Over the past two decades, gentrification has become a norm in major American cities. The typical example is a formerly low-income neighborhood where longtime residents and businesses are displaced by white-collar workers and overpriced coffeehouses. But the conventional wisdom that image reflects—that gentrification is a result of an economic restructuring—often leaves out a critical side effect that disproportionately affects communities of color: criminalization.Put another way, there's a soft bigotry of low expectations in poor and non-white neighborhoods? Oh, sorry, I'm being churlish.
When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.
“There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson told me. And “that makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police,” he added.
[Former federal prosecutor Paul] Butler, who recently wrote the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, believes that this is a result of newcomers refusing to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms. “Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization,” he said. “The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement.That's rich. I don't recall any such solicitude when those neighborhoods changed during the era of block-busting and red-lining, about being colonized. But now the meme that gentrification is colonization is everywhere.
Butler’s home of Washington, where he’s a law professor at Georgetown University, provides an illustrative example. On most Sunday afternoons, a performance group hosts a drum circle in Malcolm X Park, whose official name is Meridian Hill. The tradition dates back to 1965—shortly after Malcolm X was assassinated—and was intended to celebrate black liberation. While the drumbeats can still be heard today, the ritual was called into question when the surrounding neighborhood began to change in the late 1990s. New arrivals living in the blocks surrounding the park repeatedly complained about the noise until the police imposed and enforced a curfew on the drummers.
The perception that gentrification is the reintroduction of white bourgeois values into communities, however, is wrong. Consider a recent incident in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, where the resistance to colonization took the form of angry (and text-literate) graffiti. "In big black letters, both restaurants were tagged, with 'YT PPL OUTTA PILSEN' on S.K.Y.’s brick wall, and 'Get Out' on Dusek's window. No one has claimed responsibility for the graffiti." Read on, though, and discover that operating upscale eateries and watering holes isn't just a white thing.
Pilsen is home to chains like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Giordano’s. Yet some businesses that have been targeted by anti-gentrification sentiments in recent years — Canton Regio, Dia de Los Tamales, S.K.Y — are not owned by white people or corporations, but ethnically diverse proprietors.The resistance to new businesses coming to Pilsen appears to be more about providing a safe space for authentic yobbery.
Unlike real estate developer offices or art galleries, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars are publicly accessible and visible — they’re literally open-door businesses and, moreover, attract a clientele from outside the community. Anti-gentrification activists, in turn, blame these businesses for rent and property tax increases, home displacement and eviction. New restaurants have been targeted before last fall.
La Catrina Cafe, owned by wife-husband team Diana Galicia and Salvador Corona, was regularly hit with gang graffiti when it first opened in 2013; that is until 2014 when respected local artist Salvador Vega painted a mural on the cafe. In 2015, Bow Truss Coffee Roasters in Pilsen was papered with protest signs.
Jeni Wahl, co-owner of Dia de los Tamales, which opened in 2013, faced similar problems. “When we first opened we got a lot of that same flak that the new businesses are receiving now. That was really difficult for me, especially being Latina myself but not from Pilsen.”
Defend Boyle Heights captured the tour in a Facebook live video, captioned with the hashtags “#GentrificaionIsViolence” and “#gentrificationiswhitesupremacy.” Two blocks in, they approached the brightly lit, whitewashed brick walls of S.K.Y. restaurant. Some group members gestured obscenely through windows at workers preparing for a pre-opening test dinner; one wrote “FU” on breath-steamed glass. Restaurant general manager Charles Ford walked outside, then asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?” The person recording the video repeatedly replied, “Get the f*** out!” After three minutes, Ford reached for his phone. The group believed he was calling the police, derided him, then left. They walked across the street toward Thalia Hall, where Dusek’s is located; the video shows that one of the group members slapped the building’s stone and said, “The No. 1 gentrifying f****** place in Pilsen right now!”Presumably that's what "decriminalizing the neighborhood" in Mr Fayyad's sense means.
A week later, ChiResists reacted to the incident by posting a lengthy statement on Facebook regarding S.K.Y. restaurant and gentrification. “(Calling police) is gentrification in a nutshell: to claim to want to be a part of the community and then immediately act to get rid of us. … All we did was express our fears, rightful frustration and demanded an end to business practices that accelerate our displacement.”
S.K.Y and Dusek’s were tagged the following day.
A subsequent meeting between the restarauteurs and the resistance is also edifying.
Profanities were aimed at the restaurants, while other participants voiced concerns about further displacement of longtime Pilsen residents, and new businesses were encouraged to be proactive versus reactive when engaging with the community.It's so much easier to rage at white supremacy, or something. Never mind, that absent the cafes and the restaurants, Pilsen is just another Detroit in the making. There's even a diversity angle here: what's going on in Pilsen might be a manifestation of what Angelenos understand as Latino urbanism. Perhaps a bit more active policing, rather than looking the other way at the yobbish behavior, dilutes the toxic culture that would otherwise leave Pilsen a poverty pocket. Your neighborhood, dear reader, "will be a more livable place if you and your family are capable of living competently, and more so if your neighbors also are."
“I’m third generation of the Nuevo Leon family, founded by my father’s parents in 1962,” said Daniel Gutierrez Jr., owner of Canton Regio restaurant across the street, which opened in 2016. Nuevo Leon was the oldest restaurant in Pilsen until a fire burned the building to the ground in 2015.
“When we opened Canton Regio, I wanted to keep in mind the community, but it was still quite difficult,” said Gutierrez. “Any restaurant that comes to Pilsen has to keep in mind that money is tight, so you have to keep things affordable for locals.”
HaiSous restaurant and Ca Phe Da cafe opened in June and October 2017 respectively, after the owners spent two years developing a plan for working with the community.
“Me and my family, we were refugees from Vietnam. We’re mindful and respectful of everyone around because I’m an immigrant,” said chef Thai Dang. “The first thing we talked about was how can we let the community know we’re here and incorporate our neighbors?” He and wife Danielle, director of operations, co-own the businesses.
“Now we have 19 people who live in the neighborhood working here; that’s 19 families,” he said. “And we talked about not having a cappuccino machine, lattes and espressos at the cafe.”
“Go to our friends at La Catrina Cafe (for espresso drinks) instead, who are part of the fabric of the community,” Danielle added.