Code Words

A few weeks ago our staff gathered together in Chicago.  Normally we are spread across five states.  Our annual meeting is important for the health and life of DOOR.  The relationships that are renewed and built during this gathering inspire creativity throughout the rest of the year. One of the first things we do is check-in with each other.  One of the focus questions that I asked everyone to answer was, what is one question you have for the group?  The questions varied from personal to theological.  It was during this time that one of our staff brought up HGTV.  They have multiple programs that follow people as they purchase homes.  One of the regular lines that is used to sell homes goes something like - “this is an up-and-coming neighborhood.”  The staff person’s reflection was how this kind of statement is code language for gentrification, a process where persons of privilege and means move into economically depressed neighborhoods and begin “fixing it up.”

There are all kinds of assumptions behind this code speak.  Up-and-coming also says others are leaving.  More often than not those others are people of color.  It was almost 20 years ago when our family moved from the suburbs to the city.  At that time we were warned by almost everyone how silly our decision to move was.  Our house would only decrease in value.  The schools were so bad that we would either have to home school or find a private school to send our boys to.  Then there were all the assumptions about who our new neighbors would be.  Interestingly enough none of this turned out to be true.  Our house is worth more today than when we purchased it.  The boys survived and thrived in the neighborhood school.  Our neighbors have become family.

Today my neighborhood is described as up-and-coming.  When houses sell, the new owners tend to be people of privilege.  The park up the street now has a dog park.  Coffee shops and pubs are starting to appear.  In many ways this is bringing new life and new jobs into the neighborhood.  There is also a downside to these changes.  Many up-and-coming neighborhoods started off as places that immigrants, the working poor, and people of color moved to. These folks brought with them their culture, food, and values.  Something important is lost when they are displaced by rising rent, increased property taxes, and a growing sense of not being welcome any longer.

What is it that drives us to be surrounded by people just like us?  As I reflect on our almost 20 years in the neighborhood it is the differences that have been enriching and life-giving.  Our family has learned to eat new foods and we have helped our neighbors to appreciate a few of our Mennonite traditions.  We have celebrated Quinceañeras, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays appreciating the differences we all bring to these days.

The next time you are tempted to move into an up-and-coming neighborhood, be careful that you are not becoming part of a tide that is undermining the culture and traditions that have made that neighborhood so desirable and unique.