Our New York correspondent Alex Frankcombe on sabbatical, looking at urban issues and how they relate to Perth

Urban Issue 1 | What Perth Can Learn from a New York Perspective on Gentrification

Gentrification: we know it when we see it, but what does it actually mean? British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 when she described the changing conditions in neighbourhoods around inner London in the 1950s and 1960s. Glass wrote that gentrification occurs when "working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed". This definition reflects what most critics of gentrification still believe about the process; that it is mostly a matter of displacing poorer and disadvantaged people from a neighbourhood. Gentrification typically occurs in run down inner city areas or failing manufacturing centres where disinvestment and urban decay create opportunities for redevelopment.

In New York, the G-word evokes strong emotions in the affected communities and it is also a symbol of wealthy white Americans displacing poorer minority communities. In East Harlem, where I am currently living, the streets are covered with posters of the proposed skyscraper development at East River Plaza (refer to image). Whilst the development won't directly displace anyone, as it will be built on top of an existing shopping centre, surrounding residents are concerned about rent spikes and large scale displacement that improved amenities will bring. East Harlem, also known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem is one of the city's poorest districts, yet to the south is Yorkville, one of the city's wealthiest areas, making it a very attractive development opportunity.

Issues of morality surrounding gentrification are extremely complex and impossible to summarise effectively within this article. However, if you are interested in reading more about the topic, Spike Lee (American film director and producer) provided an interesting take on gentrification in Brooklyn, check it out here (Note: language warning). Business Insider have also provided a visual account of the changes in East Harlem here.

When thinking about gentrification, whether it is occurring in East Harlem or in Victoria Park, I suggest we employ an approach to revitalisation that focuses more on building the capacities of communities to affect change and less on gentrification as Glass defines it. Importantly, this community-based approach is about communication, whether it be talking with locals before any development proposals are discussed, or perhaps even having gentrifiers speak with the residents of the neighbourhoods they are now a part of. Without communication, we only deepen the divide between "us" and "them".

In order for the communities to participate effectively in these conversations, they first must be empowered with knowledge and a voice, a process known formally as 'community capacity building'. Only when both parties understand and respect one another can they begin to work towards a mutually beneficial solution. In Perth, the growth of neighbourhood organisations such as the Beaufort Street Network and Vic Park Collective have begun to empower residents to take charge of the future of their own communities and provide them with a solid framework to do so.

If you would like to know more about engaging with your community or community capacity building, please get in contact with our Conversations Team on 9289 8300.

Alex Frankcombe

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