Op-Ed: A gentrifier’s guide to being a good neighbor

December 5, 2014
By

By Susan Naimark

The super-hot housing market in Jamaica Plain is a scourge to some and a goldmine to others.  If you’ve been around the neighborhood long enough, you know this isn’t the first round of gentrification, but the latest in a series of heat waves in the local real estate market. With condos in the neighborhood nearing the million-dollar mark even in the (relatively) lower-income sections of Jamaica Plain, the gentry have arrived. Some families gain, while many others lose.

What’s a newcomer to do? Here are some simple steps for becoming a welcome member one of the best communities you’ll ever live in.

  • Say hi to your neighbors.

Take the time to introduce yourself and get to know your neighbors. We old-timers are proud of our neighborliness, and we ask you to continue the tradition. This is also your best insurance policy, whether to avoid getting your car towed on street cleaning day or to be reminded that you left a window open when you went out of town. It may be uncomfortable to reach out to neighbors who don’t look like you or don’t speak English. Acknowledge any discomfort, and do it anyway.

  • Learn the history of your new neighborhood.

Jamaica Plain has a rich history—of racial and ethnic and economic diversity, of community activism, of breweries and abolitionists, of growth and change over centuries. Sign up for a walking tour with the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Talk to folks who’ve been here awhile. You may have been attracted to Jamaica Plain because of its spirit, born of this history. Understand it so that you may build upon it.

  • Learn the history of your neighbors.

People move to Jamaica Plain for different reasons. For some of us, this was once an affordable neighborhood, as hard as that is to believe in 2014. For some families of color and same-sex couples, this has been one of the only welcoming neighborhoods in the city. For some immigrant families, this was where you came to seek a better life, perhaps following the footsteps of neighbors or family members back home. By learning about the particular histories of various communities within our community, you will come to appreciate our commonalities, and respect and value our differences.

  • Donate or volunteer for a local organization.

Jamaica Plain is home to many wonderful community organizations that are critical to its vitality and continued diversity. Find one that resonates for you, and do your part to ensure that it thrives. I’d like to put in a special plug for the youth-serving organizations of Jamaica Plain. Many of them—including Bikes Not Bombs, Hyde Square Task Force, South Street Youth Center, to name just a few—serve young people who face many barriers to opportunity, and they do an outstanding job of shifting the trajectory of these young people. Invest in the future of our neighborhood and city by supporting these organizations.

  • If there’s a problem with your neighbors, talk to them first.

There are times when a call to the police is in order. But if it’s not an emergency, try to work it out one-on-one first. Building relationships over conflict isn’t easy. If you’ve said hi a few times already, you’ve got a basis for working out your differences.  Approach any conflict with the assumption that it might just be a misunderstanding. And recognize that not everybody in our community has had positive experiences with public authorities. People generally appreciate the opportunity to work out differences in person, not through imposed authority.

  • Be a bridge-builder.

If you start a new neighborhood project, engage others who bring diverse experiences and perspectives into it from the start. You may have the best idea since sliced bread, but start by asking yourself who it will benefit, and how you know. Don’t assume you understand the needs, interests and priorities of people in the neighborhood without doing some due diligence first. Consider putting your effort towards projects that truly benefit a variety of neighbors. This is one of the ways we can sustain the diversity that attracted many of us to Jamaica Plain in the first place.

  • Advocate for policies that support equity and benefit all residents.

Let me be blunt. The real tension around gentrification is that it pushes out poor and working-class people, and anybody who can’t afford the rising cost of housing. New businesses that cater to wealthier residents displace services that lower-income residents may have relied upon. The neighborhood “comes up”—but for who? There is a lot of pain and suffering that accompanies gentrification. The best way to show that you value Jamaica Plain is to get involved with efforts that ensure equity, and protect the more vulnerable among us. City Life/Vida Urbana, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, Jobs with Justice and Urban Edge are just a few such organizations. There are other citywide and statewide advocacy groups that work on youth jobs, affordable housing and quality public schools, ensuring that public resources and private institutions support more equitable and just policies and systems. Seek these out and support them. Contribute to protecting the best of Jamaica Plain—for everybody.

  • Do it with humility.

Whatever you choose to do, do it with an open mind. Notice and question your assumptions about others, and about yourself. We white, college-educated, middle-class homeowners too often think we know what’s best. We sometimes forget that we have much to learn from those who have experienced life differently than we have. And that “what’s best” is relative. True diversity is about more than skin color or ethnicity or economic status – it’s about understanding, honoring and supporting different ways of living our lives in community.

Editor’s Note: Susan Naimark as lived on Paul Gore Street since 1977, and is the author of “The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools.” This article was informed and inspired by “20 ways to not be a gentrifier in Oakland” by Dannette Lambert, Oakland (Calif.) Local, Jan. 30, 2014.

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