A woman I know, a nanny from Central America, lives with her two tall, teenage boys in a tiny basement apartment -- the kind of place where the front door is frequently blocked by snowbanks and you have to squeeze sideways to get around each other once inside. It's several blocks from a bus stop that takes her where she needs to go, which is, on a daily basis, to the homes of the families for whom she nannies across the neighborhood. Before she leaves for work, she kisses her boys goodbye and sends them on a multi-block walk to the nearest subway station to begin their 45-minute commute to school, three towns away. This woman has been living in my neighborhood for more than two decades, has raised her boys here, and has grown to become a bona fide member of the many families she's served through the years. This is home, and she's given back to her adopted neighborhood in ways I cannot possibly list here.
For about a year, she's been looking for a place to live that's closer to the families she serves. A place that is a bit safer for her boys, and for herself. Closer to the public transportation on which she depends. She's run into roadblock after roadblock, as the part of the neighborhood where her families live is considered "up and coming," with some rents starting at roughly twice what she's currently paying. Many longstanding homeowners, seeing the investment potential in their properties, are selling their buildings to developers, many of whom are kicking out the tenants to flip the units into high-end condos or apartments. The woman I know has no guarantee that her current landlord will not one day do that to her. Still, she searches for a modest place for her and her boys to lay their heads, a bit closer to the families she works for, in the neighborhood that is her home.
I had an interesting online chat this morning with another neighbor — a young professional who's lived here less than five years. This guy is all for the gentrification we're seeing in our community and has no sympathy for the longtime residents who find themselves in a financial and residential pickle as rents go up and amenities become more expensive.
"It's fucking life," he wrote me. "Live where you can afford."
To him, any phenomenon, public or private, that raises the value of his property, attracts a higher crust of residents that do the things he likes to do, and fixes up "shitty buildings" is fine by him -- low- and middle-income residents be damned. That twentysomething hotshot who's buying up buildings, evicting existing tenants, and flipping them (mostly poorly, I might add) into high-rent college dwellings? He's "a saint," a hero. Housing developments that feature subsidized units? They're the worst, according to him, and contributing to the downfall of the neighborhood. In fact, he actually believes low-income residents in affordable housing overlooking the Harbor and the skyline -- a complex that has been, I might add, in that location for decades -- do not deserve to live there because "those are million dollar views."
I could be wrong, but to him, it seems, city living is all about the gradual aesthetic improvement of the built environment, the introduction of amenities that cater to him and people like him (high-end grocery stores, gastropubs with $9 beers, CrossFit gyms, and the like), and eventually making a return on the housing investment he made when the neighborhood was a mostly affordable, blue-collar place to live.
But cities are people, not buildings. Buildings and restaurants and grocery stores serve people -- real people, with kids and no kids, living alone and with partners or roommates, employed and unemployed, documented and not, of every racial makeup you can imagine. The city is humanity's experiment in existing together in peace and creativity as one, beautiful tapestry of lives. People who thrive in cities concern themselves with the wellbeing of the collective, not just themselves.
When one of us is displaced, we all feel dislodged.
When one of us sees a family member touched by violence or fire or substances, we all run to the aid of that family and advocate for the best care possible.
When a public school does not meet our exacting standards, we throw our back into helping to turn it around.
Come to think of it, that interdependence is the American experiment as well, and that of our Commonwealth ("common wealth"). But cities are an ancient but unique microcosm of the kind of world in which we want to live. Long before "sharing economy" made it into our lexicon, there were cities -- the original sharing economy. These were economies built not around wealth accumulation and personal interest, but ones centered on people -- coexisting and thriving together as one diverse patchwork of beauty and creativity. In our modern, American iterations of urban life -- where "all men are created equal" -- the more diverse that patchwork, the better.
If we, as individuals and families living in an urban community, not only believed that cities are people but leaned into that belief, what would that mean for our nanny friend and her boys? Would their imminent displacement still be viewed by some as necessary collateral damage of a real estate market that is free and unfettered? Or would we value their contribution to the community so much that we'd do everything in our power to keep them and thousands of families like them right here, in their homes, where they belong?
A repository of my work, photos, and random reflections. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of publications or other clients with which I work.