by Denisa Krásná
“When music can feel homogeneous, thank the good lord we have someone like Naomi Wachira in Seattle.” – DList Magazine
Sadly, these words are no longer true as Naomi, a talented Afro-Folk singer songwriter, has joined the ranks of the many artists forced to leave the city they love, and that loves them back, but where they can no longer afford to lead a comfortable life. Housing prices have skyrocketed in the last decade in Seattle and other US cities causing displacement of thousands of people. Gentrification (1) has come to define major cities on the West Coast and has irretrievably changed the aspect of many old neighborhoods. Returning to this part of the world on a fairly regular basis, it is impossible not to notice the metamorphosis these cities are undergoing. Big glass apartment buildings are replacing old brick houses all over the cities, new high-rise towers are shaping the citiesʼ skyline, neighborhoods traditionally inhabited by artists and minorities are becoming technological hubs, and light rail stations are emerging in previously overlooked areas. Most striking, however, is the growing number of homeless people in the streets of these affluent cities.
“Gentrification homicide” of San Franciscoʼs Mission District
If you are going to San Francisco these days, rather than flowers in your hair you should wear a casual hipster suit and a laptop to fit right in. What was once a welcoming and affordable city attracting artists, hippies, working-class families, and minorities fleeing discrimination in other parts of the country has morphed into a technology headquarters, leading to a rapid change in the cityʼs demographics and ambiance. The inflow of the so-called “techies” who work for companies such as Apple, Google, or Facebook in the nearby Silicon Valley caused a sharp rise in rent prices in San Franciscoʼs previously rent-controlled neighborhoods. Mission District, or simply the Mission, historically a working-class Latinx (2) neighborhood, has been especially affected by this influx due to the neighborhood’s convenient central location.
Missionʼs changing aspect is perceptible by all senses as coffee shops gradually replace Latin American diners and markets, and quiet soft jazz music resounds from hipster bars that have taken the place of mariachi clubs. Spanish is still heard in the district, but English is now gaining prevalence. The streets are not as bustling as they used to be and even though traditional political murals are still present, many of the artists who painted them no longer live in the area. Paradoxically, Missionʼs new residents enjoy the districtʼs artsy vibe, though it is diminishing as artists are driven out. As David Campos, the former representative of the Mission District, pointed out—“you cannot have the art without the artists” (Pogash). Further, Google buses that transport tech workers to Silicon Valley for free constitute another unpopular addition to the cityʼs landscape as they have become known for “illegally taking up space at public transit stops” (Golightly) and have naturally turned into a symbol of the Missionʼs gentrification.
According to a study conducted by UC Berkeley, with the help of San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, in 2015, 62% of low-income households in the San Francisco Bay Area “live[d] in neighborhoods at risk of or already experiencing displacement– totaling over 900,000 low-income households” (Urban Displacement Project). As a temporary survival strategy, families resort to co-living and often share suites or one-bedroom apartments with multiple family members (Pogash). As rents increase, residents are evicted from their previously rent-controlled houses which are then redeveloped into condominiums for the tech community. This unjust process of handing over homes to more privileged groups has been termed a “gentrification homicide” by the locals (Golightly). To draw the authoritiesʼ attention to this discrimination, activists started marking the pathway of the houses whose residents were being evicted “with an image of a suitcase and a message: ʻTenants here forced outʼ” (Wong).
Moreover, like in many other parts of the world including Prague (3), Airbnb is also responsible for the changes in the Mission, a neighborhood in which homes are advertised on the Airbnb website than any other part of San Francisco (Pogash). Multiple studies have given evidence that gentrification provoked by Airbnb, or “airbnb’ing” of communities to use the affected residentsʼ term (Wong), quickly displaces original inhabitants to make room for international tourists who pay significantly more for short-term stays than long-term renters (Said). A study conducted by Wachsmuth and Weisler explains when several homes in one neighborhood are listed on Airbnb, rent prices in the area grow rapidly. This curbs the availability of affordable housing which creates “a new form of rent gap” and forces people to leave their homes. In some cases, landlords even evict tenants without offering them a new deal on rent. Chris Butler was infamously forced out of his San Francisco apartment where he lived for almost ten years when his landlord decided to list his house on Airbnb for exaggerated price. Tenant-rights attorney Tobener declared on average he deals with 15 similar cases every week, proving Butlerʼs case is not an isolated incident (Said). As yet another consequence of the uptick in Airbnb rentals, more neighborhoods become exclusionary, as the heightened rent costs prevent low-income people from renting an apartment there (Urban Displacement Project). Diverse neighborhoods are hence gradually disappearing from the cityʼs landscape as homogeneity becomes the defining factor of most of its neighborhoods.
