Gentrification In Houston: Does It Ruin Neighborhoods?

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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "Gentrification" like this:

"The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents."

It is a word which gets used a lot these days in regards to certain Houston neighborhoods, especially in some Inner Loop areas that were once considered rough parts of town. Having spent my childhood in the '70s and '80s living in areas like Oak Forest, The Heights, and Montrose, I've witnessed a lot of changes, and have seen the character of each transform over the last few decades. Those changes haven't always felt "good", since they include parts of some neighborhood's character being erased in favor of redevelopment, or watching long term residents displaced by rising rent and other economic factors. But changes have always occurred over time.

In a recent Salon article, a writer named Anis Shivani, bemoaned the gentrification of "Houston's Cultural District" near the intersection of Alabama and Kirby. The article's author pointed to a golden era where "Artists, writers and eccentrics from around the country descended in droves in the 2000s to take advantage of Houston’s livability." While Houston may or may not have experienced a halcyon period in the city's recent history, the author of that piece seems to ignore just how much many of Houston's Inner Loop neighborhoods had already changed over at least the previous two decades.

In fact, it's pretty easy to argue that Houston is a city where things tend to be in a constant state of flux, and that tendency to change is one of its defining traits. Whether that's a strength or a weakness depends on who you ask, but it seems a bit ridiculous to pick a short-lived era as a neighborhood's best moment, while criticizing changes that have since occurred since, and ignoring the fact that some of its residents probably enjoyed the place better at an even earlier time.

One specific form of gentrification that makes some people unhappy is exemplified in Montrose and neighborhoods like it. Once a place becomes iconic as a city's bohemian neighborhood, people who love it for its quirky charms can become upset when the area attracts new residents who aren't as interested in it for those reasons. Once that happens, there is usually a cycle of redevelopment, as builders flood the area hoping to make a ton of money replacing older homes with shiny new ones, for more affluent residents. Over a few years, rents start to rise, and a formerly "weird" part of town becomes "hip" or "cool", and that's a different thing altogether.

Places like Austin have been struggling with that transition for decades, vowing to "Keep Austin Weird" - That slogan is actually something the city's small business community came up with to promote its interests, but many residents seem to feel it's a goal for the entire city. The problem is, while Austin is a great place, most of its weirdness feels forced these days, and the city seems filled with a lot of the same basic types of people - Increasingly young, socially progressive, and financially comfortable. It's a "cool" place to live, but not a particularly weird or varied one.

Houston on the other hand, has always struck me as a much more interesting place, with a much broader population, something that has become increasingly apparent as it has emerged as the nation's most diverse city. Perhaps in the case of Montrose, the neighborhood isn't outwardly as quirky as it once was, but it is still a unique area of town. Some researchers even believe that gentrification is a natural part of any great city's evolution, and not something that should be automatically resisted.

Expecting Houston neighborhoods to stay exactly the same seems futile. That's just not the kind of town this is, and it's unlikely it ever will be. Perhaps it's better to view a bigger picture - The very size of The Greater Houston Area almost ensures that there will always be a bunch of different types of neighborhoods to visit and live in. The will always be new emerging "cool parts of town", and there will probably also always be affordable areas that residents of lesser financial means can still make great places to live.Spending too much time lamenting gentrification occurring in a few Inner Loop neighborhoods seems short sighted, and not a recipe for remaining happy living in a city like Houston.

The author of that Salon piece made a few good points regarding this city's sometimes irresponsible urge to redevelop areas. When my street in the Heights was flooded with redevelopment, many of the builders seemed to get away with murder compared to what developers in other cities could do, but Anis Shavani seems to believe that gentrification is a form of "violence", and that assessment seems a bit dramatic - Particularly since the area Shavani chose to highlight had been changing for years prior to the 2000s. It would be understandable to resist a neighborhood's slide into decay and blight, but redevelopment and cycles of gentrification are part of living in a city like Houston.

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