinder than I might have been were I not shocked by his comment and simultaneously amazed and grateful for her reply. After all, it was in fact my neighborhood. The difference is I didn’t see that ownership as exclusive, where some of us belong and other don’t belong. My family has been part of birthing the place these individuals now greatly enjoy. It is not better for me because they are here or worse. It was good enough then and it is good enough now.

In cities across the country, people are saying yes to the challenge of “neighboring” by moving back into the city! The cities once deserted by white flight are now being revitalized by people coming back to them to be closer to work, to be closer to the center of art/commerce/culture, to reduce their carbon footprint or commute time, and to enjoy a more urban and diverse experience among many reasons. This revitalization is also called gentrification.

Gentrification is the process of renewal (revitalization) and rebuilding that typically is accompanied by the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas of a city that often displaces poorer residents. I believe God loves cities, and I see a tremendous opportunity in how we can approach neighborhoods in transition and become better neighbors. We can seek the welfare of our city (Jeremiah 29:4-7). I want to offer a few thoughts:

  • Don’t over-romanticize a return to the city. The fact that the number of poor in the suburbs now rivals the poor in cities should give us reason to pause. The vulnerable are now being pushed to communities less equipped to serve their needs and less prepared to deal with diverse populations. A return to the city should be accompanied by care for the neighborhoods that are left.
  • Practice doing to others what you’d want done to you. The greatest commandment and the command that follows, which is a form of the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7:12, are relevant to everyone, not just Christians. It is a commandment we should all follow. In Matthew 22:36-40 it reads: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” There can be no us and them in the neighborhood. Together, we should strive for the good of our community and this means seeking to know and understand one another. For the Christian, Jesus says, The entire Bible, the whole Law and the Prophets, the whole of redemption, and all the Father’s plans and work throughout history and even now hang on these two sovereign purposes of God — that he be loved by his people and that we love each other.
  • Be a good guest or a hospitable host. There is a responsibility for those who move in to a neighborhood to be good guests and become better citizens of the community. This requires respecting what has gone before you. There is also a responsibility to those who belong to be open and to receive others with graciousness. We have to be open to the other in a way that we can all work together bringing our God-given gifts and talents to better achieve the common good.

It is my hope that a new view on our neighborhoods will cause them to thrive and be an example to others as well as a support to others. We have to move from ‘my’ to ‘our’ and this means being willing to love our neighbors as ourselves.