Dominion of New York

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December 27, 2011

When the Gentrifier is Black

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

Photo Courtesy of Flickr/CuriousYellow


o matter how you feel about the Occupy Movement, 2011 will be remembered as the year the movement-coined terms “top 1 percent” and “99 percent” became mainstream memes. Everyday Americans might have been feeling the financial pinch for the last three years (at least), but the Occupation highlighted the handful of people and industries who’ve been loosening their belts at everyone else’s expense for at least the last thirty years. The movement’s indignation over wealth inequality fueled a national and international dialogue about fairness. Its scope aligned broad interests. Its structure bucked convention. Its elusiveness frustrated critics. And for anyone paying any attention, its mere existence provoked reflection.

Do I agree with them?

Am I part of the problem?

Am I too comfortable?

Is this even my fight?

For me, watching the movement’s forced eviction from visible and valuable public spaces across the country echoed the urban displacement process that is uprooting low-income residents of color from major city centers across the country. First the undesirables (in the movement’s case, mostly young and under or unemployed) got ignored, then mocked, then criticized, then colonized. Now they’re  gone. The efficiency creeped me out. The symmetry got me thinking.

Over the last two decades I’ve watched three different neighborhoods undergo the same inner city-to-urban center face lift. In Washington, D.C. the U Street Corridor went restoration-and-condo crazy in the late ’90s and early ’00s; Prospect Heights, Brooklyn became a hipster haven during my time there in the mid ’00s; and at the height of the real-estate bubble, Jersey City, New Jersey began re-fashioning its Historic Downtown and Waterfront districts into NYC-Lite, to attract yuppies looking for a commuter-friendly escape from Manhattan proper. I looked upon each of these urban renewal projects with mixed emotions. It bothered me that the measure of a neighborhood’s “potential” was its appeal to the young, white, and educated. But I knew these communities had fallen into disrepair and needed an infusion of new energy. It also wasn’t lost on me that longtime residents were often eager to sell and move away from the grit (often to the suburbs or down South). But when urban taste makers gushed over a new cafe, boutique, organic produce market or restaurant serving up microbrews, clever cocktails and locally-grown food without mentioning the persistently unfair racial and economic arrangements that primed these communities for gentrification in the first place, I always took it personally.

I grew up in a genuinely integrated but predominantly black professional community. I graduated from the same Quaker school the Obama girls currently attend. My friends’ parents and parents’ friends were doctors, lawyers, journalists, news anchors, authors, executives, engineers, entrepreneurs, deans, professors, and politicians. By my mid-20s I had a law degree and was working on a master’s.

black people were merely the temporary placeholders of urban spaces … once white people want to “take back the land” the civic and business community will bend over backwards to accommodate them

That’s the quick and dirty version. And if you were to make judgments about my life based on those bare-bones facts alone you’d probably think I had it pretty good. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, you just wouldn’t know much about me. A more nuanced version of my quarter-life bio would include the following two details:

1. For as long as I can remember I’ve felt conflicted about my identity.  My friends and classmates at school were affluent and mostly white. My neighborhood was middle class and mostly black. At 14, I earned a spot on the city’s premier AAU basketball team. I was only the kid on the squad from Shepherd Park. Everyone else lived in the inner city. I remember feeling ashamed when my teammates saw the house I grew up in. I remember feeling terrible that I couldn’t change their circumstances. I remember one teammate asking if my father had paid my way onto the team. I remember my coaches questioning my “heart.”  I also remember wanting to be accepted by them. My teammates were supremely self-assured. They approached every opponent with the certainty of victory. We’d win most games before we stepped on the court, just by the way we walked into the gym. Opposing coaches feared us. Opposing players, white, black or otherwise, wanted to be — or at least be down with — us. At 14, 15-years-old, I saw my teammates — not my successful black neighbors or even my neighborhood friends — as the most authentic representation of blackness I’d ever encountered. And, as I would with the rappers I’d come to respect, I connected their grit with the ghetto.

2. In the ‘80s my father ran an engineering firm in the old U Street corridor. I watched him struggle to build and maintain a black-owned business amid the crack epidemic. He was repeatedly robbed by neighbors. The city often failed to pay him for work he completed. D.C. was at once a national laughing stock and a danger zone. White people avoided the inner city. Corporate America avoided the inner city. That all began to change toward the end of the ’90s when Anthony Williams, a Harvard-educated, bow-tie wearing technocrat became mayor. Slowly at first, then with certain rapaciousness, developers, aided by city planners, law enforcement and banks, colonized the corridor and re-purposed it into a playground for a gentry that in turn assumed an air of callous indifference toward the rich history it was stepping into or the community — albeit dysfunctional — it was displacing.

Watching my dad and teammates struggle and being powerless to do anything about it broke my heart. Watching the city turn around so quickly put a sour taste in my mouth. It left me thinking that black people were merely the temporary placeholders of urban spaces and that once white people want to “take back the land” the civic and business community will bend over backwards to accommodate them. This sensibility has only been reinforced by the well-orchestrated and financed urban renewal projects I’ve experienced in Prospect Heights and downtown Jersey City. They’ve followed similar paths of upheaval and re-settlement. As well, I’ve seen the antipathy gentrification unleashes on both sides, the sense of estrangement it produces in the gentrifee and the feelings of entitlement it reinforces in the gentrifier.


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah