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Monday, March 10, 2014

Gentrification or Progress?

Ever since moving into the neighborhood in 2007 I have been hearing noise from journalists, academics and anyone who thinks is an expert raise the issue of gentrification.  Over the last couple of years our neighborhood has garnered its fair share of attention through the media and other informational sources namely because of the active revival and renewal of the neighborhood.  In September of 2012 the Rivard Report, a widely read local blog that focuses on urban renaissance issues published wrote an article on the G word and Dignowity Hill:  Just recently an article appeared in the local newspaper in which the columnist describes the progress in Dignowity Hill as gentrification. You can read his article at:

The Friedrich House

724 Olive St

Some people are quick to draw and voice conclusions that Dignowity is undergoing pronounced gentrification without looking deeper into what is really happening in the neighborhood.  Undoubtedly the neighborhood is making progress in becoming an attractive place to live. The proximity to downtown, older but relative good housing stock, the historical character of the neighborhood, an active neighborhood association and the fact that it is still a neighborhood with a solid sense of community all have combine to create demand for Dignowity as a desirable urban core  neighborhood. Add the Alamo Brewery project that is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2014 and a new market rate housing project on Cherry St and suddenly the buzz on the street is that Dignowity is the place to be.
Alamo Brewery Ground Breaking
Alamo Brewery Construction Site
Cherry Modern Housing

Is this demand for the neighborhood a symptom of gentrification? The answer is maybe, maybe not.  Gentrification is a complex process of revitalization and change that has been around for generations. On one hand it can be a way to bring back a distressed neighborhood and bring much needed improvement to the quality of life in a struggling neighborhood. So gentrification to some degree can be a good thing. On the other hand, gentrification has justifiably developed a negative connotation because one of its effects is the displacement of poorer residents when newcomers come in. This tends to drive away long time and mostly poorer residents through higher rents or the buying up of distressed properties. In some cases gentrification is the result of intentional zoning changes that literally forces gentrification to be accelerated.

In Dignowity there is no evidence of the classic definition of gentrification that is generally characterized by wholesale displacement of residents by newcomers. The private investment occurring in the neighborhood has focused on vacant or abandoned houses or lots. As far as I know no one has complained about being displaced because newcomers pushed them out. Folks either sell their properties willingly or folks buy properties that are in various stages of disrepair. This trend has brought improvements to the neighborhood but the movement has been glacially slow which is a good thing. This has allowed the neighborhood and residents time to be sensitive to the changes that are occurring.  What is interesting is that some of the long time residents say there are ok with these improvements and welcome the progress. Some of these long time residents are calling this process "re-gentrification" of the neighborhood. At the same time the new comers are bringing in much needed energy and resources and so far these folks are being sensitive and respectful of the neighborhood's character and fabric.
Restoration in progress - Hays St

Restored 1912 house - Burnet St

Restored house - Burnet St

To put things in another perspective, the neighborhood still has a number of challenges that need to be addressed. For example, infrastructure improvements are badly needed. In some parts of the neighborhood there are streets with no sidewalks or curbs and bad drainage. Many parts of the neighborhood could use improved street lighting. The demographics of the neighborhood indicate a large Hispanic population with many families and individual living near poverty levels. We have a critical need for infill housing.  Walk any part of Dignowity and chances are you will see one of the many empty lots that litter the neighborhood landscape.  Another challenge are absentee property owners who do not care about maintaining their properties.  For many of us that chose to move into Dignowity we have accepted those challenges and are working to make the necessary improvements to raise the quality of life of the neighborhood and for residents. 
St Charles St after a rain. No curbs, no sidewalks, no drainage

One of the many empty lots in the neighborhood.

Neglected house on Pine Street

Is gentrification happening in Dignowity Hill? May be, may be not. There is no question that newcomers have been moving into the neighborhood bringing with them a new energy. Many but not all long time residents have been accepting of the changes that are occurring.  At the same time the neighborhood is still dealing with the general affects of disinvestment that has plague the eastside for the last three or more generations. The good thing is that neighborhood residents are beginning to engage in a conversation around gentrification. The reality, however,  is that neighborhood revitalization does not occur without a degree of gentrification. The trick is to ensure that sustainable community building is occurring along with gentrification. That means improving the infrastructure, involving residents in creating a vision for the neighborhood, and strengthening the social fabric of the neighborhood. A key component to good neighborhood health are the schools. Great neighborhoods have great schools. we're not there yet, at least not in the public school arena.  It has been suggested that policies be put in place to protected and incentivize long time and poorer residents from moving away. That would help mitigate some of the negative affects associated with gentrification. Ultimately we in the neighborhood must work for change to happen if we expect the neighborhood to move forward.
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