Most people hear about urban renewal and consider it a good thing. They think about slums and ghettos being turned around into safe, clean, and prosperous neighborhoods that in turn become close-knit communities. They have images of children playing baseball in the street and neighbors getting together to talk and plan festivals. It’s a popular image that accompanies a popular catch phrase. It’s also wrong. What people don’t think about is the loss of community and the locals who are forced out due to the increasing property taxes that stem from “renewal.”

Most metropolitan areas have neighborhoods that are considered “unsavory” and present an image that the city would not like to portray. Cities respond by beginning the urban renewal process. First they’ll install a park or two and a community center. Then they’ll give tax breaks to certain businesses and homebuilders in an attempt to lure them in. Then they’ll advertise about how this area that “decent” people used to avoid is now the place where they need to be. The area then takes on a tourist feel, as people begin to flood the area hoping to become part of the new “hip” place to live. Overpriced boutiques sprout up, while old food markets get torn down to make way for the large organic grocery store chain. Playgrounds and empty lots get replaced by Starbucks and tapas restaurants. Ordinances get passed to get rid of street performers in favor of kiosks that give directions. Streets get completely renovated until the area no longer resembles the community that used to thrive there.

These changes cause problems for the people who have lived in the area. Their rents go up, while their old gathering places come down. Many of them can’t afford the groceries in the new trendy organic market, and they could never dream of affording the clothes in the boutique that replaced the old vintage shop. Their bars and restaurants are no longer places to meet their friends but are filled to capacity with the new crowd. The city has taken over their community festivals, which now feature large corporate sponsorships and are so crowded that the locals can’t even park at their own homes. New neighborhood associations mandate restorations on the old houses they live in. The Joneses move in, outspending neighbors in vain attempts to best them. Gone is the concern or respect for the people who were there before them. Alienation settles in, as old neighbors and friends move out.

In a decade’s time, I’ve watched firsthand the life of an entire neighborhood from ghetto, to renewal, to trendy, to cliché, to decline, and back into ghetto. Once the locals move out and the neighborhood loses its character, many of the newcomers no longer find it desirable. The once-hip place gets left behind, as its residents look to the next happening place to call home — typically another community undergoing renewal. So as the old neighborhood becomes totally vacated, taxes and rents get lowered until the only people moving in are those who can’t afford anything else. Of course after some time, these new residents will have set up their own community and brought some sense of character, and the city will take notice and begin the entire process again.

I think it’s important for communities to exist in a large city. A city is not defined by buildings and attractions but by the people who call it home.
It is they who preach the loudest when their parks and roads are not being properly maintained. It is they who protest when a new parking deck is being planned for an empty lot where their children play. They are the ones who gather in droves when neighborhood crime rates spike.

If urban renewal is to spread, perhaps cities should consider putting it into the hands of the locals. Instead of businesses and politicians deciding which businesses would improve an area, residents should have the say as to what they might enjoy. They might choose a dive bar over that expensive wine bar.    

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