Who'll defend real pioneers?

Chicago Sun-Times
May 15, 2002


Gentrification has become a dirty word. But without it, a city would die, buried under the weight of blighted neighborhoods.

In a vibrant city, those decaying neighborhoods become the fodder for community developers who know how to take a dilapidated building, sprinkle it with tax-advantaged investment dollars and transform it into a neighborhood showplace. After the community developers have worked their magic, private developers take their first, tentative steps into a neighborhood where they once feared to tread.

Soon, the urban pioneers venture in. Then, just as the neighborhood becomes a place fit to live, the housing prices skyrocket and the yuppies stampede.

Before you know it, they are kicking out anyone who can't keep up with the Joneses.

Such is the case of West Town. Not too many years ago, it was a sad and underserved community where Latino families struggled to keep food on the table and their kids out of the gangs. Today, the neighborhood is a shining example of gentrification. It has been discovered by the wealthy white folks who wouldn't have been willing to drive through (much less live in) the area a decade ago.

Gentrification certainly isn't a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Chicago. Urban centers across the country are facing the same speedy transitions.

In every instance, it is fair to ask: How does the upscaling affect long-term residents? Where are they supposed to go? Shouldn't there be some way to ensure that the people who suffered through the worst of a neighborhood can stick around to enjoy the best of it as well?

Those same questions are being asked in a new study from the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study was conducted with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., the nonprofit community development group that worked in West Town when no one else would. It reviews the recent history of the area and offers some suggestions for ways to stem the tide of gentrification before it sweeps away every longtime resident.

Despite a widespread belief that gentrification is a ''market'' phenomenon that cannot be stopped, there are public policies that can help preserve the character of a community, the authors believe. Among the recommendations is one calling for a citywide policy that would set aside 20 percent of the housing in the neighborhood for low-income residents. ''Inclusionary zoning'' would require all developers to earmark a certain percentage of each new project for affordable housing units that could be rented or sold at below-market rates. It's worked in other areas.

Joy Aruguete, the energetic executive director of Bickerdike, believes set-asides can work in Chicago as well. She even believes that a City Hall decree would be welcomed by some aldermen who find themselves caught between the needs of long-term residents for affordable housing and the demands of newcomers for ever-increasing property values.

Maybe there are a few aldermen who want the political cover such an ordinance would offer. But there are far more who relish the control they have over development in their ward.

While I applaud the efforts of Bickerdike and the Voorhees Center, this gentrification issue is a problem that won't be solved with cowardice. City Hall has a number of programs aimed at increasing the stock of affordable housing, but it is not going to shield weak-kneed aldermen.

Without City Hall, the only hope for soon-to-be-displaced residents is to convince their aldermen to get a little backbone. They need aldermen who will stand up to the carpetbaggers and say: ''These folks were here first, and we're going to figure how to help them stay.''

That's right: They need help from the same aldermen who have failed them in the past.

It's no wonder gentrification has become a dirty word.

E-mail: cindyrichards@ameritech.net

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