• Illustration by Baili BighamIllustration by Baili BighamBaili Grace Bigham - Head Entertainment Columnist
    bgbigham@gmail.com

    Connotations are a funny thing. While two different words can have similar meanings, they may have two entirely different implications. By definition, the concept of community gentrification is similar to community revitalization but with the addition of, or the acknowledgment of, the displacement of low-income individuals and families due to the influx of more affluent individuals. This leads to scrutiny, and criticism, of what should be such a good thing: the rejuvenation of a city.

    I have lived in Birmingham all of my life. I have watched the downtown area get a face-lift and I have also watched neighboring areas, such as Avondale and Woodlawn, take a complete 180-degree turn in both form and population. What were once low-income, dilapidated zones are now thriving hot-spots with restaurants, venues, breweries, coffee shops and, of course, new and renovated housing.

    This isn’t such a bad thing. Everyone wants to see hustle and bustle in their city, especially when it’s improving the quality of life. Things get messy when the people who called this place home before we made it ours are not given a voice, and that is the controversial adjunct that makes “gentrification” a bad word.

    The Birmingham Civil Right Institute's vice president of Education and Exhibitions, Ahmad Ward, spoke about the pros and cons of the gentrification and revitalization of our city.

    “Revitalization in a city is awesome, but when it is at someone’s expense, it’s wrong,” Ward said.

    While it is easy to see all of the wonderful things Birmingham is doing and creating, it’s done a lackluster job of holding up the voices of the residents that lived in those areas before the revitalization efforts. As cost of living inevitably goes up in a thriving city, lower income households are pushed out.

    It can be said that another harsh reality of gentrification is that revitalization follows the money. In other words, the city is being tailored to a certain demographic: the young, the white and the wealthy.

    Ward continued his thought into the form of a question, “Is it race or finances? Can you divorce the two?”

    For Ward, the answer was no. This is simply an example of socioeconomics, he explained — in Birmingham, we are seeing an influx of new faces and business and what we may turn a blind eye to is the outflux of the faces that have been here for many years. While some are excited by Birmingham’s new look, it’s no surprise that others feel outraged and dislocated.

    I do not believe that revitalization necessarily entails the dislocation of culture. The problem posed by these efforts is the misrepresentation of the community, as Birmingham’s population is over 70 percent black. Much of this population is low-income. The new businesses coming to Birmingham are essentially pricing these households out. By not accommodating the majority of a city, it is unavoidable to see the trend forming in favor of a certain demographic. By adding more adequately priced goods to Birmingham’s market, it would give a chance for approval and improvements across the board.

    Working to ensure Birmingham stays united should be a little higher up on the city’s priority list, but where the government lacks in fairness, we as a community must pick up the slack. Birmingham is no stranger to finding opportunities, nor is it new to the idea of strong voices, so let’s create the change needed to maintain the diverse city that we all call home. This problem is not one that is impossible to fix. Turning away from the issues that are causing Birminghamian’s to pack up and leave indicates neglect on the city’s part. Locals that know the veins of this city should be given that respect and a voice to match.