There’s a cool place in Huntsville I’ve probably bragged about here before because it’s the place I take people who visit Huntsville to show them how awesome my city is. It’s an old school that was closed down and several years later turned into something called Campus 805 and it houses breweries and tattoo parlors and ax throwing and a big green space where I’ve attended cycling events and women’s rights protests and concerts and well…it’s one of my favorite places in town. I’ve spent thousands of dollars there (mostly in tattoos but also a lot in beer) and had birthday parties there and taken hand-lettering classes there. It simply has “ZOOT” written all over it. It is a playground designed specifically for me. Before this weekend I’m certain I’ve shared out this video dozens of times with messages like: I LOVE MY CITY!
And it never occurred to me until a few days ago that it is an example of gentrification in my own back yard.
I would love to say I was enjoying a beer there one night and said, “Why did this school close?” and that’s what led me to the realization. Or maybe it hit me after I recognized that no one in the neighborhoods around the place probably enjoys it because it’s a poor part of town and how many of them want to pay $5 for a beer or $40 for a watercolor class? Even the tattoo artist is one of the most pricey in town – so should anyone in the surrounding neighborhood wants some ink, they’re probably not going to go there.
Nope. I did not come to any of these realizations on my own. Black Twitter had to tell me by mocking that video that has gone viral the last few days. I had to see it show up in my feed because I follow a lot of black activists on Twitter and every time it came with accusations of gentrification. And how did I respond…I shamefully did that thing I write about NOT DOING all the time:
I GOT DEFENSIVE AS FUCK.
I mean, in my own head, thank god. BUT STILL.
I got very defensive for a few days but didn’t address it anywhere publicly because THERE WAS A PART OF ME that knew that I was supposed to sit in the discomfort. A small part of me was taking my own advice and just sitting in the discomfort before blasting my defensive feelings all over Twitter.
AND IT WAS NOT FUN. Being defensive is much less painful than sitting in the discomfort of truths that shine light on your own racism.
Now, listen. There’s some argument to be made about about how the people that decided what to do with the empty school are not the same people who decided to close the school. And there is definitely some room to shift the attention to brag on Huntsville who is still under a desegregation order and so we are actively working to integrate our school leading us to a more integrated school system than many big cities outside the South. Our schools are improving AND integrating across the city and while that has meant closing some to open others, the overall effect has been a more integrated system which is better for everyone.
And there are SO MANY BUTS.
No one has ever said this in my presence (I’d like to think they know better) but I have a lot of white friends who have heard people say that when we are out of the desegregation order, the zoning lines will shift back to what they were several years ago and the white neighborhood schools will no longer have lines that include the housing projects. One story I heard is from a Mom who said she was in a group of women one time being reassured about this fact by a city official. And even if I didn’t know for a fact that people said this, I would suspect it when you look at how many kids in some of the affected school zones switched to religious schools for religions they don’t subscribe to. So me bragging about our current integration efforts to justify the closing of a middle school that served poor and black neighborhoods is not really being honest about how the people of Huntsville (probably?) truly feel about the integration efforts.
You also periodically hear about how housing projects around town might be closed for “rejuvenation” efforts and people (like me) will justify it because they facilities are in need of repair or whatever BUT…I’ve simultaneously seen other communities around town FIGHT TOOTH AND NAIL to prevent public housing to come into their neighborhoods. So me acting like closing something that serves the poor community “is necessary” is unjust when no one else in town wants public housing in their neighborhoods.
Listen. This is a complicated issue and Twitter doesn’t allow for nuance so I’m definitely not saying these 280 hot takes from people who don’t even live here should be looked at as Gospel. THIS IS VERY COMPLICATED. Practically speaking because the sins of the past created this mess and so what are city leaders supposed to do? I know a lot of people defending Campus 805 and I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m not attacking anyone who supports Campus 805 because IT IS STILL ONE OF MY FAVORITE PLACES IN TOWN.
The thing about gentrification – where ever you find it – is that very few people who benefit from rejuvenating blighted neighborhoods are directly the cause of the blighting. That’s why we call a lot of these problems around race systemic. It’s not as easy as just one racist governor fighting integration. It’s much more complicated than that and racist systems are hard to dismantle.
It’s very easy to defend these type of projects because few/none of the people funding these efforts or making these decisions created red-lining or segregated schools or Jim Crow or even supported other of the racist systems that held our poor black communities down. I’m definitely not saying WE SHOULD NEVER FILL EMPTY BUILDINGS IN POOR NEIGHBORHOODS. I’m not even saying that Campus 805 is a bad thing I shouldn’t patronize. I’m for sure not saying that I wish we hadn’t done it because it definitely has brought tourist dollars to our city we in ways we didn’t predict.
HERE IS WHAT I AM SAYING: Shame on me for never asking questions about the school closing and never wondering how the community around the closed school feels about A) the school closing and B) this rich white people playground now in their backyards. I never tempered my excitement with any sort of awareness of gentrification. NEVER. I recognized the signs of gentrification in the Lower East Side of Manhattan quicker than I recognized it 3 miles down the road from me.
White people, especially of the middle-class liberal variety, like to celebrate things like “bringing life back to blighted neighborhoods” or “reducing crime rates by opening new businesses” or “shining the light in areas that the city had forgotten” and we pat ourselves on the back because all of these things sound amazing. I AM DEFINITELY ONE OF THOSE WHITE BACK-PATTERS.
But we don’t stop and really dig into why neighborhoods were blighted, or why crime rates were hight, or why the city forgot these neighborhoods to begin with. And we definitely don’t look for the ways we may still be supporting racist systems with our rejuvenation efforts.
Like I said in my twitter thread about it yesterday. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know this: I’m adequately embarrassed that I’ve never sat down and thought about this before and I will be more aware when I hear about similar efforts in the future. I will try to find voices of complaint about these type of plans in the city in the future and hear them out. I will ask questions about why neighborhoods need “rejuvenation” and will try to seek out the voices in those neighborhoods to hear what they have to say.
Maybe everyone who lives around Campus 805 loves it. Maybe none of the affected communities look at this like a bad thing. Maybe students at Stone Middle School’s lives got better when they closed the school and so they have no regrets. The point is: I NEVER ASKED. I looked at us white beer drinkers as a good thing because we’re spending money in an impoverished neighborhood but do those dollars help anyone nearby? I NEVER ASKED. I looked at the old basketball court where beer is being brewed and thought, “HOW COOL IS THIS PLACE?” and never once wondered about the kids who won games on that court and then lost their school and got dumped into one they told was “better” when it probably just looked whiter.
I’m embarrassed that I never asked. And while I have no idea how this new awareness will affect my consumerism in this city (I mean, my tattoo artist is there, we know I’m going to keep spending money there) but I will say this: I WILL ASK. I will sit in the discomfort and I will seek contrary voices and I will continue to educate myself.
So the next time you hear me talk about the importance of sitting in discomfort around issues of race please remember that I am walking the very uncomfortable walk myself. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary. Being “woke” is not something I can claim when I’m sleeping right past gentrification in my own back yard.