TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Three cities, three gentrifications

in Gentrification/Major Collaborative Project by

When I moved to Newark, New Jersey in 2007, it became the third consecutive city I lived in where gentrification destabilized Black communities residing there for generations.

I decided to move to Newark as a doctoral student in response to a call by Senator Cory Booker, then mayor of the city. He had been making his rounds on news shows encouraging professionals and entrepreneurs to participate in revitalizing a blighted, but beautiful city.

For those on the outside, Booker projected the narrative that Newark finally began to receive the resources and development it so desperately needed.

“Dope,” I thought when I opted to make the city my home. Having already lived in two major cities—Atlanta and Los Angeles, I knew that I could find great housing for a reasonable price since many saw the inner city as the eternal boogeyman. From my purview, it was my comfort zone. 

My husband and I moved to Court Street—just across from the largest New Jersey newspaper, The Star-Ledger, and a few blocks from the federal court building. Less than a year in, I realized that I’d been bamboozled. Hood-winked. Led astray.

While the city saw developments slowly emerge, the new, Newark was not for its traditional residents. That included me, though I was a recent émigré, I was part of the underrepresented people. My sobering analysis became clearer as to who owned the changing cityscape of Newark on the inaugural night that the New Jersey Devils played at the freshly erected, Prudential Center.

From Newark’s Penn Station to Broad Street, local law enforcement flooded the area with police protection for the almost all-white, drunken fans. Replete with mounted cops, K9 police dogs, and several roadblocks that brought traffic to a standstill, officers sat stationed for four or five blocks, including at the Prudential Center’s perimeter. To this day, events for browner or local attendees do not receive the same attention or care. 

Revitalization for pennies on the dollar

While witnessing the changes, I decided to use Newark as my research site for an ethnography looking at the diverse Black community comprised of African Americans, Caribbeans and Africans. As I collected data on Newark, I discovered that Booker brokered deals with owners of downtown real estate whose families, decades ago, left buildings partially or fully unused after the 1967 Newark Riots.

Mostly Italian and Jewish families who never sold, Booker, in turn, allowed them to turn profit while still maintaining ownership. Redevelopment projects rolled out with huge tax breaks. A Wall Street Journal article states: “It has taken hundreds of millions of dollars in business subsidies to jump start Newark development . . . of the $1 billion worth of Urban Transit Hub tax credits awarded since 2010, nearly $446 million went to Newark, or 43% of the total.”

In further research, another WSJ article detailing in 2012, Booker breaking ground with developers, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Eric Schmidt of Google and Nicolas Berggruen of Berggruen Holdings and RBH co-founder, Richard Meier on a development called, Teacher’s Village. The project would renovate buildings that sat empty for over four decades. The area, they said, would be renamed to SoMa, which meant south of the nearby Market Street.

In the plan, Teacher’s Village would house a number of teachers expected to fill the rapidly growing charter schools in the city. As an incentive, teachers and some low-income families would get discounts. Finished in 2017, Teacher’s Village with rentals averaging about $1,900 – $2,200, show that the average teacher still cannot afford the steep prices with a discount. On top of that, developers received at $136 million tax credit from the city.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, the developer, Meier called Newark a “blank canvas.” I paused. It was as if Black families who migrated to Newark 100 years ago, Latinx in the mid-20th century, or Natives living in the Ramapo mountains who literally carved out the streets before the Dutch landed on the shores of the Passaic, became extinct. To them, we were invisible.

In spite of marches and council meeting throw downs, plans went on. Right now, there is a lull in construction due to the water crisis, but corporations who received tax breaks to come to Newark are pitching in to fix a known problem for at least three mayoral administrations.

Experiencing these changes takes me to my hometown of Los Angeles. After the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 uprising, buildings sat untended for decades, even when community members demanded for them to be rebuilt. Now with the metro rail expansions, developers who sat on properties are beginning to construct retail and residential spaces with alarming rental fees. Like Newark, I would be priced out

We been here

My parents migrated to Los Angeles in 1977, during a time when Blacks just began to somewhat economically and politically establish themselves. Paradoxically, people of African descent and Native Blacks had been there since before the city’s founding in 1781. In fact, those who founded El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles consisted mostly of Natives, Blacks, and mixed-race with a few Spaniards. According to the African American registry, the founders were described as the following:

“The heads of the eleven founding families were Antonio Clemente Villavicencio, a Spaniard; Antonio Mesa, a Negro; Jose Fernando Lara, a Spaniard, Jose Vanegas, an Indian; Pablo Rodriquez, and Indian; Manuel Camero, a Mulatto; Jose Antonio Navarro, a Mestizo; Jose Moreno, a Mulatto; Basillio Rosas, an Indian; Alejandro Rosas, an Indian; and Luis Quintero, a Negro. The two Spaniards and three Indians had Indian wives; the remaining six had Mulatto wives.”

