If I’m a “Gentrifier,” You Probably Are Too
Editor's Note: The following story was published in partnership with Oakland Local, an independent, non-profit news resource featuring voices from across Oakland. Be sure to read "An Article About Gentrification That Isn't Going to Make You Feel Good About Yourself," for an alternate perspective on the issue.
The first home I can remember was a two-bedroom apartment near downtown Chicago. This was around 1980, long before gentrification was a word people used. When anyone spoke about young, educated white couples moving their families into the city, they called it “urban revitalization.” As our neighborhood got nicer, it got pricier, and my parents were forced to move further from the city center. Our neighborhood transitioned quickly during the ’90s as wealthier families tore down the old bungalows and built massive McMansions that barely fit their lots. Nobody called it gentrification because we weren’t considered low-income, but the fact is that we were continually priced out of our neighborhoods by wealthier people. My parents live more than an hour from the city now.
As an adult, I moved to New York for work and paid 40 percent of my salary to rent one room in a shared six-bedroom apartment located in a dodgy part of Manhattan known for its heroin trade. Eventually, I decided that “cheap” rent wasn’t worth the hassle of having so many roommates, and decided to move. If I had made a little less money, I could have moved across the street to subsidized housing. Instead, I found a one bedroom in a bad neighborhood near the edge of a good one in Brooklyn. I was still paying 40 percent of my salary in rent at that place. Shortly after I moved, somebody called me a “hipster gentrifier” for the first time. I just wanted to live someplace where I didn’t have to share the bathroom and could still get to work on time.
My first apartment in San Francisco was a four-bedroom, rent-controlled Victorian beauty. The only problem was: I didn’t control the rent. It turned out that my flatmates, a friendly lesbian couple, were subsidizing their own portion of the rent by paying it with mine. Upon learning this fact, I gave notice and moved out.
Eventually, I wound up in a beautiful flat on Telegraph Hill with a view of the bay. I was promised that I’d be put on the rent-controlled lease, but it never happened. When my roommate, who was the leaseholder, decided to leave, the management company increased the monthly rent by $800. My fiancée moved in, but even with two of us we couldn’t afford it. Once again, wealthier people pushed me out of my neighborhood.
When I was looking in early 2012, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco had jumped to about $2,300 per month. I did the math and figured out that it would be cheaper to buy an apartment in Oakland than to rent one in San Francisco, and thanks to BART my commute to work would stay about the same. My fiancée and I were initially giddy about buying a fixer-upper in the foothills, but were disappointed to find that really wealthy people were offering sellers all-cash bids well over the asking price to flip them for profit. We wound up in downtown Oakland. I never really intended to buy an apartment here; it was just the best possible option that made financial sense.
Since moving to Oakland, our local anarchists like to remind us of our role as gentrifiers by spray-painting messages on our walls telling us to go back to where we came from. The occupants of our building occasionally get held up at gunpoint for their iPhones by our neighbors from the other side of the highway. Our fancy condo building, I should point out, is racially representative of Oakland – we just all have good jobs. Despite the occasional unpleasantness, we make the best of it, and most days we really like our new home. We shop locally, support community organizations, pick up trash on our block, paint over graffiti, and generally do our best to make it a nicer place to live.
I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. I have a beautiful home, love the natural beauty of Oakland, and have amazing neighbors. I simply want to point out that I’m not going anywhere, because I’m invested in this city in every sense of the word, and for the first time in my life am no longer subject to the whims of landlords. I think it’s likely that having me in the neighborhood is good for the existing residents, regardless of their economics. When somebody like me lives in the neighborhood, I spend my dollars in Oakland, and no, not just at fancy restaurants. I’m not some faceless slumlord extracting cash to spend elsewhere.
I’m middle-class, I didn’t come from money, and just like everybody else I have to do what I can to look out for myself and my family. It is inevitable that capitalism and the relentless mathematics of population growth will change Oakland, for better or worse, just as these forces have already changed Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. After more than 30 years of being chased from neighborhood to neighborhood by people wealthier than me, I can tell you that change is the only constant I’ve ever known, and that owning my little piece of Oakland is the closest I’ve come to being truly stable.
Tim McAtee is a writer and media researcher living in Oakland, California. Originally from Chicago, Tim has lived in Detroit, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and San Francisco. Tim founded OaklandAuthors.com upon moving to Oakland. You can read more of his work at TheHipstersNovel.com or McAteeOnMedia.com.