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Why Many Poor Neighborhoods Fear Development

Corporate investment can be an economic boon to low-income communities. It can also be a cultural threat.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, once one of the poorest sections of the borough, is now a neighborhood almost entirely turned into an upscale village. Elite culture is dominant there.
I remember being very surprised the first time I read about activists in poor communities opposing investment in their parks. I had always thought of such activists as lobbying for public investment into their communities.

But as it turns out, concern over inequity is sometimes trumped by worry about displacement. Some minority neighborhoods fear that public investment into parks is part of a program to pave the way for what they call “green gentrification.” This concern is not entirely misplaced. New parks, particularly linear parks or greenways like Chicago’s 606 Trail, have sent adjacent property values skyrocketing.

The typical rejoinder to these fears is to cite studies showing that gentrification-driven displacement either doesn’t happen in practice or is limited to a small number of locales nationally. But even if true, this misses a bigger point: Inflows of higher-income people do cause cultural displacement, as the values of the new wealthy residents become dominant in the community. Perhaps very few poor people were displaced by gentrification in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nevertheless, if you visit today, you see a neighborhood almost entirely turned into an upscale village. Elite culture is now dominant there.

This can have practical and tangible consequences for daily life in these neighborhoods. In Oakland, Calif., gentrifiers have filed complaints with the city about gospel choir practice sessions at local Black churches, accusing them of being a noise nuisance. These new residents are very vocal about imposing their norms and preferences on the community. They have the money and clout to influence city officials. Indeed, the city of Oakland sent a threatening letter to at least one church over the matter. So even if people are not physically displaced, they can be culturally displaced by development.

In one of my first columns for Governing back in 2014, I questioned whether many civic leaders actually want economic development. As Jane Jacobs noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” People in leadership positions in a community are generally benefiting from the status quo, hence can fear change.

This can apply to middle-income and poorer residents as well as affluent ones. They may not have much money or great public amenities, but one thing they often do have in these neighborhoods is a strong sense of community and cultural ownership. Some of them seem to have concluded that it’s better to keep those things and tolerate poor public services and infrastructure rather than risk losing much of what they have through gentrification.

The same can be said for the average residents of many red states. These people, who don’t have college degrees and aren’t part of the knowledge elite, see little benefit and plenty of downside in attracting knowledge-economy jobs and workers. They aren’t likely to be getting jobs at the new firms as they lack the requisite skills. And the people who do work there tend to hold cultural values at odds with the local Republican voters.

Were, for example, my home state of Indiana to become a huge national talent magnet, this would only bring more progressive influence into the state. Indeed, the relative corporate newcomer Salesforce has already thrown its weight around at the Statehouse.

Rural conservative voters have little to gain economically and much to fear culturally from high-end economic growth in the state. Perhaps that helps to explain why the conservative legislature tends not to enact policies urban interests tout as necessary to attract highly educated residents and knowledge-economy jobs.

Cultural concerns are frequently treated as illegitimate by intellectual elites. Urban progressives, of course, have their own culture, but also superior economic power. They can thus support development or public investment with a variety of purportedly neutral rationales, confident that this will not fundamentally threaten their cultural values and will likely even entrench them further.

Cultural concerns should be understood and engaged with in order to create real progress. This doesn’t mean allowing the parochial cultural preferences of existing constituencies to trump other considerations in setting public policy. But it does mean they need to be taken seriously as one of the legitimate inputs into policy.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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