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Community is at the heart of what makes a city

The conversation on gentrification needs to shift to people first. Who lives in the neighborhood? What are their stories? What are their needs? How can they use their talents to create the change they want to see in their community?

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Nicole Laumer
“What makes a city?”

This was a question asked by teachers in a local Twin Cities school this past year. What teachers expected to hear from the elementary students in attendance were words like “buildings” “cars” or “roads.” What they heard shocked them.

When asked, “What makes a city?” the first answer from a student was “community.”

This comment is simple — yet it hits on an important point in the argument about gentrification (a process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents.) And that is how valued the people of the city are in the larger conversation about “development.”

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As a grown professional adult, my answers to “What makes a city?” would probably have revolved around things such as public facilities, highways, transit and infrastructure. However, in studying, witnessing and having conversations about gentrification and homelessness, I’ve come to realize that community is at the heart.

The debate over development and gentrification

One argument I hear is that development of communities via an influx of investment is a positive thing because it significantly increases the wealth, attention and investment in a community. What you see is new development, shops, and increased maintenance of public areas. However, as the student hit on rather eloquently, a city is not the bones (buildings, roads, cars, etc.) It is the community — which uses these bones to support each other, share cultures, invest in themselves, and run their own businesses — that makes a city.

And what people don’t realize is that when you invest in new luxury apartments, coffee shops and other businesses that are designed to be attractive to NEW people moving in (increasing land value, property taxes and overall cost of living), you ignore the talents and potential of those who have lived in that area for generations. And in some cases you even displace them by pricing current residents out of the neighborhood their great-grandparents lived in.

According to the recent study, “The Diversity of Gentrification: Multiple forms of gentrification in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” “At the core of the debate over gentrification are the issue of displacement and the question of who benefits and who is harmed by the neighborhood changes induced by it. Even low-income households that worry about gentrification are frequently in favor of neighborhood improvement. What concerns them is their ability to remain within the community and benefit from the improvements; that is, their ability to avoid physical displacement. If they do remain in the neighborhood, their concerns focus on issues of cultural and political displacement and the changes in the neighborhood that marginalize them.”

People first

So, I believe the conversation needs to shift to people first. WHO lives in the neighborhood? What are their stories? What are their needs? How can they use THEIR talents to create the change they want to see in their community? How can they be the primary visionaries, drivers and recipients of the development in their community?

According to the same study, there are three areas to focus on to fight against gentrification: changing policy, redirecting resources and shifting the narrative.

However, my first question starts with YOU. What community do you live in? What is the history of your neighborhood? Who lives close to you and what are their stories? Do you notice a change around you? If so, how is it affecting you or those you know?

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Let’s start there. By looking around, noticing and connecting. Then, we can take the next step forward, together.

Nicole Laumer, of Minneapolis, is the community engagement coordinator at House of Charity, a nonprofit in downtown Minneapolis that provides housing, a public lunch and outpatient treatment for those experiencing substance abuse and mental illness.

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