The Spectrum: Intentionality, engagement needed to avoid gentrification


Charlie Lucke, Columnist

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

I want to move to Logan Square when I graduate. I go there to dissolve into difference, to wriggle out of the hyper-structured stranglehold of my suburban upbringing. I think that is also what I was doing when I chose to study social policy, chose to explore nonprofit work with a nonprofit salary. I sense the other white people there are doing the same thing: the tattoos, cigarettes, microbrewery bartender gigs are all minor methods of excusing oneself from systems of privilege that are difficult to understand and uncomfortable to acknowledge. Putting oneself in proximity to working-class people and people of color — like those who have inhabited Logan Square for years — is perhaps a symbolic attempt to disown this problematic past we’ve inherited.

But it’s not that easy; dissolution works on all parties involved. Last year, I was a mentor at a majority-Latino middle school in Logan Square. Over the course of the school year, I watched several single-family homes and apartment buildings on the block facing the school vanish, replaced with sleek new three-flats — upmarket additions that cast a shadow on the school before them and the original homes at their sides. These houses weren’t affordable housing units for the neighborhood’s working class families; they were upmarket, imported from Lincoln Park for people like me.

I’m coming to recognize that my moving to Logan Square will make it, in some way, less of the neighborhood that I love. My presence, my whiteness, carry weight — simply spending time somewhere destabilizes that place, changes its face, helps a trend become a status quo. If I move into a two-bedroom apartment in Logan Square with my barista friend for $750 a month (a steal because my parents agreed to pay my utilities for a year), a Latino family that relied on a rent of $650 moves out. When I am joined by hundreds of like-minded suburbanites with middle-class parents craving that tenable energy of places like Logan Square, the Latino family’s departure aggregates with others into a mass cultural exodus.

In five or 10 years, the bodegas and taquerias are gone, the cheap rents are gone and we are gone, too, probably to business school (“La Vie Boheme” can burn out quickly) or back to the suburbs. And the energy, the dynamism that drew us in has been sopped up, packaged in photographs and remembered five years later on reminiscent amblings through our Instagram feeds.

Gentrification seems to be the ultimate expression of privilege — that a person, or group of people, can enter a community and take it over, transform it and reap financial benefits from the relative poverty of other people (cheap rent, cheap tacos). The energy and dynamism that makes gentrifying communities like Logan Square attractive is like the last burst of light from a dying star. That edge of change, where the stock of businesses and houses are changing quickly and privileged residents can feel like insiders as new spots pop up on their block, is ultimately just the strangely exhilarating process of gentrification.  

I fully recognize I am as much at risk of becoming a gentrifier as any other white, college-educated person contemplating a move to a major city. Perhaps more so: In the darkest sort of irony, my choice to study social policy — and the structures that create and perpetuate inequality — has left me with few lucrative employment options. I find myself in a peculiar bind, as pursuing a career in a social justice-oriented organization would force me to rely on the low cost of living in gentrifying places, to live in a way that perpetuates the very inequality I would be attempting to combat. I’m sure my peers wanting to enter the arts or journalism, or simply to live decently beneath massive student loan debt, can sympathize.

I’m uncomfortable when I reckon with this. I’m realizing now how hard it will be for me to live unproblematically as a white person in a city so marred by segregation. But though it will be difficult, I don’t think it is entirely impossible. I’m hopeful there is a way to live intentionally, to recognize the weight of my privilege in a sensitive community and use it to lift people up; I was crossing my fingers that I would have figured out said way by the end of this essay.

Since college-educated young people are the darling of digital industry and the drivers of trend, we are afforded much more space and a much stronger sway over our communities, especially we who are white. As we descend from the suburbs into our cities of choice, I think we have a responsibility to become acquainted with the weight of our privilege — be it racial, class, educational or some combination of these — and learn to wield it in ways that do not wipe out people, places and lifestyles.

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Charlie Lucke is a SESP senior. He can be reached at [email protected].   If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.