Recently a contingent of university professors came on a central city Kenosha tour, hosted by a neighborhood group.
The conversation quickly went from a friendly orientation to a subtle indictment of the voluntary efforts underway:
“Why don’t you get residents (of color) at the table?”
“Why don’t you stop landlords from charging such high rents?”
“Why don’t you turn vacant lots into community gardens?”
Because this is a familiar blend of pointed critique and well-meaning concern that arises virtually every time this group talks about its efforts, it seems to me the situation is worth exploring in more depth.
Revitalization is an inclusive change process most often viewed positively within a neighborhood.
This is community activism sponsored by the people, for the people, usually accompanied by new public or private investment that adds value to a neighborhood.
Gentrification, on the other hand, tends to be an exclusive change process of areas historically inhabited by marginalized groups such as diverse racial/ethnic or low-income populations. Into these areas come destabilizing investments from a resources group into areas that have seen long-term, structural disinvestment.
How is it achieved?
The greatest extent — and quality — of social engagement in planning and implementing change processes is primary to successful revitalization efforts. Inclusion and involvement of diverse stakeholders cannot be overstated.
In addition to broad-based involvement, the most effective national models of revitalization utilize strong data-driven approaches to understand the unique dynamics of a neighborhood, to see if efforts are having the intended impact and to try comparable models that show promise.
Publicly available data to consider include:
Residential property values.
Residential/commercial vacancy rates.
Rental rates vs. homeownership rates.
Demolition permits/raze orders.
Blight/building code violations.
Water shutoff incidences.
Reported crimes/calls for service.
Putting it together
What I hope our tour demonstrated to the professors is that revitalization and gentrification are not the same thing and are complex processes to untangle.
No single person will represent a neighborhood (having the token resident of color is not really the point). No data set is entirely complete (many victims do not report crimes for fear of retribution).
And all data are value-laden (one person’s view of increased police presence means security; the other fears brutality).
Revitalization without gentrification takes patience and perseverance. Much appreciation to those working thanklessly to make it happen.
Learn more about models and data-driven approaches to neighborhood revitalization at The Urban Institute https://www.urban.org/.
Amy Greil is Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development Educator for University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension in Racine and Kenosha counties.