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Gentrification: The Anti-Sprawl Vitality Injection

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David Coles
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It boggles my mind to read complaints about rising rents in a community “still plagued by violent crime.” The alternative is consistently low or declining rents — symptoms of neighborhoods in economic stagnation or regression. As the high profile, savage beating of Charles Young this past fall tragically reminded us, concentrations of poverty create desperate conditions. In contrast, attracting higher-income residents inherently serves to reduce street crime. There is no shortage of ghetto in Milwaukee, and there is no lack of low-cost housing — the free market helps to ensure this. Milwaukee does not need less middle- to high-income housing; it needs more, especially in the core of the city. The “white flight” phenomenon that Milwaukee has witnessed since the 1960s has robbed the city of tremendous resources, both in terms of economics — lost property tax dollars and commercial revenue — as well as the human capital lost when community leaders flee to the suburbs, bringing their civic involvement along with them. If there must be poor neighborhoods, they belong on a city’s periphery, as they are typically found in European cities — in which the most desired addresses are those that are the most central. The American pattern of development is grossly wasteful and unsustainable; the wealthy continuously flee to newer, more distant suburbs and exurbs, while the historic core and older, inner-suburbs deteriorate. Priceless farmland and other open space is gradually eaten away and paved over in this tragic scenario. Fortunately, a counter-trend toward “hip” urban living is breathing new life into many American cities. While Milwaukee has not witnessed this phenomenon to the degree that many other cities have, there are increasingly abundant signs to that effect. We should welcome and foster this trend; likely beneficiaries include the environment, our city’s economy, urban infrastructure, and our beleaguered public school system. However, it is this very trend that is apparently gentrifying Riverwest, a legitimate cause for reflection and discussion. Admittedly, nobody wants Riverwest to become a sterile, homogenous domain of the yuppie. To prevent this, creative schemes can be employed to give tax incentives to developers who include some percentage of moderate-income- and artist housing in any new projects and redevelopments. Such incentives have been successfully used in both Bayview and Walker’s Point recently. In a city plagued by segregation, the Riverwest neighborhood has stood out as a beacon of harmonious racial mixing. It would be a shame to see Riverwest’s racial diversity erased through gentrification — a trend that already appears well underway, unfortunately. However, to place the blame on a rising cost-of-living ignores the real underlying problem: widespread poverty among minorities in Milwaukee, especially blacks. (While “redlining” by insurance companies led to widespread racial segregation in Milwaukee’s past, this now-illegal practice cannot be blamed for current and future exclusion of minority families from the Riverwest neighborhood.) Rather than decrying that a rising cost-of-living is pricing minorities out of Riverwest, we should be lamenting the fact that certain minority groups in Milwaukee remain overwhelmingly poor, and thus cannot afford to take part in this urban renaissance. While most would agree that there has never been a better time to be black in America, the same could not so confidently be said about being black in Milwaukee. Black Milwaukee continues to suffer from inadequate educational opportunities and a brain drain of its highest achievers. This has a ripple effect through the black community, and serves to create a tragic cycle of poverty, violent crime, and hopelessness. The model toward which Riverwest and the rest of central Milwaukee should be striving is one in which all races are prosperous and upwardly mobile. When economic disparity ceases to follow racial lines, we will see the gentrification question fade as an issue, as the overwhelming majority embraces urban revitalization, recognizing its many benefits to the community. David Coles, a native eastsider, holds a degree in conservation biology from UW-Madison. He enjoys fishing the Milwaukee River from the banks of Gordon Park and occasionally even eats the catch of the day. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 2 – February 2003
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