A few weeks ago, the family of Breonna Taylor amended their lawsuit against Louisville police officers Brett Hankison, Myles Cosgrove, and Jonathan Mattingly to include that her murder was connected to a gentrification project.
The lawsuit claims that police were targeting homes along Elliott Avenue to clear out for a new development, which, although Taylor lived more than 10 miles away from, was home to her ex-boyfriend. Investigators believed that Taylor’s ex was a drug dealer, and that she might be stashing his drugs... a suspicion of which they found no evidence.
One of the most saddening parts of Taylor’s story is that it’s not an isolated event. All across the country, police are weaponized by municipalities and developers to lay the groundwork for their envisioned prosperity at the hands of displaced minorities and the poor. By using a number of different law enforcement tactics, police are able to not only completely alter and change the landscape of a neighborhood, but permanently displace both the people and culture that came with it.
Gentrification often means people are forced to move further from the resources they need, putting their jobs, transportation, food accessibility, and health at risk. This is why in our conversations about defunding the police and reinvesting into communities, we should start to include how we can preserve not just our neighborhoods and their cultural roots, but the lives of those who call them home.
The Displacement of Culture
The first recorded use of the word gentrification was in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass, which she described as a process that "goes on until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed."
Although often associated with economics, the biggest defining characteristic of gentrification is a change in culture. While gentrification and increased economic development are usually synonymous, the problem is more with what privilege money can buy in an area, as well as who is getting kicked out.
To get a bird’s eye view of gentrification’s impact, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition put together a study that compiled data from the census on cultural displacement in American cities over a 13-year period. Some highlights of note:
– From 2000-2013, nearly 135,000 black and hispanic residents were affected by gentrification.
– Washington D.C. was considered the most gentrified by percentage of eligible neighborhoods, while New York City was most gentrified by volume.
– Seven cities accounted for nearly half of the gentrification nationally: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago.
– Gentrification was concentrated in larger cities with vibrant economies, but also appeared in smaller cities where it often impacted areas with the most amenities near central business districts.
In explaining these findings, NCRC says changing attitudes contributed to these cultural shifts: as millennials view minority neighborhoods as "cool and edgy," this can also create "new social tensions that influence interactions, which can often result in micro-level segregation."
The most common way new residents express micro-level segregation is via non-emergency hotlines like 311. These calls usually range from new neighbors complaining about block parties to Permit Patty — the infamous woman who called the police on an eight-year-old girl for selling water bottles without the city's permission. As these non-emergency complaints predominantly involve police confronting Black or Hispanic people, it is one of the commonly-used practices that slowly displace original community members. And as was the case with Breonna Taylor, the police's relationship with gentrification often begins before 311 callers even move into the neighborhood.
Where Gentrification and Police Policy Begin
The role police play in gentrification can start as early as the "ideation" stage of a project (that is, a developer or municipality hasn’t made a purchase yet, but is considering it).
In a report by sociology professor Dr. Brenden Beck titled "Policing Gentrification: Stops and Low-Level Arrests during Demographic Change and Real Estate Reinvestment," Dr. Beck identifies two paths where gentrification commonly occurs:
– When residents call in complaints (the micro-level segregation mentioned above)
– When developers encourage police to "sweep" areas that they’re interested in, which can sometimes include a municipality's involvement as well.
As Dr. Beck’s study was based on New York City, he also identifies three common police practices that contribute to gentrification:
1. Stop and Frisk (the controversial program that enabled NYC officers to temporarily detain and question civilians based on suspicion, also called a Terry stop in other parts of the country)
2. Proactive Policing (investigations or finding activity on the beat that’s "not easily visible," including raids and sweeps)
3. Order Maintenance Policing ("The Broken Windows Theory," where police enforce minor offenses under scrutiny, such as loitering, drinking in public, or disorderly conduct).
The study also includes that many of these practices do not reduce crime (or if they do, they aren’t worth the cost), as well as that when more white people moved into a neighborhood, police made more order-maintenance arrests, but fewer stops and proactive arrests. Overall, low-level policing intensified as more white and middle-class people moved in, which, in many ways, appears by design.
Why the Broken Windows Theory Became Dangerous
The Broken Windows Theory stems from the idea that disorder such as vandalism, loitering, public drinking, and prostitution created an environment that enables a more serious crime to occur.
