“Is Urbanism Just The New Term for Gentrification?”

Lydia Guel & Demone Carter, Urbanism Class of XXXVI

A new San Jose, but for whom? This is one of several questions we are still grappling with as we near the end of our ALF Urbanism Senior Fellowship. Class 36 is the second of four ALF Urban Innovation Network classes designed to bring together demonstrated leaders to address the revitalization of downtown San José and its surrounding neighborhoods. Our class represents a unique assemblage of super friends, from decision makers within the city government to a nightlife impresario to arts advocates and community organizers like ourselves.

Over the last 18 months, we have been able to get a sneak peek into what the proposed future of our city will be from key thought leaders and decision makers. As our study trips and seminars continued to unfold we couldn’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerging. Through glossy renderings and glowing talks about upcoming development, we were privy to the insider’s vision for a new San José and it glaringly omitted the San José in which we grew up. In side conversations, we began to ask questions like: Is the new San José just about attracting Big Box and Big Tech?  And: what does that mean for the diverse local communities who have lived here, who have worked this land and in these canneries for generations?

How is it that, even in 2016, the Story of Us continues to be limited to such a narrowly defined and racially sanitized narrative, the struggles and vibrancy of communities of color conveniently erased? For instance, stories told to Class 36 about the history of St. James Park omitted fundamental narratives about the infamous Tiburcio Vasquez and the countless other poor people of color who were literally hung from those trees; stories of transportation hubs omitted the recent fights among organized communities for a 28th Street BART station that would build access to transportation and connectivity for people in East Side San José; stories about the history of city planning omitted any acknowledgement of the racist policy of Redlining that literally enabled the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to deny home ownership to black San Joseans and those who lived near black locals for decades.

Admittedly, policies do change over time as the leadership listens to its people and evolves its approach, but if we can’t at least recognize past inequities, aren’t we doomed to perpetuate these systems into the future? The legacy of redlining policy in San José, for example, still permeates our current maps and our decision-making processes.  The FHA map of San José outlined in Figure 1 allows us to see the marks of discrimination all over the city even today where low income neighborhoods that predominantly consist of people of color such as those in East San José or in the Washington/Alma neighborhoods, for example, were marked third and fourth grades back then (see Figure 2) and are now still systematically deprioritized for street improvements and other public services. In these gushing conversations about future development, not much is mentioned about how communities of color and other vulnerable populations will be able to survive in the gleaming “New San José.”

As our fellowship experience progressed we were also forced to consider whether Urbanism was just Gentrification by another name.

In the midst of a wave of community transformation and grassroots organizing strategies where Latinos are standing together against some of the most hateful, racist election rhetoric of our time, where organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement are lifting up the dialogue around police brutality and racial profiling, we can no longer tolerate ignoring or omitting the important role that people of color and the working poor have in shaping and defining San José’s local identity.

We argue instead that urbanism, when implemented comprehensively and thoughtfully, doesn’t necessarily have to be equated with gentrification in San José.  According to Richard Florida from City Lab of the Atlantic, “gentrification and displacement are symptoms of the scarcity of quality urbanism. The driving force behind both is the far larger process of spiky reurbanization.”  In San José, however, much effort and attention continues to be given to private developers to guide us in our efforts to urbanize our city and solve our housing crisis, and to affluent marketing corporations to attract and cater to more wealthy workers.

On the other hand, local artists and grassroots community leaders crave the opportunity to define the narrative, to create a sense of place and a shared identity. In the face of being priced out and displaced from the neighborhoods we love, we stand together to proudly identify San José as our home, despite the fact that many of us can barely, if at all, afford to reside here.

Without measured leadership, dialogue, and mindfulness of an inclusive framework, the haphazard approach to urbanism in San José will undoubtedly result in perpetuating the damage caused in part by outdated, albeit “well-meaning” racist and classist policies.  Put frankly, we cannot dialogue productively about urbanism and not talk about gentrification, just as we cannot dialogue about solving the housing crisis with more buildings without talking about mass evictions and displacement of local families, in the same way that we cannot dialogue about local San José culture and history without talking about race and class.

We joined ALF in part because we believe in the power of networked leadership. Our ALF experience has taught us the value of courageous conversations and how thoughtful leaders with diverse perspectives can come together to create an alternative vision for the future. Members of our class are collaborating on several projects that include, but are not limited to: wayfinding projects that better connect and activate neighborhoods that surround downtown like Calle Willow and East San José, speaking on discussion panels about the current state of racial justice in San José at MACLA and San Jose State University’s human rights conference, grassroots approaches to political campaigns aimed at funding affordable housing and public transportation, among others.  These are priority collaborations for us because we assert that in San José, we have a unique opportunity to preserve what is great about our city while embracing a new, inclusive urban future and not just refurbishing the past. Even still, one final question remains: As a network, are we up for the challenge?

[1] Krieger, Dan. Times Past: Tiburcio Vasquez was the Honorable Bandido:  The Tribune. 12 December 2011.  http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/times-past/article39190695.html

[2] Wilson, Carolina. Small San José Community Heartbroken with Promised BART Station in Danger.  Peninsula Press, a Project of Stanford School of Journalism. 11 December 2014.  http://peninsulapress.com/2014/12/11/san-jose-alum-rock-bart-station/

[3] Madrigal, Alexis C.  The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood: The Atlantic.  22 May 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/the-racist-housing-policy-that-made-your-neighborhood/371439/

[4] Begley, Josh.Redlining California 1936-1939.  Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces. 2012. http://joshbegley.com/redlining/

[5] Florida, Richard. The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement.  Citylab, from the Atlantic.  8 September 2015.  http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/09/the-complicated-link-between-gentrification-and-displacement/404161/

[6]San Jose Made.  Screenprint Showdown Submissions 2016. http://www.screenprintshowdown.com/about-us