The ongoing gentrification and displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area has inspired number of filmmakers to bring the story to the big screen. To name just a few, Carlos López Estradaʼs Blindspotting (2018), Boots Rileyʼs Sorry to Bother You (2018) or most recently Joe Talbotʼs The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) all depict the harsh reality of many Bay Areaʼs inhabitants and provide an informative but entertaining account of the effects of gentrification that reaches wide audiences.
Portland: “The Whitest Large City in the U.S.”
Portland, the city in the Pacific Northwest that opened the worldʼs very first vegan strip club serving “meat on the pole, not on the plate” (Nattress), that offers tourists authorized “Cannabis Tours” of the world-famous Green Mile (a boulevard full of pharmacies selling marijuana), and whose residents try to live up to their own slogan “keep Portland weird” (Bell). Peter Feuerherd calls Portland a “hipster utopia”, a place that is built on co-operative principles and where people care about the environment and defend the rights of other beings (human and non-human).
While Portland is undeniably one of the most liberal cities in the States, it has many issues to address, including gentrification-induced displacement of people, racial discrimination on the housing market, and ever-growing homelessness. Feuerherd concludes his article by admitting that Portland is “not utopian for everyone” as rents have already exceeded acceptable amounts and continue to rise, displacing current residents and excluding any potential other-than-well-off incomers. Portlandʼs housing market discrimination is also responsible for maintaining Portland “the whitest large city in the U.S.” (Feierherd) with African-American populating amounting to mere 6 percent (Bell).
Kamau Bell, an acclaimed sociopolitical comedian who hosts his own show on CNN shot an episode in Portland to draw attention to the cityʼs striking lack of diversity and gentrification-related problems (Bell). He poses an important question every Portlandian should be asking—“Portland, how can you be so hip and yet so uncool?” (Bell). As Bell explains, in not-so-distant past, racist legislation laid the foundations of the predominantly white city Portland is today. Redlining, i.e. the “practice in which banks refused to extend mortgages and loans to black residents” (Bell) was widespread and although illegal since 1968, it is still present in more discreet ways, such as purposefully denying African-Americans access to certain neighborhoods by not offering them houses for purchase or rent therein (Bell). Moreover, technological advancements of the postmodern era make redlining often unprovable and easy to conceal.
A common form of racial discrimination on the housing market is linguistic profiling, a form of discrimination that occurs over the telephone when people associate the speaker’s dialect, accent, or other speech characteristics with their race, class, and ethnic background and discriminate based on the prejudices they hold about speakers of certain language varieties (Bavan 94-96). In their article “Use of Black English and Racial Discrimination in Urban Housing Markets”, Douglas S. Massey and Garvey Lundy affirm that their studyʼs data provides strong evidence for racial discrimination by linguistic profiling that is aggravated by gender and class, i.e. black women experience less access than black men and middle-class black men more than poor black men (Massey and Lundy 466). More specifically, the study shows African Americans are more likely to be directed to voice mail and their messages are subsequently more likely to be ignored by the landlords. Furthermore, they are more often lied to about a unit’s availability, asked to pay higher fees for their application, and more likely to be presented with potential issues in qualifying for a lease, such as creditworthiness (Massey and Lundy 466).
Bellʼs interviews with Portlandʼs African-American residents suggest that racial discrimination on the housing market is common in this supposedly liberal city. Ural Thomas, a local musician, lamented the change in the demographics of his neighborhood that used to be almost fully inhabited by African-Americans who were gradually forced out to the cityʼs periphery. Strikingly, only four African-American homeowners remain in this heavily gentrified neighborhood (Bell). Like in San Francisco, the departure of original residents is followed by a significant transformation of the cityʼs historic districts. Beverly, who has also witnessed exodus of her fellow African-American neighbors, described how large, overly-expensive organic grocery stores replaced black-owned family-run businesses while old houses were demolished to make room for large high rises and parking lots (Bell).