On the surface, the idea is sound, and early implementations even led to positive community engagement. Its namesake actually stems from the title of a 1982 article in The Atlantic called "Broken Windows," where co-author George L. Kelling followed an officer that "walked the beat" in Newark, NJ. Kelling observed that order-maintenance policing was much more civil, using discretion to keep the peace amongst “drunks and derelicts” over arrests for petty crimes. This was also the initial goal of community policing. However, when order maintenance fell into the wrong hands, it became a weapon for cities and developers to accelerate their economic agendas.
In another piece co-authored by Dr. Beck and Adam Goldstein called "Governing Through Police? Housing Market Reliance, Welfare Retrenchment, and Police Budgeting in an Era of Declining Crime," the two argue that: “the popularity of the broken windows theory led the way for law enforcement to view their role beyond preventing and responding to crime, but rather using policing to enhance property values and business investment conditions.”
Some supporting stories they include:
– In 2001, Minneapolis’ police chief told his officers they should "take pride in the city’s rising home values."
– Denver’s city council president and future mayor told a newspaper, "Crime statistics can affect home values and how people perceive their safety."
– Finally, police departments in many cities even adopted housing price appreciation as a formal performance metric, aligning their own organizational practices with the real estate market.
Another striking reason order-maintenance policing needs reform is that it also enables officers to cherry-pick crimes. As Dr. Ayobami Laniyonu points out in "Coffee Shops and Street Stops: Policing Practices in Gentrifying Neighborhoods," order-maintenance is often up to the officer’s discretion of "socially accepted behavior," using the case of public intoxication on a college campus versus middle-class neighborhood, where the latter would be criminalized. He concludes that order-maintenance policing is ineffective in preventing crime, where poverty and concentrated disadvantages are considered much better cursors; and when we take that and couple it with unemployment sitting at the worst it's ever been from the Covid-19 global recession, we’re currently at the highest point of risk to lose more of our communities’ cultural landscape to further gentrification.
How Can We Grow, But Still Preserve Culture?
A common fear when gentrification gets discussed is the suggestion that we should leave cities stagnant from economic development.
It's true that growth can still occur while maintaining the original integrity of a community, but the implementation of successful policy to do so has been spotty. To create a more streamlined approach, here are a few of the common conversations and pieces of legislation surrounding gentrification policy:
Revisiting Rent Control Laws
Although 36 states currently have laws on the book for rent regulation, many leave it up to individual cities and towns to actually implement rent control laws.
Some scholars believe that rent control laws promote gentrification by reducing the housing supply available (thus, raising prices), while others argue that attempting to stabilize prices increases the capital current tenants can circulate through their community. While both arguments are valid, the implementation of rent control doesn't necessarily mean landlords still won't get their way; for example, as noted in a recent episode of Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act, a woman in a rent-controlled apartment faced a "renoviction" of loud construction to force her hand in moving out. Implementing programs that revisit some of these common complaints is a solid first step in alleviating displacement, especially in areas where the rent laws don't reflect the current market.
Lobbying For Changes to the Community Reinvestment Act
In May, the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC), made a final rule on modernizing the Community Reinvestment Act, which was passed in 1977 to help provide credit to low and moderate income neighborhoods. A couple of weeks ago, House Democrats challenged the rule, calling it harmful to the communities it’s intended to help.
As the inner workings of the OCC’s final rule is over 300 pages long, placing infrastructural legislation like this in the public eye is crucial to understanding how we can lobby the laws around it, as well as provide financial access to those who need it most.
Increase Incentives for Banks to Engage More as Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)
Community Development Financial Institutions are banks that provide credit and financial services to underserved communities. These are generally local federal credit unions — however, banks like JP Morgan also have CDFI programs. When we talk about subjects like keeping the Black dollar circulating through its own community, that often starts at the banking level, which is why incentivizing more banks to engage with preserving the culture of communities could drastically help slow large influxes of displacement.
Create Citizen-Elected Arbitrators for Cultural Preservation
Perhaps one of the hardest battles with gentrification is regulating the nuances of social norms. For example, in a Washington Post story on drummers in Meridian Hill Park, new neighbors started passing around petitions over if the drums should have a curfew, exist as they always have, or be banned entirely. Conflicts like this are a core reason gentrifiers call the police; however, in conceiving new ways to deal with neighborhood preservation, creating a citizen-elected board of arbitrators to relegate these tasks could help avoid law enforcement confrontations in general.
Ban Municipalities and Private Developers From Encouraging Police Activity for Gentrification Projects
Finally, creating a federal ban on municipalities from encouraging police to help with gentrification projects is imperative. In the memory of Breonna Taylor, and the many others who've died in similar circumstances, utilizing police for economic gain has to stop before even more blood is spilled in the name of "progress." After all, this is about more than just protecting culture... it's about protecting the people who help keep it alive.