I am a Gentrifier. Here’s What I did About it.

ByAlvin Makori, PhD Student, USC Rossier School of Education
Students walking and sitting outside in front of shops at the USC Village
Retail shops line the University of Southern California’s USC Village. Development of the village was calculated to cost $700 million and was completed in 2017. (Source)  

“Mobile order for Alvin!,” the Starbucks employee called as she placed my iced mocha on the counter. I weaved through the small crowd of college-aged customers to grab my beverage, checking the attached receipt for my modifications: Two pumps of syrup, not three. No whipped cream, light ice. I took my first sip as I maneuvered out of the roastery and into the sunshine-filled campus at the University of Southern California (USC). As I contemplated whether to find an indoor study space or an outdoor table, my Dad’s favorite phrase rang through my head. “Get at least fifteen minutes of sunshine every day!” he says. “Some of us don’t have that kind of weather where we live.” I used to take that message to heart as a fresh-faced freshman, eager to be permanently removed from the Ohio winters that battered me during high school. Now, five years later, I found myself mundanely looking for an empty outdoor table on the same campus that I used to marvel at. 

As I took my shaded seat and opened my computer, I took a moment to look around my haven for the last half-decade, the USC Village. My eyes drew to a group of nursing students, coordinated in their scrubs and stethoscopes, as they walked past two kids playing near a large fountain. I turned my gaze toward a tall, bronzed statue that I immediately recognized as Hecuba, the Queen of Troy. It reminded me of a time two years ago, when a young woman approached my parents and I as we took selfies in front of the statue–“Can I take them for you?,” she beamed. I thanked her and handed her my phone, laughing with my parents as she guided us through different poses and angles. “Mom and Dad, wave your hands up toward the sky!” she proclaimed. I recall that photoshoot vividly; I graduated only minutes prior, walking out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a bachelor’s degree in Law, History, and Culture. I remember the subsequent walk toward the USC Village, hugging friends along Trousdale Walkway and embracing the yells of “congratulations!” as I swung my graduation sash and purple orchid lei.  So much has changed since then, I thought to myself. 

Just two years ago, I could scan the USC Village and find at least one group of friends. But now, as a second year Ph.D. student in a six-member cohort, I looked around and saw only strangers. Focus on what hasn’t changed, I told myself to calm my nerves. Slowly, I gravitated toward the wide-open red brick plaza, a sprawling foreground to the same maze of restaurants and clothing stores that have been around since my undergraduate years. Above them rested a series of four-story dormitories with beige columns cascading down to gothic arches. Yet, the peace I used to feel from these familiar surroundings was no longer there. The hardest part? I knew exactly why, and it had everything to do with my not-so-sweet, light-ice, no-whip mocha.


Did I do that?

Have you ever heard the saying, “ignorance is bliss”? My bliss was interrupted a few weeks into my second fall semester as a USC Ph.D. student, when a prolific local coalition leader came to speak in one of my classes. “Who here has heard of Exposition Point?,” she asked. Many of us shook our heads, and she enlightened us on the $455 million project that launched in 2016, a multi-block commercial development with blueprints to construct over 23,000 square feet of retail and 400 apartment units near USC’s campus. “What do you think happened to the residents who used to live here?,” the coalition leader asked, referring to the largely low-income Black and Latino population that has surrounded USC for decades. It only took me one Google search to confirm her answer: “Eviction notices for all 80 residents—almost all of them black or Latino – went up a few weeks [after the developer bought the property], indicating that the owner wanted to convert the units, located near the University of Southern California, into student housing.” A new space for USC students to live and spend money in at the expense of long-term residents? I thought to myself. I remembered a comment my friend made about the USC Village years ago: “Did you know they designed that place to keep the ‘poor people’ out?” I quickly searched “USC Village Gentrification” and found articles mirroring those about Exposition Point— “USC Village used to be a place where the surrounding South-Central community could grocery shop, eat and spend time with friends or family. However, since its renovation in 2017, USC Village has become a place that primarily serves students and alienates the low-income community it used to serve.”

Suddenly, it clicked. For five years, I had been shopping, eating, and homemaking in a stolen space. I am a gentrifier, I realized with horror. With my mere presence in this neighborhood, I am helping to displace the very people who I aim to serve with my research degree. My twice-a-week Starbucks coffee, my tuition dollars, everything I was doing at USC was helping to finance these commercial developments. 

This guilt reached a fever pitch as I stared across the USC Village, my mocha now sitting idle on the table. I knew that this place would never be the same for me again, not after understanding the implications of its development. I needed to learn what to do, and soon. To settle my thoughts, I wrote down three questions: 1) What is gentrification, exactly? 2) What does it mean to be a gentrifier? and 3) What should I, and people in similar positions to me, do about gentrification?


Aerial view of the USC Village construction prior to completion in 2017
Construction of the USC village prior to completion in 2017. (Source)

What is Gentrification, Exactly?

