What it’s Like Being a Black Gentrifier
Guest post by LeRon L. Barton
The story of San Francisco today can be summed up in three words: Housing, Displacement, and Gentrification. The removal of people from their homes, the loss of local business, the reimaging of neighborhoods, and the destruction of community is the number one issue with what is wrong with San Francisco. If you are Black, the everyday dwindling population of African-American’s in SF magnifies the subject even more. People who recently moved to The City, the classic “tech-bro” – often young, white, male – are displacing those who have called it home for years. These folks are referred to as “Gentrifiers.” Most of them have no connection to The City, nor seem to want any, and have – with good reason –become the main targets of ire. But what happens if the gentrifier does not look like the usual techie that we have blamed for gentrification? What if he or she is Black? What does it mean to be a black gentrifier? This is a story about what happens when you are a minority in a city whose minority population is shrinking, and what it means to be part of that gentrification.
When I moved to San Francisco in early 2013, there was this sense of optimism on my part. I would finally be moving to the city I had always wanted to be in. I had lived in San Diego for almost eight years, but felt stifled and unmotivated. Combining that with a bad breakup, I had all the motivation I needed to make some changes in my life. Procuring an apartment in The City was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I’d attend open houses and there would be seven people already there with application, fee, credit report, deposit, and first month’s rent. Sometimes folks would have six months to a year’s rent with them. Other times people would bid on the apartments, offering hundreds of dollars more than what the monthly rent was advertised to be. It was this intense feeding frenzy.
I looked for a couple months, visiting Craigslist regularly, asking people if they knew of any vacancies, and walking the streets searching for “For Rent” signs. The struggle was real. While in the Tenderloin, I lucked upon a studio on Ellis and Hyde in the low 1600’s. I was set, done deal. As I was preparing to sign the lease, I noticed that, as people who worked in tech moved into this area, long time residents were being forced out. Building owners used the Ellis Act to evict families who had been staying in apartments for years. Landlords hopped on the train of greed and either bought or pushed out folks who paid very little rent in, in favor of tech workers who could be charged more because they made $100k+ a year. As someone who is in tech and could afford a studio in this city, I wondered if I was a part of this wave.
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Being a Black gentrifier is seeing the racial divide in San Francisco from a different lens. Because you move into The City, you are not attached to the community. You have no idea of what made/makes San Francisco special. When you walk through the Fillmore, you don’t understand that it used to be the “Harlem of The West”, a neighborhood that we used to run, not just live in. Walking through the Mission, a historically Latino neighborhood, you see the culture slowly but surely being ripped from the streets in favor of the newest cocktail bar or fancy hot restaurant. You are new to the city, so you have no connection or roots to these places.
Yes you are Black or a non-white person, and while you acknowledge the racist practices of this form of “Neo-Colonialism” you don’t have roots here. At first it’s hard to think of yourself as a Black gentrifier. These places are being gentrified for you and by people like yourself. You may say, “Yeah it is fucked up that folks are getting displaced,” but that is not stopping you from eating at the latest restaurant in the TL.
Some of us may look at gentrification at first and say, “Hell, I don’t want to live around crime! I grew up in that shit. I am making money now, I can live where I want to live! I am just trying to get up out the hood.” And that is a justification for what we are doing. I am not mad at it. Hey, I’m from the hood. I know what it’s like ducking gun shots on the regular. But there’s something about displacing another Black man or woman, just because we may have been blessed to go a little further up the economic ladder, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
With that justification of “I’m just trying to do me” comes “Bootstrapping” or “I pulled myself up by myself, I worked hard, how come they can’t?” When we start to isolate ourselves from those who were here before us and start to believe we are doing great because we are one of very few in these white spaces, we start to get poisoned. My father had a word for it, “Rugged Individualism.” Some people from my generation looks at it as “I’ma get mine, you better get yours.”
A couple of months ago while at dinner with friends, a couple of us began to discuss gentrification and how as newer residents of San Francisco, if it affects us. A young lady started to describe her displeasure with the Tenderloin, calling it “filthy” and how she “can’t wait to get out of here.” The woman then continued saying, “People need to work harder. You have to go for what you want.” I listened as she blamed others for their problems and how the key was just desire and wanting more.
I recognized this kind of talk because as a Black person, I once subscribed to it. I believe that every African-American who has “made it out” bought into this belief that hard work and determination can lead you to success. I chimed in and said, “With all due respect, you and I, we are lucky. We are not doing anything different than what any other Black folks are doing. We just got picked. This whole thing of ‘you gotta work hard’ and all that is not the whole story. Yeah you have to grind, but there is also opportunity, timing, and just luck. There are so many people here that are just as smart, if not smarter, that didn’t get the opportunity that you and I got. The condition of many folks in the Tenderloin is systemic.” She and I then continued to talk about where we came from, but that was the bulk of it. Meritocracy is such a dangerous falsehood; it will make you believe that you are better than everyone else, or not as good as them. The fact is, meritocracy and gentrification go hand and hand, it’s the idea that “If people don’t get to live or stay here, it is because they didn’t deserve it.”
To not be of the community is to not give a fuck about the community, and as a Black man in San Francisco, that is something that I cannot afford to do. I my be a Black gentrifier, but I want to give back to the community. Since moving here, I have volunteered at Glide Church, passed out food and toiletries with the Kenneth Harding Foundation in the Bayview, and my most significant contribution, becoming a mentor to a young Black man. It’s important that he has someone he can reach out to and ask questions of who not only shares the same race, but the same experience. My friend Mia often says, “If you’re going to move to a new city, make sure to contribute and respect the existing community.” I would like to think I am doing that. Sure this could be a meditation in class, but I feel it’s more. There is a disconnect from folks that are from here and folks that moved here. It is resentment, ignorance, and apathy. The soul of The City is up for grabs. What are you fighting for? Who are you fighting with?