P.U.M.A. senior strategist Yvette Freeman offers the dual insight of having lived in a neighborhood that has undergone gentrification and worked for downtown business improvement districts that are promoting community vitality.  The following comments were made by Yvette to set the stage for a discussion on Gentrification and Social Equity at the recent International Downtown Association annual conference in San Francisco.

SF GentrificationGood afternoon, my name is Yvette Freeman and aside from being the moderator for this session on Gentrification and Social Equity, I am also going to share personal experiences and feelings related to this subject matter.  I have deliberately scripted myself to contain my emotions as what I am sharing is raw and real.  My disclaimer is that while I am deeply conflicted and may say some things that are viewed as offensive or inappropriate, my main intent is to encourage a deeper dialogue about gentrification and social equity.  Contributing to the subject matter and foundation for this discussion will be Egon Terplan, the Regional Planning Director with SPUR here in San Francisco (Egon thank you for being with us) and Brad Segal, my colleague and president of our Denver firm Progressive Urban Management Associates.  They will expand on their experience as they present.   

I will begin with my personal experience of gentrification.  I was born and raised in Denver, CO during the 1960’s and 70’s in a neighborhood now commonly referred to as Whittier.  As a point of reference, this neighborhood, centrally located and adjacent to downtown, adjoins a once vibrant commercial and entertainment district called Five Points which “back in the day” was a jazz mecca often referred to as the Harlem of the west.  Five Points hosted Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and many other famous artists.   They were allowed to perform for their white audience in downtown, but because they were black, they were prohibited from staying in Denver’s downtown hotels.  This was all before my time but elders in my community have clear recollection of what it was like back then.

Memories of the neighborhood during my childhood and young adult years are very fond.  The demographic was black folks, plain and simple— black folks of all ages and abilities living together and being together as one large family.  The neighborhood was lively with children playing, neighbors teasing, laughing, socializing and looking after one another.   It was very rare, let me stress, very rare to see someone white in my neighborhood.  Did ya’ll see that white man?  Why was he here?  What was he doing?  Was he looking for somebody?  Seeing a white man in our neighborhood was a genuine cause for concern.  During my childhood, I do not recall ever seeing a white woman walking alone in my neighborhood.  So, if this was my experience during my most formative years, imagine what I might feel today as the demographic in my neighborhood has completely flipped.   In large numbers, African Americans have been displaced and replaced by white people.  Don’t get me wrong, I love white people, some of my closest and dearest friends are white, and their reaction to the changes that have occurred in my neighborhood are often more vile than my own.  When they visited my mom’s home in the 80’s, they were in the minority, and they loved how it felt to be in my “hood.”  It was the 80’s and even though busing introduced white folks (and some of my long-time friends) to the neighborhood, the demographic had not changed much.

Today, my mom is just one of a few blacks remaining on her block.  The neighborhood was and still is made up of both large and small brick homes, streets lined with mature shade trees and grassy frontages divided by sandstone sidewalks.  In 1975 my parents purchased their 3,000 square foot Denver Square for $23,000, a lot of money for them at that time.  Today she could easily fetch $800,000 or more for the well maintained home.  On more than one occasion a white person, or two, has walked up her front stairs and onto her porch to ask very candidly if her house is for sale.  My mom’s emphatic response to this intrusion:  “Do you see a for sale in front of my house….”NO it is not for sale.”  

As an adult, I purchased a small home in a hidden jewel of a neighborhood not far from my mom.  It is a block away from the place where Chamber of Commerce pictures are taken of Denver, with the greenery of the City Park golf course in the foreground, downtown skyline and snow-capped Rockies framing the background.  In the early 90’s I purchased the property that I currently occupy for less than $40,000.  A mortgage broker recently estimated its current value at $300,000.  And while my house is not for sale, I am constantly receiving solicitations, some in a personalized envelope; many on attention getting mailers.  I absolutely feel hounded by requests to buy home.  My home is not for sale.  But less than a month ago a long time neighbor that owned the house around the corner from me did sell to an “investor.”   This was her choice but many homes in my area were and still are being acquired with unscrupulous tactics.  The bottom line is that the loss of my neighborhood as I once knew it is heart wrenching for me.

