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Gentrification May Actually Be A Boon To Longtime Residents

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The bustling Sidamo coffee shop in Washington's H Street Northeast neighborhood. The area has attracted many new, young residents and high-end bars, retail and restaurants over the past several years.
Meredith Rizzo/NPR
The bustling Sidamo coffee shop in Washington's H Street Northeast neighborhood. The area has attracted many new, young residents and high-end bars, retail and restaurants over the past several years.

Bobby Foster Jr. can often be found reading the paper on a wooden bench outside Murry's grocery store on the corner of Sixth and H streets northeast in Washington, D.C.

"The sun shines over here this time of day," says Foster, a retired cook. "It's always good when the sun shines."

Murry's has been an anchor in this neighborhood for decades — during the crack wars of the 1980s and the urban blight that followed, when most other businesses packed up and left. Foster has been somewhat of an anchor, too. He's lived here for 54 years.

But now, this neighborhood and hundreds like it across the country are changing. Every other shop is a new restaurant, high-end salon or bar.

The neighborhood is gentrifying.

That's been a dirty word for 30 years, since the middle and upper classes began returning to many urban cores across the U.S. It brings up images of neighbors forced out of their homes.

But a series of new studies are now showing that gentrifying neighborhoods may be a boon to longtime residents as well — and that those residents may not be moving out after all.

Even Foster is conflicted by the change he sees happening around him.

"Some things are good; some things are bad," he says. "But sometimes the good outweighs the bad."

Gentrification burst into the social consciousness on Aug. 6, 1988, with the Tompkins Square Park riot in New York City's East Village. Residents carried signs saying "Gentrification is class war." Police carried batons. The bloody battle that ensued left more than 100 people injured.

The protesters' fury centered on the idea that the poor would be made homeless so the rich could live in their neighborhoods, destroying whatever character they may have had.

Lance Freeman, the director of the Urban Planning program at Columbia University, says that's what he believed was happening, too. He launched a study, first in Harlem and then nationally, calculating how many people were pushed out of their homes when wealthy people moved in.

"My intuition would be that people were being displaced," Freeman explains, "so they're going to be moving more quickly. I was really aiming to quantify how much displacement was occurring."

Except that's not what he found.

"To my surprise," Freeman says, "it seemed to suggest that people in neighborhoods classified as gentrifying were moving less frequently."

Freeman's work found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrifies than when it doesn't.

He says higher costs can push out renters, especially those who are elderly, disabled or without rent-stabilized apartments. But he also found that a lot of renters actually stay — especially if new parks, safer streets and better schools are paired with a job opportunity right down the block.

That squares with a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

"We're finding that the financial health of original residents in gentrifying neighborhoods seems to be increasing, as compared to original residents in nongentrifying, low-priced neighborhoods," says Daniel Hartley, a research economist with the bank.

He looked at the credit scores of original residents and found that they went up — regardless of whether they rented or owned — compared with residents who stayed in nongentrifying neighborhoods.

"There may be these kind of side benefits to gentrification that we've been less focused on, that can actually help the original residents of the neighborhood," he says.

As for Bobby Foster, he says he's staying. He and his family own their home.

Some days, he says, he's very concerned about what will happen to the beauty salon across the street from his bench. Its owners often do elderly people's hair for free.

"They are beautiful people," he says. "They've been here as long as I've known this place."

But he says he also likes the new people, too. He wasn't sure he would, but he says he likes that they sweep their stoops just like his grandma did.

"The people are still good," he says with a smile.

Two months ago, city officials announced that a new retail apartment complex is coming to the corner of Sixth and H streets northeast. Murry's will be closing, and a Whole Foods will take its place. Foster says he just hopes Whole Foods will put a bench out front.

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