According to local baker Brian Saucy, although locals dislike the new multi-unit high-rises emerging in great numbers all around Portland for irretrievably altering the cityʼs aspect, “most are in favor as long as itʼs not in their neighborhood” (Saucy). Urban infill (4) has caught on in Portland among city planners. Nevertheless, as Brian rightly points out, building new apartment buildings is not a solution as low-income residents “wonʼt be able to afford to live in them … my biggest fear is that there will be another economic down turn because of all the empty ʻhigh rise buildingsʼ in a year or two” (Saucy). Brian also lacks optimism when it comes to the cityʼs attempts to address its rampant homelessness, noting “their [the homeless] numbers may increase due to folks losing housing being out of work etc.” (Saucy). It is the hope of many locals and visitors alike that someone will put a stop to this building spree before Portland undergoes a complete metamorphosis.
“Creative Exodus”, Green Gentrification, and Tent Cities in Seattle
Seattle, the grunge music capital that gave the world Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam, to name just a few. Seattleites take pride in their cityʼs subcultures that have always flourished in this wet and cloudy place. However, Seattleʼs music scene is now jeopardized as the city undergoing transformation is driving talented artists away.
Like San Francisco, Seattle has become a favorite spot for large technological corporations. Microsoft has its headquarters in Seattle alongside Google and Amazon whose controversial activities have spurred much anger among locals (see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, series 6, episode 18 “Warehouses” that aired on July 28, 2019). Most critical, however, is the effect the presence of so many tech giants has on the cityʼs housing market. Violet Lavatai who has lived in Seattle since 1975 and has witnessed its metamorphosis recalls that gentrification began in the nineties when Microsoft attracted many tech
workers and their families to the growing city (Cawthon). More recently, Amazon was responsible for a massive influx of new residents (amounting to 100,000 in 10 years), leading to a rapid increase in rents and causing other issues such as everyday traffic congestion that can rival that in LA (Constant). In order to accommodate all these people, new apartment buildings were constructed, whole neighborhoods were “revitalized”, and many new businesses were established to serve the tech community. While chic restaurants and hipster cafés found a ready market in this new techy Seattle, artists suffer as “anecdotal evidence suggests that these tech workers are not, in large part, making or consuming art” (Constant). As a consequence, Seattle is experiencing what Constant calls “creative exodus” and is losing its grungy charm that once made it the city desired by musicians and artists from all parts of the world.
When I travel to Seattle, I always look forward to staying with my close friends in the cityʼs South-Eastern region, whose house is located on the banks of Lake Washington near the beautiful lush Seward park and only a short half an hour stroll from Columbia City, a traditionally African-American neighborhood in the Rainier Valley. According to a census from 2010, the neighborhoodʼs zipcode 98118 was the most diverse in the whole country (Seattle Times staff). Nevertheless, the streets and niche stores in Columbia City are mostly frequented by middle-class white people these days as massive gentrification of the area has drastically diminished its Black population. While King County has recorded a 47% rise in the population of People of Color, Rainier Valley only registered a 5% rise. Contrarily, the white population in the area grew by 17% even though in the county it has decreased by 2% (Puget Sound Sage).
Displacement in Rainier Valley is in large part the result of the so-called green, or environmental, gentrification. Making neighborhoods more environmentally friendly and literally greener (by planting more trees and establishing new parks) turns them into more desirable places to live and thus increases the housing prices. Building new bike lanes and improving public transportation is also an important factor in perpetuating green gentrification. Rainier Valley is a classic example of this process as the addition of Light Rail stops dramatically escalated rents around the stations and boosted urban growth in the area (Puget Sound Sage).
Working-class residents are therefore wary of projects led by environmental activists but not because they are opposed to greener lifestyles (as the widespread stereotype has it) but because they fear losing their homes (Mock). As Hamilton and Curran stress in their study, it is possible to green neighborhoods without gentrifying them as long as authorities are willing to adopt “a model that recognizes all three aspects of sustainability: environment; economy; and equity” (Hamilton and Curran). Nevertheless, the political will to support such solutions is often missing. Violet Lavatai, who is the only remaining member of her family still living in Seattle, explains how the cityʼs authorities remodel neighborhoods with the intention to attract higher-income white residents whose presence would project the false image of a “nicer” neighborhood. Lavatai notes, “there are misconceptions that low-income and more diverse neighborhoods are bad … What people are saying about whiter neighborhoods not having any crime or trauma is a lie and a stereotype that persists today” (Cawthon).