As a result of red lining many years ago, my neighborhood was the only place that black folks were allowed to live.  Our country is still ripe with racism, and while these new white neighbors are harmless, many of them also seem benign to our existence, our history and what the neighborhood represents for us.  They often comment about how nice the neighborhood is NOW.  My sisters who purchased homes in the 90’s still live in our neighborhood but we all exchange stories about feeling disregarded and even scrutinized by our white neighbors who convey in very subtle ways that we do not belong there.  Where gentrification is occurring, this is a very common feeling shared by people of color around our country.  

All of us want to live in a place that feels safe, a place where we can retreat and refuel a place where we feel a true sense of community.  Isn’t that what we all want and deserve?  

I am coming to grips with the fact that my neighborhood is far too gentrified for my taste and as a result home as I once knew it no longer exists.  While I am deeply saddened and disturbed about the dramatic demographic shift and the losses that I experience because of it, there is a very silver lining in this cloud because unlike so many, I do have a roof over my head and the current economic boom which fuels gentrification has given me and other folks with resources a bunch of very favorable choices and options. 

For many years I worked with the Downtown Denver Partnership, initially supporting economic development initiatives during the bust years, and in the 90’s I was the operations manager for downtown Denver’s Business Improvement District.   I also spent 5 years managing the district in downtown Silver Spring, MD.  And last year, after a decade in the Washington, DC area, I moved back to Denver upon accepting the position of operations manager for Block by Block.  My stint running Denver’s clean and safe operation was brief, but eye opening.  I was shaken by the number of homeless people living on the streets, in and around downtown. 

The city that I once knew so well had changed, dramatically.  It was breath taking to see all of this new housing downtown and in neighborhoods where railyards and vacant land was before and yet there were so many people on the street, lined up on sidewalks, particularly near service provider locations.  The streets were there home and it was difficult to observe.

When I managed the Downtown Denver BID in the 90’s, young people of color were viewed in much that same way that our homeless in downtown are currently viewed.  For the most part these young people were not threatening or causing harm, they evoked fear and as the BID operations manager I was asked to get rid of them, to make them go away because people are afraid or intimidated and their presence was impacting commerce.  Again, these young people were not causing harm, but they made people uncomfortable.  Today in many of our downtowns, that exact same sentiment is expressed about our homeless population.  Their presence makes us uncomfortable and our constituents expect us, BID’s and downtown managers to make the problem less visible, at least in our downtowns. 

Well as our neighborhoods continue to gentrify, the people who once lived in the neighborhood are increasingly part of the working poor.  They hold down several jobs but still earn meager wages.  Some of these very folks work in our downtowns, they clean the rooms in our hotels, wash dishes and prep food in our restaurants.  They maintain our downtown streets, but they are being pushed further and further away from their work place and as a result suffer extreme hardship as they pay the added costs of transportation and extended child care because of their long commutes.   Gentrification results in moving people out of our downtowns and adjacent neighborhoods.  It amplifies a deeper issue and there is a huge gap that needs to be bridged.  

Like many of you, I deeply empathize with folks that are homeless and living on the street.  No matter the circumstance that got them there, don’t we have a responsibility to provide a dignified place for them?  Just this morning my colleague Anna Jones sent me an image of a poster that appears at Mission and Valencia, not far from where we are today.  It says that there have been 12,000 no fault evictions and more than 33,000 displaced from their homes.

I support economic growth and prosperity but my concern is that the distribution of resources and opportunities is way out of balance.

I don’t have the answers but I do feel that we cannot move the needle by relying on our social service agencies and creating or supporting policies that restrict people from living in our streets.  It is not enough.  We must bridge this growing gap and collaborate with one another and even those who are homeless or best understand the homelessness issues to think outside of the box and devise creative ways to provide favorable options for people who experience the dark side of gentrification.

Thanks so much for your consideration.  I will now pass the baton to Egon Terplan.