Mall battle is about more than it appears

0
129

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

The instant that a major outside development company announced that it would bid to buy the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the battle was on.

Here are the familiar charges. It is a naked money-making grab by outsiders. It will jack up rents for struggling small Black-owned businesses. It will usher in a rash of chic, high-priced, new housing for mostly young upscale whites. It will drive even more lower income, working class out of their community.

It will continue to send the wrong signal that inner-city Black neighborhoods are ripe for major outside development dollar pickings.

Outside developers say just the opposite. They claim that their purchase of the mall will boost minority-owned businesses, spur economic growth and provide quality retail outlets and restaurants for the Crenshaw community

The first developer who toyed with putting that bid in for the mall got the message and backed out. Now there’s another developer who reportedly has put up the cash for the mall.

The same pro and con arguments on both sides are being shouted. The battle to send this developer packing by some community activists is even fiercer. Whether it’s the fight over ownership of the mall or something else, the watchword that rings on all lips is gentrification.

Like any other controversial, hotly debated and divisive issue that bursts on the public policy scene, there’s a history. Gentrification is no different.

It didn’t start in the late 1990s with young whites pouring into mostly Black and poor neighborhoods in America’s central cities and buying up rundown houses and apartment building, causing soaring rents and home prices that drove the Blacks out. And it wasn’t developers hungrily eyeing prime commercial space and land in neighborhoods such as the Crenshaw District.

The Urban Land Institute, in the first major study of gentrification in 1976 found that a rising number of big cities experienced some form of gentrification. There were lots of new rehabilitated houses and apartments in almost all cases occupied by affluent, educated young professionals. The report noted that the newcomers were “establishing a new investment climate.”

This was not lost on investors and developers who see bigger profits to be made selling to the young affluent whites interested in moving back into those areas.

It didn’t take long for the first rumblings of protest to be heard. The rumblings came from residents and community activists.

They demanded to know, what about the folks who live in those neighborhoods? What happens to those who can no longer afford homes and apartments there?

There were warnings that the transformation had consequences, mostly dire for those residents and for cities. There would be even more distinct areas carved out for the rich and poor, this time not out of the city, but within the cities.

A decade later the ante jumped on inner-city real estate. The influx of young affluent whites snapping up distressed properties in inner-city neighborhoods turned gentrification into a major growth industry.

The properties bought often at fire sale prices in distressed areas became solid financial investments for the present and future for investors and speculators. The increase in tax revenue and fees was a windfall for municipal and county governments.

The sweetener for investors and developers was to offer an even greater goodie bag of tax breaks and incentives to spur them to gobble up even more land in those areas.

There was scant, if any, attention paid to the effect of the makeover of these areas on the increasingly displaced Blacks and Hispanics, and the poor in what were fast becoming nouveau rich neighborhoods. Instead, there were countless articles and stories and features on the lifestyles and habits of the new urban elite in these neighborhoods. The words “increased poverty,” “displacement,” “racial disparity” were nearly  absent from the gentrification conversation.

With gentrification now becoming a buzzword for seismic urban change, the battle lines were now tightly drawn in the debate over whether gentrification and development, or at least the types of development it brought, were a good or bad thing for poor Black and Hispanic communities. Developers, a slew of government officials and real estate moguls are solidly on one side repeatedly citing the supposed benefits: more jobs, a spur to businesses, more and better housing, schools and services, and spruced up public space.

Community activists and legions of residents counter with their checklist of bad things it purportedly will bring: homelessness, displacement, unaffordability, racial tensions and erosion of the decades of racial and cultural cohesion that ironically forced confinement to racially segregated neighborhoods.

The fierce battle over the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is set hard against the backdrop of class and race, and the rapidly changing demographics of America’s cities. The debate will continue to sharpen over the best use of valued land in and near central cities.

Locally, the mall is simply the flash point of this debate; a debate that will only grow fiercer with time.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “The Gentrification Wars” (Amazon) He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.