A Rising Tide Only Lifts Boats

If someone's drowning in waves of prosperity, it's because it's impossible to swim in them.

Last year, gentrification came up in every civic innovation effort I was part of. More events related to it called on my expertise than any others. It tops the list of topics you my colleagues requested for this newsletter. Even at the homeless count last month, a fellow counter practically asked me to absolve him for being part of it. Maybe people look to me for understanding because I have two gentrification stories of my own.Β 
  1. The king of the dotcom restaurant scene moved into the long empty space under the run down flat I rented with three other recent grads. "It manages to attract all kinds: the artsy crowd, dot-com new money, post-preppie Brooks Brothers aficionados and real grown-ups," said the Times. Gentrification is a list of "everyone" that begins with "the artsy crowd" and ends with "real grown-ups"
  2. My wife and I bought our first place together from our landlord, who wanted to sell it to pay for her husband's medical bills. It was in a neighborhood that qualified for federal revitalization dollars in the seventies. We scrapped together an offer because we were afraid a new owner would evict us to live there. Selling prices in the neighborhood rose 400% in the past five years.
I recall my experiences of gentrification as circumstantial. All the stories people tell me are the same way. Gentrification is something that happens to people. It is a fact of life when an urban neighborhood gets popular with people from a higher tax bracket than the children of the people who lived there longest. So, attempts to invent a way out get stuck because they wrongly approach gentrification like a force of nature.
My key insight on gentrification arose from a talk I gave during to my civic innovation class at Occidental. The premise is America invented a platform for creating a middle class four times, starting with the Northwest Ordinance. These platforms are our American Dreams and the most recent consumer-credit one is past its useful life. As an aside, I speculated that flaws in the post-war American Dream are the cause today of gentrification. This speculation is the probable cause for my authority on the subject.
Occidental College and the faculty housing I live in are in the hottest neighborhood in the country according to Redfin. KPCC embedded a team here to investigate gentrification first hand. I learned about the team when their partners asked me for advice on a gentrification datathon they co-hosted. I ended up coaching two teams and KPCC ended up producing a series on the neighborhood. Meanwhile, a decades old pizza restaurant got priced out three blocks away and the new leasees opened...a pizza restaurant charging three times the price. After the third time being a part of this pattern, I needed to repent of my circumstantial "canary in the coal mine" roleplay.
Gentrification flusters good intentioned people because it is unapproachable as a problem by itself. Everyone's experience with it is circumstantial since it doesn't come from personal errors. Trying to fix it is like anti-virusing a computer that is outdated and running an operating system full of bugs. Even if it works, nothing gets better. But, if gentrification really results from flaws in the American Dream, that's good news on two counts.
  1. The current American Dream is on its last legs anyway. We don't need to keep any of it. If we had to try to keep the legacy system, there would be no room for innovators to work. Since it doesn't work anymore, we can scrap it and use the remains to build a new platform for prosperity.
  2. We don't necessarily need to fix the damage done by the old system. That's not what America does with broken dreams. For instance, the old system didn't uphold equity. To be generous, it didn't fail. It wasn't designed with equity as a requirement (example discussed below). This is good because remedial projects thwart innovative capacity. Instead of looking for a way out of the gentrification mess, we can invent a new American Dream that doesn't cause it again.
Now when I look at gentrification from a systems perspective, all the fog melts away. I can see the tide of the American Dream and the false assumption of the old saying about lifting boats. I float on waves of prosperity because my parents and friends and my startup success and the Federal Housing Administration gave me the resources to afford a house in the place I wanted to live. Gentrification is the American Dream flooding over people and families who unfairly can't.
It's what happens when renters work to improve their neighborhoods only to get priced out and give up all that value to their landlords. It's what happens when a qualified family can't get a loan because of where they live. It's what happens when a business owner can't get a loan to rework their operations to cater to their richer new neighbors. It's what happens when a younger generation doesn't have a chance at the credentials that the older generation needs to trust a crazy new idea.
One map made the fortunes of Los Angeles's neighborhoods, the map used to qualify loans from the 1930s to the 1960s. There were maps like it all over the country. Each one made by people who lived in the already wealthy parts of the map to carry out the federal boat hand out known as the qualified mortgage program. When I look at the Los Angeles map, I think a simple proximity analysis will explain the persistence of concentrated poverty and which neighborhoods are gentrifying. The map is a local invention that determined which Los Angelenos got to sail during the American Century and which had to tread water waiting for another chance.
I'm personally thankful for the American Dream despite its flaws. One of my parents grew up outcaste, that is to say outside of Indian society. The village leaders segregated outcastes in sub standard housing. The nearest school was two miles away by foot on a dirt road only. There's one doctor from that generation in the village and you can guess why I care deeply about their story. My family is here for the American Dream. Just like the Chevy Caprice we bought when we got here, the American Dream I grew up with is a too old model of a great invention. It's time to invent the Tesla of American Dreams.
That chance is now, here in Los Angeles. Cities are like different programs running on the American Dream operating system and Los Angeles's economy is independent enough to lead the invention of the next American Dream. Los Angeles can put in place ideas like equitable-by-default even if the nation consensus doesn't include it. Maybe other cities will copy us and the idea will become part of the core system freeing up our resources to pursue more justice. Even if not, Los Angeles can remove gentrification to its past if we stop trying to invent a way out of gentrification and focus on inventing ways to give every Los Angeleno a safe ship to ride into the New American Century.
(footnote:Β KPCC: York & Fig)

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