First of all, I’m going to ask you to check your privilege at the door when reading, whatever it may be, because this will not a discussion based on comfort. This is a conversation based on truth, and the narratives we spin to allow ourselves to feel good about change aimed at benefiting the few over the many, and generally, those 'white' over everyone else.
I always have my heart split between two places: my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and Santa Fe, NM, where I currently live. This week, I watched as an art installation in Pittsburgh was taken down for making people ‘uncomfortable’ in East Liberty. It was a black billboard with white letters that stated, “There Are Black People In The Future”. There are multiple ways you could interpret this statement. We could talk about what will hopefully be the return of black culture and presence to a segment, and specifically corner, of the city that has been lost to redevelopment and chasing money. It could be argued that it is a bold reminder that black people aren’t going anywhere, and no amount of new, shiny housing and boutique restaurants are going to erase them from the existence as a force in the city. For me, the most poignant element of this installation was its physical presence upon a building where I was a silent partner in a business that brought diversity and vibrancy to the city for years, Shadow Lounge. It was a black owned business that opened the door to black culture for so many in beautiful, unrepentant ways, and it was lost in 2014 to the gradually increasing cost of existing on a corner that it essentially created. To me, it felt like a beacon, a bat symbol of sorts, to remind people that the return must be inevitable, and that one day, that corner may again belong to the history and culture of those who cultivated it.
Fast forward to my life in Santa Fe, where I am beginning to see the same. A new set of apartments close to our downtown area recently went on the market for rent, with studios starting at $900 a month up to two bedrooms at $2200 a month. New Mexico ranks 48th among the states. Our economy, education, and opportunity are in the bottom ten. We have families here with strong roots and ties to their heritages and the land, and who should be able to afford to sustain themselves to stay in the homes and hometown of their origin. Yet, many of those who work within the city cannot afford to live within its limits.
As a single mother of four, housing has been a tense issue for me. I absolutely lucked into the space I rent now, but at the cost of more than a third of my income, which I work my ass off to bring home, often putting in weeks well above 40 hours by serving our community and one of our most vulnerable populations, new families. And I am not alone. There are so many parents I have met here who are just one catastrophe or incident away from their life becoming irrevocably changed for the worse. Saving small amounts of money feels like a luxury, let alone enough to cover a $2000 housing deposit.
One argument I hear is that employers should pay more, and absolutely, they should. I’ve been advocating for myself to receive a raise for 9 MONTHS. But who is going to mandate that? And who is going to put their job on the line to make it happen when trying to take care of your expenses month to month? How do you ask people who are already under-resourced and struggling to fight against a system that is inherently set up against their benefit?
There is a consistent argument made that just having more housing will alleviate the issue of affordability. Except when it is only made to serve certain populations, and particularly those who are economically stable and sound. I watched this happen slowly in East Liberty, when they demolished two towers of low income housing, promising a place for citizens to return. Many could not, and still can’t. Instead, many of the empty buildings in the area were bought and revitalized to suit upper and upper middle class whites who want to live close to a Whole Foods and the convenience of walking to upscale restaurants. Never mind that when the neighborhood thrived as a black community, there was an entire walking plaza where a road now cuts the center, and its paved presence essentially undermined the black economic marketplace that once allowed for a community to sustain and care for its own.
I believe that change can be a vital, positive force that can have a huge impact on allowing communities to survive and thrive. But it can’t be at the expense of those who put in the most work and effort in that space. It takes consciousness, thought, and a commitment to culture, tradition, and meeting people where they are, rather than telling a population that they should just ‘demand’ more, to fit in the vision of a developer whose main goal is to be as financially successful as they can.
There is a tone deafness to such statements that smacks of privilege, and not truly understanding what it means to be impoverished, under-educated, or discriminated against. I, for one, am tired of the middle and lower class being blamed for our inability to have ‘better’ simply because we do not keep up with the ask of those who are in positions of financial power.
It’s so easy to label development that benefits only a few as ‘progress’. We like the concept of shiny things, cleaner spaces, and convenience. But often projects sold as a boon to the surrounding community only serve to be a boon to themselves financially, and in the case of Santa Fe, we should be demanding to have honest, gritty talks about the kind of housing needed to serve this community, rather than focusing on luring young professionals and families. There is something to be said for taking care of your own, first. Are locals being sourced first for our higher paying jobs, or it is an effort to attract imports who we believe will bring something that doesn’t already, or doesn’t need, to exist here?
I’m not a Santa Fe ‘local’, but Pittsburgh is as blue collar, and just as working class, which is part of why I love it here so much. People are warm, genuine, and real, and there is an inherent goodness that I haven’t found in many places. And they are deserving. They deserve an education system that helps rather than hinders, economic prosperity, and to cultivate their culture. They deserve to be part of the factor in the decisions made by those who are often removed from the salt of the earth. They deserve to live in the city in which they work.
We may not be comfortable calling it gentrification, yet. But when it looks like, talks like it, and builds like it…it is. And take it from someone who has already had a front row seat to its devastation: Santa Fe has everything that makes it ‘Santa’ to lose.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...