A4E member and UGA doctoral candidate, Claire Bolton, hosted a workshop on gentrification at the ACC public library on July 14th, 2015. The aim of this workshop was threefold: 1) to encourage critical thinking around gentrification and how it impacts the Athens community at large, 2) to allow a forum for residents to share their communal experiences regarding gentrification and 3) to showcase residents’ expertise by engaging them in discussions about how to deter further gentrification in Athens.
Gentrification was defined for this workshop as part of “the class remake of the central urban landscape” (Smith, 1996). The implications of this process are manifold: 1) housing/rent prices tend to rise, 2) property taxes rise, 3) relationships between original and new residents can become hostile, 4) the exterior and interior landscape of the community tends to change dramatically, and 5) typically poor and Black folks are displaced from their communities. Of note, gentrification is very much about race, given that it tends to take place in inner city neighborhoods that have been historically segregated by race.
Three forms of gentrification relevant to Athens-Clarke County are ‘hipster’ or ‘pioneer’ gentrification, new build gentrification, and ‘studentification.’ All three categories exist within Athens-Clarke County borders and have contributed to significant neighborhood change here. Communities that once consisted of working-class, often black families and their homes have been increasingly replaced with commercial centers, student housing, highways, and other profit-making establishments. The transient student population has been prioritized by the wealthy and typically white business owners to the dismay of many residents.
One Athenian in attendance commented, “Being a native feels like belonging to a subculture within a community.” Other attendees described their negative experiences with gentrification and how it has served to dismantle strong and stable, though segregated, black communities. Linda, a resident of Athens’ Brooklyn neighborhood, proclaimed, “We were a community before gentrification.” Verna, also a resident of Brooklyn, described gentrification as something that slowly chipped away at her community; its streets where she played safely as a child were replaced with a highway. Ms. Linda and Ms. Verna shared that these homes within these communities represent pride in their ancestors, former slaves who worked diligently to procure homes for future generations. These homes symbolize generational wealth, culture, stability, and connectedness for black residents.
Attendees engaged in problem-solving strategies in order to shift the tide and dismantle gentrification’s stronghold within the Athens community. The Athens Land Trust and other community members identified affordable homeownership as one step to prevent further gentrification. Inclusionary zoning, establishing a moratorium on large-scale student housing, implementing regulatory policies in regard to construction of buildings were just a few of the strategies identified. Residents also highlighted the need to instill a sense of pride in historically black communities and their homes; this will help to ensure generational wealth is preserved within black communities.
“We were a community before gentrification” is a statement that perfectly summarizes the aftermath of unchecked gentrification — a community becomes past tense in nature and existence. As Bolton so poignantly highlights, the displacement produced by freewheeling gentrification is a social injustice for that very reason. When people are displaced by gentrification, they are torn from neighbors, schools, community organizations, and churches. This not only ruptures the community, but also its members who are left feeling psychologically, emotionally, and physically damaged. Unfortunately, pleasing and providing for a transitory student population seems more important to business and government leaders in Athens than the stability provided by generational homeownership.
I recently drove down Brooklyn Road to see the remnants of the Brooklyn neighborhood. What I saw was fragments of a community crammed into one street. Attendees of this workshop described a once vibrant and flourishing Brooklyn here in Athens that spanned a large area — all the way from West Broad Street School to the Library and the intersection of Oglethorpe and Hawthorne Avenues. Now this area is home to three shopping centers, a hotel, restaurants, and other commercial franchises. All that is left of Brooklyn is this one street, Brooklyn Road.
On that road were beautiful homes, evidently worn by love, family, friends and time. Each house a little bit different whether it be in shape, color, or size. However, and more importantly, each home felt like an intricate part to a larger whole. Two young girls saw me and waved ‘hi’ as if inviting me to become part of their strong community. Ahead, there were more yards filled with toys, grills, the smell of barbeque, open gates, and neighbors chatting. The car in front even stopped in the middle of the road to chat with a neighbor. Community was found in every home, yard, corner, square mile of this one street. I felt supported and stronger simply by driving down it.
In closing, we encourage residents of Athens to take a stand against further gentrification. First by bringing some awareness to its problematic nature, by attending community workshops like the one hosted by Claire Bolton, and by getting organized and speaking out. Write letters to politicians demanding increased housing and zoning regulation, such as a moratorium on student housing. Vote for politicians working to protect Athens. Create homes that are actually affordable for Athens residents, including those living in poverty. Stay informed, get involved, and keep caring about what is happening in our community.
By Jess Nobile MSW, LCSW
Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London, England: Routledge.