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Walking around Brooklyn, it’s easy to see neighborhood change as a natural progression of events. The barbershop wasn’t doing well, so it’s replaced by a Dunkin’ Donuts. The brownstone across the street was crumbling, so someone bought it and put up condos. Bed Stuy was largely African American, but now there are white people at Key Foods. It not great, you might think, but it just happens. In fact, the realities are the physical consequence of a long history of deliberate racist and classist policies and decisions, and the people making them have spent a lot of energy making these changes seem organic or inevitable. But the neighborhoods themselves are actually clues to the past, and one goal of Social Justice Tours is to do detective work, uncovering the motives and the methods that made the physical and political landscape what it is today.
By now, we all know the term gentrification, and we all know we should feel vaguely guilty about it. But because it’s sold to us as a natural process caused by individual people choosing to move to cheaper neighborhoods, we don’t see the big, structural decisions that created segregation, poverty and struggling neighborhoods in the first place. And that’s deliberate. If we think of gentrification as an individual problem, we see the solution as individual, too. People need to stop moving into neighborhoods that aren’t theirs. But, of course, wrangling hundreds of thousands of individuals to make different choices—especially in a market where even the middle class can’t afford rent—is impossible. And so gentrification carries on.
But if we start to uncover some of the big, political actions that made gentrification possible, we can start thinking about big, political actions to stop it—or repair the damage done.