I've Seen Gentrification Break the Promises of the Great Migration
Lenée A. Voss
I’m from a “good” neighborhood. You know, the kind of neighborhood that’s a destination. When we get out of the hood. When we have kids. When we have some money.
When, when, when.
The house I grew up in is the house where my mom grew up. It’s where my uncles snuck weed and girls, where I learned that Teena Marie was white. My family were the first Black people on the block. The only. The ones being chased home from school, the ones punching white boys in the face for casually calling them nigger and laughing about it.
My maternal grandfather came to Philadelphia when he was 5 or 6, from Orangeburg, South Carolina. He was one of seven children. The goal for he and his siblings was to graduate high school. In a social landscape where Black achievement was typically met with violence, this was a big deal. Though I don’t have all the information, it was always understood that getting away from white people down south was the right kind of gamble. My maternal grandmother was born in Philadelphia to parents who’d come north well before she was even thought of. They bought a house in The Black Bottom, they went to a holiness church and were Good Colored People. They would join Jesus one day. When, when, when.
I was rooted in when, and when was the promise of arrival at the place where I might finally be free. Free of what, I was never sure. It was a destination, regardless. Maybe free was the place or thing my great-grandparents sought when they came here.
I thought free was my first solo apartment: a $500 studio in a neighborhood that had enough Black folks in it to feel like home. My neighborhood, Cedar Park, lay between the purportedly rough parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia. If someone had told me in 2006 that I wouldn’t be able to afford the rent in this neighborhood, I would have laughed in their face. I didn’t understand what it meant that my white neighbors crept west of 43rd street, away from their beloved Clark Park.
I moved closer to Penn’s campus, where there was all this “revitalization” happening. I left for NYC in early 2010. My search for housing introduced me to the word, the practice, the specter of gentrification. I didn’t get calls back once they realized the last name Voss belonged to a Black woman. I bounced around for two-and-a-half years before I found a long-term home. Brooklyn went from $600 to $700. From $700 to needing to leave the borough altogether. It felt like the biggest push. Nothing I could possibly do felt like enough.
I migrated to Washington Heights and took a shitty room rental from someone who a year later decided to throw me out. I was working two part-time jobs and trying to make the most of a place that every day became less home-like to me. I managed to work it out. I found couches, one-month sublets here and there one summer in a gorgeous East Harlem hi-rise as the property management company was in the process of renaming the neighborhood Lexington Heights. It was as if the words El Barrio weren’t plastered across everything within five blocks. I felt restless even as I settled into my last NYC apartment: how long before there was more than cow’s milk in the bodega? Would I find the supermarket across the street Yelp reviewed out of existence? The questions never stopped. The city’s change never stopped, either.
I was watching the erasure of my new home as I lived there.
Now, I’m back in Philadelphia—my hometown, fraught with tensions old and new. I live in 2018 Cedar Park, a destination. It’s brunch friendly, dog friendly, family friendly, and white-guilt friendly. My old block hasn’t got a single Black homeowner on it anymore. There are always opportunities to meet my neighbors that I never seem to get to. As a 153 unit building goes up on 52nd street, what does that mean for my friends in the neighborhood? How does that change the perception of my teenage neighbor? Is he a threat to someone who’s never lived this close to Black people? In the 100 years since the Great Migration started, what’s different for Black Americans, if anything at all? We are still forced to flee our homes due to white supremacist violence, preventing the multi-generational making of stable communities. Sometimes you don’t wanna leave, but where is “home”? Where do we go from here?
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