You had to wade through a whole lot of “she did this, no I didn’t” but finally Jeff Huebner got close to the crux of the matter at the end of his article on Wicker Park [August 26]; to wit: gentrification results in the displacement of low-income people because it raises property values and taxes in a particular neighborhood. The important question people need to ask if they are worried about such displacement is: who is defining the neighborhood and for what purposes?
Wicker Park, as a neighborhood, is not a fixed entity. Rather, it is, like all neighborhoods, a spatial entity produced by the ongoing activities of a number of different people over a number of years. Furthermore, it means different things to different people: to readers of Rolling Stone magazine who live in far-off cities and suburbs it is a music “scene”; to artists and middle-class newcomers it is a cheap place to live and make a home; for longtime residents it is home and an affordable place to live; and for real estate brokers, appraisers, assessors, and investors it is a market. But despite the different meanings they attach to it, these different people end up having a collectively defined sense of where the neighborhood’s boundaries are. For example, Huebner notes that last year’s Around the Coyote arts fair included walking tours that “ranged as far as Division, Halsted, Western, and Fullerton.” In the 1994 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times’ real estate publication Living in Greater Chicago these same streets form the borders of Wicker Park and Bucktown combined, though their eastern border is described as the Kennedy Expressway rather than Halsted. Does this mean there is some great conspiracy going on? No, it just means that people need borders to organize how they think about a neighborhood, and different people with very different interests often use the same borders.
The problem of gentrification arises because real estate brokers, appraisers, and investors use neighborhood borders to structure decisions which result in their making money. A real estate broker operating in Lincoln Park can show a young, middle-class couple a home in Wicker Park if they cannot afford anything closer to the lake. The neighborhood’s designated borders allow the real estate broker to sell the neighborhood as up-and-coming with the confidence that other brokers are using the same borders. As a result demand for properties in the neighborhood increases. The real estate appraiser, the person who assesses the value of the house for the bank making the loan to the couple, uses the same borders to define the property’s market. This allows him to give it a value thay may seem inflated to old-timers because he knows that properties in the neighborhood are being sold in the new, gentrifying market rather than in the old, disinvested market. If you understand this you can understand why gentrification can so easily feed on itself and result in the displacement of existing low-income residents. The seemingly benign use of neighborhood names makes it that much easier to create a “hot” real estate market in which risk to the profit makers is minimal.
So what can people do about this? Tom Handley’s idea of some sort of special tax zone is one solution. Another is to try to engage in border disruption. At the most simple level such disruption might include ensuring that Wicker Park’s cultural activities physically cross its designated borders. In the longer term residents should get the city to build or rehab publicly subsidized housing and art centers in the area to bring low-income people into the area and give them the chance to live and work in an economically vibrant neighborhood. And finally, and most importantly, Wicker Park residents should reach out, politically, to the neighborhoods around them to create a coalition that can organize itself against concentrated development, i.e., gentrification. The idea is not to discourage economic development but to simply control the rate and direction in which it goes. And this, ironically, can only be done by partially letting go of the idea of Wicker Park as a particular place.