Historical communities around the nation are being threatened by gentrification. Neighborhoods that have served as spaces for social advancement and vibrant local cultures for generations are under threat as they become targets for gold-digging investors and developers.
I live in Hampden, one of many communities in Baltimore being threatened by gentrification.
Forbes ranked Hampden as America’s 15th most hipster neighborhood. Known for its walkability, coffee shops, local food trucks, and an assortment of local restaurants and bars, Hampden has a thriving local economy. These small shops and local businesses have been around for decades and helped establish the culture and generate wealth within the neighborhood.
David Korten, a political activist and former professor at the Harvard Business School, talks about the virtues of neighborhoods like Hampden in his book Agenda for a New Economy. Korten advocates a Main Street economy based on locally owned, community-oriented “living enterprises” whose success is measured as much by their positive impact on people and the environment as by their positive balance sheets.
Hampden itself has about 7,000 residents and well over 100 small locally owned businesses, many of which are located on “The Avenue.” These businesses are a part of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, which strives to keep the local economy of Greater Hampden safe, unique, and beautiful.
Along with sustaining community-based businesses, Hampden hosts a variety of events that brings together people from all over Baltimore. One of the more notable events is the Hon Fest, which is held every year to honor the historic working women of Baltimore.
But we all know what will happen if gentrification strikes Hampden, right? Hon Fest will disappear, and the Hampden Village Merchants Association will be rendered meaningless. People will be displaced and culture will be lost. As more affluent residents drive up rents, working-class folks and the poor will be forced out.
This has already occurred in other parts of Baltimore.
Developing sections in East Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins Medical Complex, for example, have already faced the tremendous challenges of rising housing costs. According to City Observatory, some 13 percent of Middle East Baltimore residents now live in poverty, compared to 43 percent in 1970 . And that’s not because poverty has gone down — it’s because of large-scale displacement of people near the Hopkins campus. The Middle East neighborhood is hardly recognizable to many who grew up there — its people gone, its old locally owned businesses forced out.
How can neighborhoods like Hampden avoid this fate?
One idea is to form neighborhood unions. Like labor unions, which were created to help workers combat low pay, unsafe working conditions, and long hours, neighborhood unions would help citizens bargain collectively for affordable housing, housing security, protections for local businesses, and community reconciliation. Rather than serving as fronts for gentrification, as many neighborhood associations have, these unions must link with — and build with — the neighborhoods mostly affected by social inequalities.
These neighborhood unions would represent locals and practice internal democracy. People within the neighborhoods would hold elections to vote for representatives who reside in their local area. Locals can use collective bargaining to negotiate with local legislators to oppose commercial development that doesn’t serve the greater good of the community.
We must learn from neighborhoods all around the nation affected by gentrification and share those lessons with other communities at risk of suffering the same fate. It’s time to give the people most directly affected by the crisis the tools to protect their communities and preserve the value that enriches all of our neighborhoods.