Is it possible to improve a neighborhood commercial district without contributing to gentrification? Conventional wisdom says no. We are accustomed to neighborhoods of extremes-concentrated poverty or high-income enclaves. So when private investment at last returns to areas redlined for decades, there is often surprising opposition. Many see the improvements coming at the price of rising housing costs and displacement of working families.
Functioning commercial districts are not a luxury, however. Just as healthy cities need teachers and firefighters, they need places for their families to live and shop. Low-income and working-class families collectively spend a lot of money and, like everyone else, they need places to spend it.
Though their numbers are greatly diminished, there are still thousands of well-used, non-gentrified commercial districts in urban neighborhoods all over America. In Oakland's Fruitvale district, for example, the streets are crowded Saturday afternoons with Latino parents taking their children shopping for clothing, cowboy boots, electronics, and jewelry.
Only six years ago Fruitvale looked very different. Storefront vacancy was nearly 20 percent, sidewalks were littered with broken bottles, and neighborhood residents frequently reported being afraid to shop there. But since then, the Fruitvale commercial district has been the focus of a concerted improvement effort-the Fruitvale Main Street Program, led by the Spanish Speaking Unity Council. Sidewalks have been repaired, trash cans and banners installed, and more than one hundred businesses have fixed up their storefronts with paint, awnings, or new signs. More than 5 million dollars in public and private money has been invested in the past five years in physical improvements. Business is up, crime is down, new businesses open regularly, and there are practically no vacant stores in the district. Although it is not clear how much of this change is the direct result of the Main Street program, the important point is that dramatic improvement happened here without fueling gentrification. Housing has remained affordable relative to the rest of the region, and the area has seen no significant influx of new wealthier residents.
Real improvement through large-scale reinvestment is not only possible without gentrification, it may be one of the best ways to prevent gentrification. It is the abandoned neighborhoods with no viable economic niche that are most in danger of being "discovered" and dramatically gentrified. Commercial districts that successfully attract working families, are clean and safe, and have stores selling quality goods at reasonable prices, may have the economic base to hold their own against gentrification.
The difference between a gentrifying community and a stabilizing one is subtle, especially at first, and depends, more than anything else, on the specific commercial tenants that move in to fill vacant storefronts. Shopping centers, through centralized asset management, are able to carefully select tenants that complement one another and reinforce a specific identity or economic niche for the specific center. But there is generally not a similar process at work in neighborhood commercial districts. One property owner may be recruiting upscale businesses while another is leasing to discount stores. Whoever controls this process controls the future of not only the commercial district but, perhaps, the surrounding residential property as well.
Commercial stabilization efforts provide a way for active community-oriented management to intervene in these private transactions to ensure new investment benefits the current community.