Friday, July 9, 2010

Rehabilitation or Gentrification or just simply surviving?

A few days ago I noticed that one of the pop-up ads on The New York Times from Levi Strauss talked about a town called Braddock, PA who were "answering the call mend what needs mending and build what's there to build." I'm not sure why I decided to follow the link--I usually avoid these ads. But I think it was the invocation of "pioneer" (Braddock is described as a town of pioneers) that had me intrigued. So I found this short piece on the Levi site:

We Are Workers: Episode 1.. The Seeds of Change

Which then got me to googling about Braddock, and I found this CBS piece about the town and its mayor, John Fetterman:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Now, one of the things that struck me from reading the article on the CBS site and watching the above video is the quote from the town council president, Jessee Brown, who admits that he doesn't see eye to eye with Fetterman and believes he is "overstepping his boundaries," caring more for his own self-image than the welfare of the town, with Brown adding the following:

"For some reason he's come to Braddock, which is a predominantly Afro-American community, that he seem to want to be the white savior for this community, and I just feel different."

A heavy charge, to be sure, yet one that seems completely valid. I mean, it was something that struck me and that I wondered about in the Levi ad. That the central figures in the town of Braddock, the talking heads in the documentary piece, are white townspeople, and in a few cases, folks who are not from Braddock but who have come to the town because they see something inspirational in it--in rehabilitating the buildings. They see something worth saving--and the emphasis seems to be on the physical structures--the decaying buildings and abandoned homes. Two figures in particular in the Levi short are young, 20-something, white hipsters, who are clearly there with good intentions--with wanting to help and make a difference. Yet, I was struck by the ways in which black and white townspeople shared equal billing in the ad--actually, the black voices did not seem to share equal billing--the white voices seemed to predominate the Levi spot, so that it wasn't until watching the CBS piece that there was confirmation that Braddock has a sizable black population.

According to the 2000 census (and I got this info from the wikipedia site on Braddock) white townspeople account for 30% and black townspeople account for 66%.

Yet you don't get this demographic feel from the Levi shot. It appears to be either 50/50 or 60/40, with white voices and perspectives and faces predominating over black voices, perspectives, and faces. The CBS shot is a bit more balanced--and it's good that they included Jesse Brown, who may have an axe to grind that is personal rather than political--and who is clearly in the minority in terms of his opinion of Fetterman, because Fetterman won the last mayoral race in a landslide and the people of Braddock, African American and white, seem to like the attention that the town is getting (Levi Strauss is donating $1 million to its revitalization efforts and other investors in the Pittsburgh area are pitching in to get Braddock back on its feet).

So here's what I'm wondering. Given just how depressed Braddock is--this town that has 3x the poverty rate as the national average. And given how much help it needs, is Levi coming in and other investors a sign of gentrification, which in social justice circles often becomes a code word for pushing out brown and poor people and moving in hipster white folks with disposable incomes OR is it really a matter of rehabilitation--of trying to improve the buildings and to get a youth center and a garden and an arts center up and running because you need to feed people body and mind and to give them a sense of purpose OR is it more complicated -- that there is the danger of Fetterman becoming the white savior in this poor black town but there is also the reality that the town is in need of saving and that people are trying to survive as best they can and they need help and thus will take it in whatever form it appears. I'm not quite sure I know the answer to this--certainly John Fetterman and others who have moved to and stayed in Braddock appear to have the towns best interest at heart. And certainly the town is depressed and needs help. And certainly its residents, black and white alike, would like to see the town revitalized. I suppose the question is, what will be the cost and who will pay? Only time will tell.


Elizabeth Brotherton said...

What a great post! I've been aware of Braddock Pennsylvania for awhile, having seen some documentaries and read some articles on the city. I semi-seriously joked to my husband that we should move there.

Despite the positive sound bites, you have illuminated a problem inherent in the carefully coiffed image the city is trying to create. And the question is: why are they mis-representing the demographics of the city?

It would be monumentally sad if their goal is to shift the demographics of the city from predominately black to white. But from my perspective, as an immigrant rights activists, it would not be the least bit surprising.

In my opinion, the contemporary incarnation of the moral panic directed at immigrants, the harsh anti-immigrant laws--and even the new SB 1070 law in Arizona are all examples of the elite white population trying to shift the white majority back into full throttle power.

Thanks for a thought provoking post!

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much for your comment and for stopping by. I agree, completely, that it would be VERY SAD if the demographics of the town are displaced in the name of gentrification--but as you said, this SO OFTEN HAPPENS, even when the folks involved don't want it to (or think they don't want it to).

Anyway, hope you stop by again soon!