I'm Pablo Haake, a Stanford student and a 2014 Bezos Scholar. In April 2015, I organized a local ideas festival (LIF) after attending the Aspen Ideas Festival through the Bezos Scholars Program. The event was entitled the OurCity Ideas Festival and it brought together community stakeholders in my hometown of Davenport, Iowa to discuss our downtown past and present and what we wanted to see it become in the future. The idea was that the voices of young people should be valued as the city tried to make itself more attractive to millennials and retain talent at home; in part a response to the "brain drain" that has plagued so many mid-sized Midwestern cities.
In some respects, the LIF was a great success: we brought together over 100 residents, downtown business owners, and City Council members. Even the Mayor showed up for a little while. People felt inspired by looking back on what our city was nearly a century ago, before suburban sprawl and white flight sucked economic and political power out of most American inner cities. The event sparked conversations about our city’s use of public space, increasing housing availability, support for artists and public art, sustainability, and more. People brainstormed ideas and we collected their feedback and thoughts. Overall, the festival received a lot of support, including the involvement of many students at my high school, and even garnered press well beyond Davenport.
But there was a glaring issue, one that I would only come to actually realize looking back two years later: the language we used to describe the vision for the event was heavily suggestive of gentrification, and the people we attracted to the event reinforced this fact. We described ourselves in promotions as “millennials for a more vibrant downtown” and celebrated the idea of “revitalization.” There were some current downtown residents present at the event, but our outreach was mostly through social media and the press, not door-to-door in the apartments downtown. Though everyone in the city has a stake in the future of their downtown, the current inhabitants of that space needed to be included in the conversation.
Fortunately, my involvement with the Bezos Scholars Program and the OurCity Ideas Festival was critical to helping me uncover my passion for urban issues, community organizing, and local politics - interests which led me to declare the Urban Studies major at Stanford. Through my major I’ve learned about the deep history of institutional discrimination and dispossession that characterize most American cities, and have developed a better understanding of issues related to race, privilege, and neighborhood change. My major has forced me to face my prior misconceptions and incomplete understanding, and what I’ve learned has reshaped my approach to progressive social change.
I could write a dozen blog posts on gentrification, its long history, and its roots in events like Haussmann’s “renovation” of Paris or Robert Moses’ reign in NYC or “urban renewal” in other American cities. I could write about how the “positive sides” of gentrification (reinvestment, beautification, improved health and quality of life) don’t have to and shouldn’t come at the expense of the right of people to hold onto their communities and enjoy those very same advantages.
For now, however, I’m choosing to reflect on how far I’ve come, and how far I have yet to go in understanding the injustices inherent in the displacement of people through gentrification. My experiences have repositioned me to work with marginalized communities and use the skills I’ve developed to help them fight for more socially just cities. I want to use urban design and urban governance to take on major issues like climate change and wealth inequality while also addressing inextricably-linked spatial injustices like food deserts, environmental racism, and displacement through gentrification. I’ve started off my path by working as an environmental justice organizer, urban poverty researcher, and economic development agency aide in my first few summers of college.
Elevating the voices of people threatened by gentrification and empowering them to create and implement solutions will help make major strides towards improving areas without displacement. Important principles like spatial justice and “the right to the city,” along with practices like participatory planning and community land trusts are returning power to individuals that have historically been silenced and exploited. These are the kinds of steps we need to take in order to create a just and equitable society.