Natives, Blacks and Mexicans were quickly displaced by hordes of whites during the western expansion and Gold Rush that reached its height in the 19th century. In 1862, the US government passed the Homestead Act encouraging newly minted Americans—meaning European immigrants—to travel West to enterprise themselves. Yet, Blacks and Natives did not enjoy citizenship nor any protections.

Black miner in Los Angeles area circa 1870. From the Biddy Mason collection

Unlike San Francisco that had a budding Black population, in Los Angeles, Black codes and other forms of insidious tactics to keep African Americans on the periphery of society blatantly existed until the 1965 Watts Riots.

If it were not for my Uncle Donald Washington and the benefits and resources he received from being a Korean War veteran, my family’s predicament would have been similar to most Black migrants who arrived to the city—they soon discovered Los Angeles was very much segregated like the South that they moved from. 

Like other family members before, Uncle Don helped my parents make the transition. We lived in his house on 88th and Western Avenue, until we moved to Inglewood. Eventually, my parents settled in Athens Hills, an unincorporated section of LA County that is about a five-minute drive from Watts and seven minutes from Compton. Before African Americans lived there, a visible Japanese neighborhood nestled in Athens Hills until World War II forced them into internment camps. Many did not return.

A dream deferred

Growing up in South Los Angeles in the late 70s to early 90s, Black residents lived in several pockets of the city. Most localities were in-and-around Central Avenue, from Compton and to the border of the downtown area. In a rare occurrence, there were outliers such as the historically African-American community by Venice Beach and a growing middle-class in Inglewood, but de jure and de facto restrictions prevented African Americans from settling, and even moving through much of the city.

Following the 1965 Watts riots, white flight turbo-charged. Before the revolt, whites were already fleeing to the suburbs once racialized housing covenants known as redlining began to dissipate in the late 1940s, early 50s. Similarly, in Newark, a 1959 law desegregated their downtown area so that a growing Black migrant population could shop without being harassed, although they still did until Newark’s Riots in 1967.

In Los Angeles, in spite of Blacks’ lower population numbers in comparison to whites and Mexicans, their activism largely dismantled discriminatory housing and labor practices. With the backing of lawyers and advocates working in the federal government, African Americans were finally able to join unions, get hired on the California ports, work civil service jobs and have some mobility in the workforce. 

During the late 60s, African Americans started to move from the east side to the west side en masse, as whites abandoned whole blocks. However, by the 1980s, these communities that were making strides, found themselves mortally wounded during the emergence of crack cocaine.

Cops during the 1992 LA Civil Unrest.

In sum, crack killed Black Los Angeles. What was left, after the 1992 Civil Unrest, also known as the LA Riots, stood barely breathing. Black power and Black wealth, something that advocates from Biddy Mason to the Black Panther Party so adamantly fought for slipped into a coma.

The Los Angeles Police Department and LA County Sheriffs grew in notoriety in the surveillance and profiling of Black and brown youth. To add to issues, the homicide rate skyrocketed. I remember in 2000 or 2001, when I interviewed an LAPD officer in the South West division for a news story as a writer for LA Sentinel, he informed me that in the previous year, more murders had been committed in that police zone than in the whole country of Canada. Some days, we lived in battlefields.

During the height of the health and social crisis known as the crack era, disproportionately, African American female-headed households faced evictions and foreclosures reported Chester Hartman and David Robinson who looked at housing policy in the 1990s. Many escaping the growing drug epidemic and gang wars moved to the Inland Empire or started the reverse migration to the South. For those who moved to the “IE” experienced another insidious form of racism.

“Black families with Section 8 housing were targeted by local law enforcement,” told Norrinda Hayat, a lawyer in the housing division for the Justice Department at the time in the early 2010s. She continued, “If they were suspected to be in violation of their housing, police would literally raid their homes in the middle of the night and take mothers to jail. These were people who were trying to get away from the chaos in Los Angeles and make better lives for their family.”

Eventually, the Department of Justice sued Palmdale and Lancaster, which ended up agreeing to a multi-million dollar settlement in 2015. That trend of displacement continues today as Emily Tumpson Molina’s research points out that Black concentrated residential areas in Los Angeles lost their homes almost double compared to whites, in both urban areas and the Inland Empire. 

Molina writes:

“I find that rates of foreclosure consistently higher in black neighborhoods regardless if these neighborhoods are urban, suburban, or exurban in character. However, the highest levels of foreclosure are in black exurban communities, like those found in the Inland Empire. These foreclosure patterns continue the long history of housing inequality in California and elsewhere and represent a reversal of many of the gains in social mobility made by African-Americans since the Civil Rights Era.” 

Like my parents, there were families who remained in Los Angeles. Although, both of them retired after working over 30 years at the same job, they know that, that security did not transfer to their six children, which is the reason why most of us left Los Angeles.

