The gentry were the ruling class of 16th century England, landowners who ranked a notch below nobility in social status. These were people of gentle birth and good breeding, aristocratic and cultured, influential in the affairs of their day. But societies change and with them their social structures. By the time the New World was bursting onto the scene, the gentry had already begun to fade from the landscape. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the very term had disappeared into obsolescence. In recent years the word "gentry" has resurfaced, this time not as a complementary characterization of persons of elevated social standing but as a somewhat disparaging description of middle-income professionals who buy and restore homes in depressed neighborhoods. Gentrification by contemporary definition is "the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by the middle classes, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people."
I have seen first hand (yes, inadvertently participated in) the devastating impact that gentrification can have on the poor of an urban community. I have faced panicking families at my front door who had just been evicted from their homes, their meager belongings set out on the curb. I have helped them in their frantic search to find scarce affordable apartments and have collected donations to assist with rent and utility deposits. It is heart-rending to see families being pulled apart as survival forces them into separate night shelters, and see their children, up-rooted and confused, slip behind educationally, losing precious ground they would never regain.
But I have also seen what happens to the poor when the "gentry" do not return to the city. The effects of isolation are equally severe. A pathology creeps into a community when achieving neighbors depart - a disease born of isolation that depletes a work ethic, lowers aspirations and saps human initiative. I have seen courageous welfare mothers struggle in vain to save their children from the powerful undertow of the streets. I have witnessed the sinister forces of a drug culture as it ravages unchecked the lives of those who have few options for escape. Without the presence of strong, connected neighbor-leaders, a neglected neighborhood becomes a desperate dead-end place.
The romantic notion that the culture of a dependent poverty community must somehow be protected from the imposition of outside values is as naive as it is destructive. Neighborhoods that have hemorrhaged for decades from the "up and out" migration of their best and brightest need far more than grants, technical assistance and well meaning partners to restore their health. More than anything else, they need the return of the very kinds of home-owning, goal-driven neighbors that once gave their community vitality. In a word, they need the gentry.
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. The poor need the gentry in order to revive their deteriorated neighborhoods. But the gentry will inevitably displace the poor from these neighborhoods. The poor seem to get the short end of the stick either way.
But must gentrification always spell displacement for the poor? Probably so. Yet displacement is not always bad. There are drug dealers and other rogues that need to be dislodged from a community if it is going to become a healthy place to raise children. Over-crowded tenements and flop houses should be thinned out or cleaned up and this inevitably means displacement of some of the vulnerable along with their predators. Bringing responsible property management back into a neglected community does spell disruption for those who have chosen or been forced by necessity to endure slumlord economics. But what may be disruptive for the moment can become a blessing for those who yearn for a better way of life if - and this is a big if - the poor are included in the reclamation process by the returning gentry.
Gentrification with justice - that's what is needed to restore health to our urban neighborhoods. Needed are gentry with vision who have compassionate hearts as well as real estate acumen. We need gentry whose understanding of community includes the less-advantaged, who will use their competencies and connections to ensure that their lower-income neighbors share a stake in their revitalizing neighborhood. The city needs land-owning residents who are also faith-motivated, who yield to the tenets of their faith in the inevitable tension between value of neighbor over value of property.
Gentrification. It's time to redefine it as a word of hope for the city.