Having nowhere else to turn, many displaced residents end up on the streets in one of Seattleʼs expanding tent cities that have grown in direct proportion to luxury homes for tech workers. The city faces “a state of emergency” (Constant) as it is unable to accommodate its rapidly growing homeless population. The lack of affordable housing is staggering with families without home twice exceeding the number of available homes, according to a study by Stringfellow, Wagle, and Wearn. In 2017, 11,643 homeless people were counted in one night only and around 22,000 households were registered by the homeless services as they applied for one of the mere 8,000 affordable units available at the time (Stringfellow, Wagle, and Wearn). As Violet Lavatai rightfully maintains, “We need rent control. We need housing that we can afford … If the mayor doesn’t step in and create more affordable housing then you’ll see a different Seattle: a predominantly white, upper-class city” (Cawthon).
A new documentary film by Jeff Shulman and Steven Fong On the Brink: A Central District Story of History, Hope and Determination (2019) introduces Seattleʼs Central Districtʼs African-American history and culture that is on the brink of extinction due to gentrification. With such names as Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, or Ray Charles, the districtʼs residents are rightfully proud of their home and fervently resists to keep their legacy alive. On the Brink is an important contribution to their endeavour.
While each section of this article focuses on different gentrification-induced issues, I want to emphasize that each of the three presented major West Coast cities face all of the discussed impacts into an extent, i.e. “airbnb’ing”, invasion of tech industries, homelessness, racial profiling, infill, green gentrification, etc. Further, it is imperative to mention that most major cities in North America and Europe are affected by gentrification, including Prague. Writing of this article was partially inspired by the striking parallels I saw between the plight of the aforementioned musician Naomi Wachira and other people experiencing the effects of gentrification I had the pleasure to meet during my travels, and my own uncle and aunt. Both accomplished artists, they have spent their whole adult lives producing art in an apartment in what used to be Pragueʼs art and working-class neighborhood Vinohrady that has now become heavily gentrified and populated by middle- and upper-class residents. For the past decade, my uncle and aunt, who are now in their 60s, have lived in a constant worry of being evicted or no longer able to afford the ever-increasing rent. Instead of enjoying the perks of retirement, they have to work more than ever before. Urban development, growing international interest in Prague, and the popularity of Airbnb are among the major factors behind gentrification of this neighborhood. For more on this topic see Ključnikovʼs, Krajčíkʼs, and Vincúrováʼs article “International Sharing Economy: the Case of AirBnB in the Czech Republic”.
Denisa Krásná is the first graduate of the MA program North-American Cultural Studies at MUNI and currently a doctoral student of Literatures in English at Masaryk University with special interest in Indigenous issues and literatures. In her research, she focuses primarily on decolonization, colonial gender violence, environmental racism, critical animal studies, and exploitation of Native lands and environment in general. While she studies and writes primarily in English, she has also written and translated in Spanish, Czech and French, holds BA degrees in English and Spanish and is currently also pursuing French degree at the Open University of Scotland.
In her doctoral dissertation she explores the emerging framework of anarcha-Indigenism—an intersection between Indigeneity, anarchism, environmentalism, Indigenous feminism and other liberation movements—with special emphasis on decolonial animal ethic. Her case studies include Indigenous environmental and sovereignty movements in southern Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii. In both her work and personal life, she is committed to pursuing environmental and social justice as well as animal liberation. In her free time, she continues to climb mountains all around the world.
1 “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents” (Merriam-Webster)
2 “of, relating to, or marked by Latin American heritage—used as a gender neutral alternative to Latino or Latina” (Merriam-Webster)
3 For more on this topic see: Ključnikov, Aleksandr, Vladimír Krajčík, and Zuzana Vincúrová. “International Sharing Economy: the Case of AirBnB in the Czech Republic.” Economics and Sociology, vol. 11, no. 2, 2018, pp. 126-137, doi:10.14254/2071-789X.2018/11-2/9.
4 The planned conversion of empty lots, underused or rundown buildings, and other available space in densely built-up urban and suburban areas for use as sites for commercial buildings and housing, frequently as an alternative to overdevelopment of rural areas (Collins English Dictionary)
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