Sunday, September 13, 2015

We were the gentrifiers

The story is almost cliched at this point: rents are getting too high in a neighborhood, and so the people who have lived there forever are starting to get pushed out by landlords who are cashing in. For me, this happened about three years ago, when Jamaica Plain became impossible to afford. So my wife and I moved to Roslindale, which is starting to see its rents go through the roof. A number of friends are making the same complaints. One claimed that an apartment on her street was being emptied out so the investors that bought it could turn it into a full-time Airbnb.

Walking through Fort Point yesterday, a neighborhood that has transformed from industrial wasteland/bohemia to something akin to a Miami tourist strip in just fifteen years, got my blood up on the same issue. As I strolled toward the Boston Design Center past the lofts, cafes, bars, and internet start-ups, against a steady stream of affluent, beautiful joggers and graphic designers, I seethed at these people and their wealth. I loathed that they turned a wasteland into a liveable, interesting place, like the coolest Mormons ever. “Why do these people deserve to stay, while I’m getting pushed out,” I thought. This is a common refrain in my head. I think it’s getting more and more common in a lot of people’s heads. With a household income of $100,000 necessary to pay the median rents in Boston, average folks are going to feel the pinch and look to blame someone.
Yesterday was different, though. I had a moment of self-reflection, and I’m not sure what brought it on. After my incredulous question, “why do these people get to stay,” I answered my question with another question. “Why do I get to stay?”

The truth is, this has never been my city. I’ve thought of it as mine for almost 14 years, but in truth, I’m not from here. I’m from a medium-sized town outside of Boston. It has a small common that I used to meet my friends at and a football stadium I’ve never been to. It’s very white and very middle-class, and growing up, I very much wanted to leave it. In total, I lived there for eight years. I was born in another town nearby, and moved there when I was five. I bounced around other suburbs through high school, and when I showed up in Boston with nothing but a milk crate and a duffle bag full of stuff I don’t have anymore in late September of 2001, I decided that this place was my destiny, and that I could make myself of it - from it. I paid $300 a month to share an 8x8 room, and had five housemates. I have no idea what the rent was in total, but it was around $2000 for an apartment in a neighborhood that had not yet shaken its old nickname of “Mission Kill.” Before the year was up, the building was condemned.

I moved to Allston. I don’t remember what I paid there, but I remember I didn’t like it much, and a year later, 2003, I moved to Jamaica Plain, where I’d stay pretty much continuously for the next nine years. I lived in a few places in JP, including a three-bedroom (really a two-bedroom with an office) that I paid $1300 for, which was in terrible shape, but that we thought was a steal. The landlords jacked the rent up after 3 years, and so we moved to a small one-bedroom basement apartment for $1000. After that, we rented out the attic of a decrepit mansion near Forest Hills Cemetery and paid $900. That was quite a grab, though a bit unconventional.

After a few years that house got a bit too crazy. It was known as a party house, and I was married and wanted to not share a house with five or six other people anymore. My wife and I, along with a friend who was in grad school and needed housemates, went looking for a two-bedroom apartment in Jamaica Plain. We couldn’t find one for less than $1800, and at the apartment tours, the realtors always had a dozen or so other people looking at the apartments. The other couples seemed a lot more “together” than us. They didn’t live in Jamaica Plain yet, but they wanted to. They’d heard about it. They’d read about it. Their friends lived there. Some of them had strollers.

We ended up getting a good deal on an apartment just outside JP, in Roslindale. Our landlords are great and keep the rent reasonable, but I’m hearing about rents around the neighborhood, and the is speculating that costs here might get unreasonable sooner than later. We’re a house sale away from getting pushed out of here, too.

But here’s the thing: I already did this to someone else. In 2001, I came here and paid way too much money to live in an undercode building in a neighborhood that just a few years prior was so dangerous that the universities in the area made sure classes got out before dark so the students could get home safe. Some slumlord pushed people out of Mission Hill to let the kids take over, and eventually, enough of us didn’t get killed that it became a feasible place to invest. So then they pushed us out and now that condemned apartment on Mission Hill is a half-million dollar condo. I was an early gentrifier. Not the first, but part of what turned Boston from the stuff of way too many movies into a place you’d want to raise your kids. I did that at the expense of other people who were already here, and I didn’t really ever think about it too seriously.

So now I’m the person being pushed out. Part of a middle-class that has found himself in the midst of an unstoppable combination of wealthy people who want the city life and college kids who are willing to pile into places so they don’t have to live in dorms or with their parents. Boston seems reluctant to build enough to accommodate the demand for city living, and so I’m getting screwed.
This is at least partially my fault, and I feel like I should take responsibility for it. Over the past fifteen years, I have been part of a nationwide effort to live where I want and do what I want for less money. This has given rise to companies like, which has put so much brick-and-mortar business out of business that all but the cities are essentially hibernating dens between work days. I helped put out the record stores with iTunes. So the two places where you’d see human beings in the world, and talk to likeminded people in a consumer setting, are gone from pretty much everywhere, except the cities. 

I used Foodler and GrubHub, who take a piece from the food I ordered, which lead the take-out places to raise their prices, but also made it so I didn’t have to talk to a person. I used Airbnb, because it was cheaper than hotels. Never mind that this perfectly nice apartment I stayed in clearly didn’t have a resident in it anymore, and was being turned over for visitors like me. I used Uber, because they are cheaper than cabs. Never mind that they are ruining a working class industry with their part-time “sharing economy.” I did these things because they took the Walmart model of “so cheap it hurts people” and made it feel hip and valuable. And it screwed us. It made some people rich, it made some other people a little extra pocket money, and it made Greater Boston unlivable.

I don’t “deserve” to live here any more than anyone else. Certainly, I deserve to live here less than the people I often scoff at, who have lived here their whole lives. I didn’t want to live in a dump. I wanted to live in a beautiful city, with fancy restaurants, and good coffee, and subways, and bike lanes, and farmers markets. I got those things, and it turns out everyone else wanted them, too. That I’m so indignant that I’m getting bumped for richer or more financially responsible people might be a bit unfair, but it’s also an important life lesson: you reap what you sow. I did this. We did this. We were the gentrifiers. Now we are being gentrified.