“We want . . . people who can support the commercial businesses . . . . But . . . We don’t want to be smothered by them, and we want to make sure the working women and men . . . are not run out of the neighborhood that they stuck with and fought for and even died for.” –Rev. Calvin O. Butts III on gentrification in New York
It all started with a ride down Paris Avenue in New Orleans, near the neighborhood where my mother grew up. Large families inside the St. Bernard Housing Project. They were poor and life could be harsh—some fighting but it wasn’t “life-threatening” to live there. Bad things happened, as they do in any neighborhood. Times were good.
At least that’s how I saw it as a child. I spent many hours after school and weekends playing there with my cousins or visiting my grandmother as she sold candies, nachos, E-Z Wider from a small truck on the corner of her drive (she eventually moved out).
It wasn’t until we lived there one summer before we moved into our own house that I felt it could be an unsafe place for a young girl, walking three blocks even, alone on a rainy night. At nine, I could’ve felt that way about any neighborhood. Still, it was the familiar—it had its dangers, its crazies, but I was connected to folks there.
It was not a place, I imagined, with which white people would feel the same comfort. In part because white faces would be out of place (notwithstanding demeanor and swagger, a black person can ease into a “black” neighborhood as “kin,” at least to ask directions).
Imagine my surprise, then, to ride down Paris Avenue and look to the left and see the relics of my mother’s childhood razed and on the right a white man and woman walking a dog—at 8 o’clock at night. In the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. Up is down. Cat is dog. Where am I?
I think about the neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina, how this scene would never have been. I say as much to my sister with a mix of amusement, disbelief, and a twinge of stolen ownership. I think about scenes of the HBO series Treme, where white folks “salten” the crowds at a second line (I’ve seen the same on recent visits to N.O.—white people sprinkled in the stream of dancing revelers)—wondering if the writers explain that this was not a regular occurrence before the storm.
Releasing these thoughts and emotions, I realize they aren’t rational. What am I saying when I say the scene on Paris Avenue could never be? With pride almost? Am I saying I like the fact that white folks couldn’t walk their dogs without (possibly perceived) threat of violence? And that I’m content with the fact that that same level of violence might keep my own people—the elderly, the parents, their kids—from enjoying a night stroll as well? Am I proud of intolerance toward others via the same methods of intimidation that might have caused members of my race to forego bathroom stops traveling the highways in the 1950s?
My thoughts shift to the larger idea of America. The Melting Pot. Possession is so transient—and that is such a hard idea to consider when Donald Trump is buying the houses around you and making your property taxes rise (on the house your great-grandmother sacrificed so hard to buy). Just as the projects in New Orleans were once occupied by a majority white population, the ghettos of New York occupied by Italian and Jewish immigrants, neighborhoods change. The country changes. Sometimes it’s downright ugly. Sometimes we’re just having the fire lit under us to create a new narrative. Which is the case here?*
*I fully acknowledge that I can talk about gentrification in the abstract because I am far enough removed from it. Let me know your thoughts.