The term gentrification was first coined by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, in 1964, to describe the takeover of working class neighborhoods by middle class residents. This process, Glass explained, can result in nearly all of the working class residents being uprooted from the neighborhood. Since then, the concept of gentrification has been applied widely across urban contexts to describe the process of reversing disinvestment in inner city neighborhoods, which is often depicted as the changing “cultural, demographic, and economic circumstances” of the neighborhood as middle class residents move in.

With a few exceptions, many contemporary studies have found at least a moderate association between gentrification and the displacement of neighborhood residents. Among the most affected areas are Black inner-city neighborhoods, many of which face threats of displacement decades after their residents were historically confined to inner-city spaces due to racist redlining practices. The negative consequences of gentrification have also extended to urban Latinx populations in the U.S., including cases of commercial displacement.

In this context of inner-city investment, residential displacement, and shifts to retail options, I began understanding the development near USC for what it was— a catalyst to disrupting the livelihoods of long-time South Central residents, many of whom are Black or Latinx. But new spaces such as the USC Village and Exposition Point cannot sustain on their own—  their existence relies on a steady stream of consumers to keep the investment profitable, and I was one of them. The high-rent townhouse complexes towering over the bungalows west of campus? I rented from there. The black gates separating USC from the surrounding neighborhood? I have spent the majority of five years within them. And while no singular person can match the influence of a privately-funded economic powerhouse, I realized that it is still an individual’s responsibility to recognize when they are complicit in a neighborhood’s gentrification. Without gentrifiers, I wondered, would gentrification cease to exist?


The Power of Home

A group of tenants holding various protest signs saying "Rent is theft" and "We are here to stay" in English and Spanish, among others.
Local tenants protest private development near USC. (Source)

A few weeks after class with the coalition leader, I decided to take a walk to the future site of Exposition Point. As I arrived, development appeared to be non-existent. A large, empty parking lot sat in the space, perhaps for the professional soccer stadium across the street. I did not see the old apartment complex where residents had been evicted a few years prior. It was clear to me that the developer of Exposition Point had run into delays, and a web search confirmed this. Seven years since this plan was approved, there was nothing to show for it. 

Recalling my class conversation with the local coalition leader, I figured that the former residents had something to do with it. The community is fighting back, I said to myself. I soon found that the local community was fighting more than just Exposition Point, they were taking on all new student housing around USC. A recent report outlined one such protest, where community members demanded that a rental company cease all project developments in the neighborhood while calling on their councilmember to bring affordable housing to the area. As I read on, I envisioned all the memories that the long-time residents had made in this neighborhood, how everything they built had become home. And if there is one thing I have learned from my time in Los Angeles, it’s that folks will go a long way to protect their home. This has led to instances of negotiation and collaboration, ranging from USC’s pipeline programs for South Central students, to the university’s widespread hiring of local construction workers, and a $10 million donation to the Los Angeles Housing Department to expand affordable housing. This complexity of neighborhood change left me with one lasting question: What should I, and people in similar positions to me, do about gentrification?

For advice, I turned to the Los Angeles Times’ documentation of Leimert Park, a traditionally Black neighborhood in Los Angeles that is quickly gentrifying. Intrigued, I read about how two new residents, a couple of white and Filipino descent, created a monthly “Free Café” to facilitate neighborhood discussions about gentrification. Long-term residents had mixed responses to the Free Café— some stayed away from the forum entirely, while one older Black resident appreciated its “moderate” setting. What struck me most, though, was one resident’s understanding of how new residents should navigate the neighborhood: “To be in the community is to expect it to form and change around you; to be of the community is to make a sincere effort to integrate into it.” In Leimert Park, sincere integration looked like supporting local-owned businesses. It looked like accepting feedback and advice from long-time residents, and even opening your home to the community. Inspired to do the same, I came up with a plan. Is it so bad to grab an occasional Starbucks coffee? Maybe, maybe not. What is more important, though, is that I am intentionally supporting the local businesses around USC. For example, enjoying a late-night plate at the taco stand and tipping extra for the meal, or shopping at locally owned retailers that could benefit from my financial support. 

While I saw this commitment as progress, I knew that I needed to do more. How can I help to address displacement? As I read on, I found an article documenting how a group of Black Leimert Park residents were “buyin’ up the hood, Nipsey Hussle-style.” Despite the racialized challenges of buying commercial property in the neighborhood, the residents managed to buy a building and protect the property from encroaching gentrification. This is the fight that arises from having a home, I realized. Inspired, I began to ponder how I could engage in the fight, assisting South-Central residents in their battle for housing and commercial equity. Since then, I have looked to local organizations for guidance on how I can offer my support, including how my position as a social science researcher can contribute to changes in housing policy. Collective action is a defining feature of any strong neighborhood, and I believe that all new residents of a gentrifying area should be committed to standing with long-time locals as they fight for their home. 


© 2024. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

About the author:

Alvin Makori is a Ph.D. Student, Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.