Black and brown relations

Another growing challenge in a dismantling Black Los Angeles were undocumented immigrants who filled housing gaps in Black communities under the placement of slumlords in the form of corporate realtors.

Because of their legal status, they remained vulnerable and were subsequently exploited. Since they could not secure proper housing, landlords placed them in derelict conditions or did not fix residences, leaving homes to decay. As a result, communities that once took pride in the upkeep of their neighborhoods either grew despondent or disappeared.  Plus, undocumented residents did not bring in tax revenue to cycle into the budget for public works and schools.

Next, the low wage labor that Latino immigrants offered began to compete with Blacks, who were eventually priced out of jobs. As immigrants began to have US-born children who were citizens by birthright, over generations, they began to replace Black professionals. As the city became a bilingual space, the need to speak Spanish grew; thus increasing the economic tensions between the groups.  Of course, there are coalitions and neighborhoods of coexistence, but as economics is intricately wrapped into survival, racial and ethnic allegiances tightened.

To worsen matters, Latino gangs began to rise rapidly in the era of crack-cocaine, thus adding to the growing Black-Latino division. Instead of two underrepresented communities working in tandem, we continued to clash, which in some cases became bloody.

There were summers where Black males became targets of Latino gangs. And vice versa. But the growing Latino population against a dwindling Black Angeleno tipped the scales. As a budding reporter in the late 90s, I covered Black and Latino wars in the LA county jails. African American inmates reported to me that they were fighting ten Latinos at a time.

Often, the chaos spilled out into the streets and the shift in populations too. Today Watts, Compton and parts of South Los Angeles that were Black, are predominantly Latino. In addition, resources that were once shared are often monopolized. Many people do not know of the racial wars in Los Angeles where Blacks moved from growing Latino neighborhoods because of harassment that sometimes ended in physical harm and even death.

So, when proposed bills targeting undocumented immigrants were up for votes, the split in both communities magnified. On one hand, the Black sentiment was that Latinos profited from their activism, while Latinos asserted that it was their ancestors land we stood. To this day, the quagmire continues to become more entangled. 

For years, African American displacement ran rampant in Los Angeles. But when it was just the Blacks, it was our problem. Now, with the onset of corporatized housing and commercial real estate, Latinos fight for footing in the city in which they too invested. So is the case for historic ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown and Koreatown that are now hipster havens.

I left Los Angeles in 2004. Homes around my parents’ went for almost half a million dollars. After years of contemplating where I would go, I decided to move to Atlanta. Ironically, a few years after I left Los Angeles, the announcement of a rail system expansion that turned areas some people dared not go, now “up-and-coming.”

The Black Mecca

On the surface, Black folk in Atlanta look gorgeous and shiny, like they win even when they sleep. But after working with a congressional representative in 2005 and 2006, it became evident to me, most of it was a façade. 

Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights era passed down a legacy of political power, but it did not translate into the transfer of generational wealth as a whole. With that, a bulk of Atlantans who traced their lineage before the Emancipation, or around that time, had been uprooted and moved multiple times.

When I was there, it was for “live, work and play” developments, a trending real estate concept catering to younger Generation Xers and millennials who wanted to live in the city. The idea is that these citygoers should have areas earmarked where they could gig and socialize right outside of their doors.

Before this, living in the suburbs such as Alpharetta established a desired class ranking, but when the housing crisis occurred against more migrants coming in, the smartest move was to be in the city. So developers made it chic with “live, work and play.”

As Atlanta began to create pedestrian friendly zones within the perimeter of the 280 Highway. This meant local, working-class communities became vulnerable to investors.

When I rented a home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City, one day, I bumped into a cafeteria worker coming from her job at Clark Atlanta University. Then I was a graduate student, and remembered her on campus. We chatted a bit. In conversation, she told me that she was losing her home due to increased property taxes. Though she owned the house, her salary could not meet the payments.

Vine City is an area rapidly changing with the building of the Mercedes Benz sports arena not far from it. So, when I moved to Newark from Atlanta in 2007 and saw the finishing touches placed on the Prudential Center, I realized that I had been here before.

While witnessing the changes in Newark, like Atlanta and Los Angeles, in Brick City, I decided that somehow and some day, I would have to push back. Yet and still, I know there are many voices to articulate what gentrification looks like and what it does to communities.

All of it deserves a full inquiry. That is why Ark Republic’s major collaborative project on gentrification works to see these inevitable changes to cities across the US. Listening, watching and reading the stories in this 18-day exploration is a long overdue inquiry that contributes to an ongoing discourse.

While working on this project, I traveled back to Los Angeles and Atlanta. Visiting, I did not recognize the cities. With my current relocation from Newark, I know it too will be unfamiliar when I return. In its change, I just hope that those who stayed in these cities through all its phases, are still here.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers news, diaspora and oversees the Ark Weekender.

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