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Westside gentrification: An old man withers

When Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” referring to capitalism in 1942, he suggested that the mechanisms that constantly revolutionize economic and social processes would eventually lead to the destruction of the capitalist system. While we wait, the technological and productivity processes of capitalism create at every turn winners and losers. Schumpeter believed to some extent in Marx’ and Engels’ criticism of the capitalist class “constant revolutionizing of production [and] uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.”

That’s a big thought but one that strikes close to home. In 1996, I bought my first house on the Westside, a sleepy if rugged neighborhood to the west and south of downtown. I remembered the neighborhood well from my years in high school. I had a friend who lived in West Pennway Plaza, a housing development that warehoused the poor and down-and-out. It was a dangerous place, filled with well-intentioned families and individuals but also with drug dealers, gunmen, and miscreants.

My friend went to West High School when I was at O’Hara. On Friday nights, I would drive down to pick him up. He always had me call him from the Holly Market payphone. The store was on the northern corner West Pennway Plaza. Once I reached him, he would come to the store and meet me and we would start our ritual drive through the backstreets of the Westside and down into the largely empty and decaying West Bottoms.

A mother and son ran the Holly Market. They sold everything that poor people want but don’t need. Of course, flashy packaging and well-known brand names lined the shelves. But in the end, the store offered only the five basic food groups: sugar, salt, fat, starch, and alcohol.

Later, in the mid-80s I sold to the Holly Market when I was a salesman for a liquor and wine wholesaler back in the mid-80s. While they took the occasional fifth or liter, the largest denomination of liquor I was able to get them to buy was a pint—95 percent of their liquor sales were in half-pints and pint. I did brisk business. Other salesmen were afraid to go to the Westside for fear of being robbed or shot. But I was young and I knew the place. After I quit the wholesaler, I wouldn’t see the Westside for many years.

When decided to buy my own house, I found a 600-square-foot, two-room place at 2704 Madison. It was perfect and for $29,000 it was a good deal for me. At the time, it was difficult to get a house on the Westside. It was a clannish place, a majority Mexican/Hispanic neighborhood with Black populations concentrated in the two public housing developments, the other being West Bluff. There were whit people, but they formed a minority mostly in the southern and northern end of the city’s quarter. Houses passed from one generation to another. In between, some people held rental properties and guarded them jealously, understanding something I didn’t at the time.

They knew, and I was to find out, that the Westside was changing. In fact, I was part of that change. What was once a near-isolated poor neighborhood was being colonized in bits and pieces by young and white sons and daughters of the well-to-do. Many people outside the neighborhood admired the quiet nastiness of the place. The gunfire and gang activity only added to a genera ambience of interest for many who looked in from outside and thought to themselves, I want a piece of that place.

“Place” is the operative word. A location is something devoid of people. A place is a tangle of social relationships in a particular environment. The clannishness and close social relations of Westside neighbors was the great attraction to people from the outside. When someone could buy a piece of property west of Broadway, they could get it cheap. Moreover, they could do what they wanted with it, as there were no homeowner associations. People believed that what you did with your property was your business. You could, if you wanted (and some did) install sculpture, build magnificent tree houses, and fill the driveway and the street with cars, running and derelict.

I suppose I wanted to be in a place and feel that sense of belonging. And I did. That house on Madison was my love and the street and neighbors came to see me as one of their own. After I got married, we decided we needed a bigger house. It didn’t occur to us to move out of the neighborhood. We relocated four blocks to the north to a house just down from Observation Park.

It was then that I sensed, after five years, that things wouldn’t be the same for long. The venerable Linda Callon, neighborhood activist and humanitarian, told me one day as she leafleted for the Westside Community Action Network Center, that in 10 years, everything would be different. “Gentrification began a while ago,” she said. “Soon, the Westside will be a shadow of what it was. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, considering that where we once had gunfire, we now have children playing. But I’m not sure we really want an up-and-coming neighborhood chic attached to us.”

She was right. In 2004, we bought a new house at 17th and Jarboe Street. We qualified as lower-income homebuyers. It’s a magnificent place, a house the likes of which neither Virginia nor I ever imagined we would come to inhabit. Seventeen years later, the forces of gentrification have only gained momentum. Around us, parcels of empty land suddenly sprout designer homes. Old houses that once lent an air of antiquity to the neighborhood fall and new, elaborate boxes spring up in their place. The once dominant Hispanic majority diminishes as people find they are offered fantastic sums for their old houses.

I can’t blame them. There are newer homes for sale in the suburbs. The lure of fast cash and other opportunities pull at them. Meanwhile, more and more white people with money want to move into the urban core, making what once attracted them to the “place” change irrevocably. They bring their suburban attitudes with them. In the end, they have no need of place. Place is merely a façade that lets them maintain a certain kind of status.

In the end, I’m reminded of Joseph Schumpeter and creative destruction. Leave something lying long enough and capitalism will figure out how to recreate it and exploit it. The winners are always fewer than the losers. I’m not judging but thinking again of how my future is nothing like I imagined it. I never thought I’d be working for the Post Office, for instance. We may just be taxed out of our house as more million- and two million-dollar boxes pop up.

What happens next is exciting, frightening, and, perhaps, more pitiful than tragic. “All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

So it goes on the Westside. I can and can’t wait to see what happens next.

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