If you have spent any major portion of your life in the city gentrification is probably not a term you’re unfamiliar with. Dallas residents especially know what this word means, even if they do not think about it as they enjoy a night out amongst the restaurants and venues of Deep Ellum. It is easy to forget what family owned businesses were pushed out by the art studios, and about who lived in the now-chic exposed brick buildings back when they were just called “poorly insulated.” In most cases, the ethnic history of such regions is indeed swiftly and entirely forgotten; after all, how many people reading this know that the shiny area called Uptown was called Little Mexico just 25 years ago?
“Gente”-fication, by contrast, is less likely to be in our regular vocabularies. “Gente,” the Spanish word that translates loosely to “people,” is used to distinguish gente-fication from gentrification as a process undertaken by members of the Latino community who have returned to their homes, the working-class barrios where they were raised, with their newly-gained upward mobility. Bringing with them desires for more upper-class amenities, which create new and more expensive markets in the area, these returned-residents are responsible for raising the cost of living and thereby causing what can feel like gentrification affects (higher property taxes and less affordable housing and resources). However, thanks to the cultural background of the “gente,” flourishing ethnic cultures need not be destroyed in this process, and, if executed with care, gente-fication can lead to a rising socio-economic class in barrios that does not sacrifice the heart of the community.
Tower Center Fellow Dr. Jennifer Cook moderated a three-man panel: Mr. Alfredo Huante, who presented his extensive work on gente-fication in the LA area, Hon. Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor of San Antonio, and Mr. Mike Koprowski, Executive Director of Opportunity Dallas, all spoke on gente-fication, what it means for Dallas, and what we can do to ensure that Dallas’ Latino community is taken care of.
The rest of this article could be as academic as these previous three paragraphs have been. I could tell you the various threats that gente-fication poses to Latino communities, and I could tell you how these threats can be predicted ahead of time, which many members of the audience were interested in, and I could tell you the various solutions to these threats offered by the well-informed panelists. The truth is, though, none of those things would capture the passion in the Hall of State at that Latino Center for Leadership Development event, and so, as I have been asked to write about the event and not merely the words that were spoken there, this article needs to change.
The American city is booming. The country is becoming an economy of services, and these services must be performed in areas with a gente large enough to pay to keep these services afloat, so we move inwards; we coalesce; we build apartments and buy bikes and expect good takeout food. During the Great Recession, when cities hollowed out and many fled to the suburbs and farther, often it was the poor who remained to hold down the old forts, taking advantage of the then-affordable housing. Now that we, and by we I mean middle and upper-class Caucasians, are moving back with our avocado toast (as Mr. Huante put it), we are pushing out those who weathered the storm in those cities. As we do so we are smothering the cultures that flourished when we abandoned them. This must stop.
The residents of Dallas recognize this problem. They know that a homogenous population is a weak one, and that Dallas does not have the best of records when it comes to protecting those whom Dallas herself makes vulnerable. And so, Dallas turned out in droves for this event, packing the tables and the rows of chairs and eventually standing in the back to listen. The panel was ready for their interest.
Sec. Cisneros nearly rose from his chair as he spoke of the need to listen to grassroots and in-community organizations, genuine voices who could set a proper rate for gente-fication and gentrification and avoid the displacement of those who merely cannot afford new property taxes. When an audience member asked a question about cost-effective measures for combating gentrification Mr. White, too, leaned dangerously forward as he denounced the idea of reaching for low-hanging fruit regarding such an issue. “Go big or go home,” he said, letting the unspoken phrase “and going home is not an option” hang in the air.
Dallas will face gente-fication because Dallas is blessed with an ever-rising Latino community. Gente-fication will displace other minority groups, who will face their own “-fications” in turn, with gentrification always on the horizon for everyone. We must not allow these processes to cripple us, and especially not now as we rise so quickly as one of the greatest cities in America. Thankfully, if the attendance of this event is to be any portent of what will come, there are many who will work to save us.