Gentrification has become a top-of-mind issue in urban and historically low-income communities of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The legacy residents of BIPOC communities all across the United States – from New York, to Los Angeles, to Washington D.C., to Detroit, to Atlanta – are struggling against the city governments, local police, and neighborhood newcomers to preserve their human right to affordable housing in their communities. In many articles about gentrification, there is a so-called “objective” and distant tone to the analysis. This is not one of those articles. This is a grassroots organization’s account of the attack by gentrifiers against poor and working-class Black communities and the work of organizations fighting to preserve those communities.
First, to ensure all of our readers are on the same page with the language being used in this article, gentrification should be defined. This definition is a common one: “The process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, [increasing housing prices], and attracting new businesses, [typically] displacing current inhabitants in the process.” (“Gentrification,” 2021) Gentrification is a long-term, orchestrated plan between government and private interests that results in the people living in the gentrified neighborhood being treated like pawns to be moved around and traded by market forces. Residents fall victim to changing market forces created by the government and private developers. These investors force rent and mortgages to increase beyond residents’ ability to pay, forcing them out of their community so the developers can make a profit and local government can generate greater tax revenue. Gentrification is nothing more than racialized capitalism, yet again controlling and undermining Black, brown, and poor people’s very lives.
This article will focus on gentrification in Atlanta, which is also the headquarters of Community Movement Builders (CMB). CMB is a grassroots organization with several chapters across the country. It is a place-based organization that follows in the tradition of the Black radical politic and is dedicated to building self-sustainable Black communities. In Atlanta, CMB focuses its work on a small neighborhood in Atlanta named Pittsburgh. Since 2015, CMB has served as the official caretaker of an urban garden in the neighborhood. CMB has also built several worker-owned cooperative businesses to serve as employment in the community, and we organize in the neighborhood around gentrification, police brutality, and other issues that are pertinent to the community. Pittsburgh is a historical neighborhood, first settled by formerly enslaved Africans who were escaping the plantations of the rural south and found work on a railroad that still operates today. It was a thriving Black community until formalized, legally enforced segregation ended. Afterward, many of the middle to upper-class Black people moved away from the neighborhood. Since then, it has been a poor and working-class community. However, in the past five years, there has been renewed interest in the neighborhood.
As Atlanta is emerging as a business hub and people from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other places are moving in to take advantage of the new job market, the city has taken a vested interest in making “more room” for these wealthier newcomers. This means producing more housing in the city so people moving in can live closer to jobs downtown. To be clear, “producing more housing” really means removing the largely poor and working-class people in urban areas out so wealthier people can move in. The city and private investors continue to invest in large projects that are meant to encourage businesses to move to the city. However, the fruits of these investments are not for the people who live in communities like Pittsburgh – and have been there for generations – but instead, they are intended to benefit an outside element that will fatten the pockets of the city and the investor business class. This is happening all across Atlanta. Two examples of such investments include the Atlanta Beltline Project, which has been slowly growing (and gentrifying) since 2005 and the Mercedes Benz Stadium that was newly erected in 2017.
We are living through this exact phenomenon in Pittsburgh, Atlanta now. As one of the last affordable neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta, Pittsburgh has been aggressively targeted by wealthy private investors and the city government alike. Community Movement Builders first purchased its Pittsburgh Community House in 2015. The purchase price was $50,000. In the six years since, the appraised value of the house has increased by almost 500%, to $220,000 in 2021. As the home values in the neighborhood increase, so have the rent and mortgage prices. We have spoken with community members whose rent has skyrocketed from $500 to $1400 in the same timeframe. Another resident shared a tax bill receipt that showed his property taxes increased from $416.11 to $2,530.86 – a 608% increase – between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, wages remain stagnant. Organizations have been fighting this phenomenon for decades, and much has been written about the implications of gentrification on already struggling communities. However, decidedly less attention has been paid to the ways in which the gentrifiers – the people themselves who move into the neighborhood – employ tactics that are just as violent against the people of the existing community and community organizations that work to support them. This is an account that chronicles the actions of gentrifiers who used the city government and the police to remove needed resources from the community and villainize and intimidate current residents.
In 2018, Community Movement Builders, in collaboration with several long-term residents and local business owners, launched an anti-gentrification campaign. This campaign has included a petition to keep Pittsburgh affordable, the creation of a stabilization fund providing grants to long-term residents who need help with rent, mortgage, utilities, and home renovations for code violations, and mutual aid relief to make sure people have access to food, produce and other supplies. This was a multi-pronged approach to stop the gentrification of the community and also meet the immediate needs of those who are actively being priced out of their neighborhood.
Towards the end of 2020, amid the throes of a global pandemic in which many Pittsburgh residents lost jobs and along with those jobs, the little economic security they might have had amid the continuing gentrification of the neighborhood, CMB partnered with Free99Fridge to bring a refrigerator to the community. As the caretakers of the public urban garden next to our Community House, CMB recommended the refrigerator be placed there to offer more food to the community. This free fridge served as a resource, was consistently stocked with fresh produce and other food items, and was frequently used by residents across the entire neighborhood.
Initially, all the neighbors on the block where the free fridge was stationed were excited about the refrigerator. They saw it as a valued resource to the block. It wasn’t until a few months in, when certain newer residents saw more Pittsburgh residents who were not necessarily from their block utilize the fridge, that those newer residents had an issue. For them, the refrigerator was acceptable as a “cute” neighborly gesture for residents of “their” block – but not as a food source for existing people in the community who have been adversely affected by gentrification, generational economic exploitation, and most recently, a global pandemic with little to no relief from the government. So, the gentrifiers took action.
On January 24th, one newer resident, a white woman, wrote a “From, Karen” letter to the Free99Fridge organization who purchased and maintained the refrigerator, implicitly criminalizing long-term residents of the neighborhood.
Part of it read as follows:
“I also, however, have been impacted by the fact that there is now a steady stream of people right beside my house. I have been out at 6 AM to exercise in my backyard or take my dog out, and there is someone there. I have been out at 10 PM and the same is true. I have had someone come to the fridge and then sit on the bench and watch as a friend of mine and I did yard work. I can no longer enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, or a drink at night, or a private phone conversation on my own back deck without interruption.”
It is important to reiterate here that the refrigerator is placed in a public park which experienced traffic before the placement of the refrigerator and after. It is curious that someone can complain about people looking into her unfenced yard when she deliberately purchased a house next to a public park. It is also important to mention that at no time while CMB has been the caretaker of the garden has there been even a single incident of crime in the space. Lastly, those who have lived in Pittsburgh longer recognize that it is a very transient neighborhood. People often walk up and down the street, meaning no harm or doing any harm to anyone.
Another new resident, Nicole Gordon-Hays, a Black resident who purchased a home on the block just three years ago, has been even more aggressive in her organizing against the refrigerator. In late January, Gordon-Hays went door-to-door on the block to collect twelve petition signatures in the community to get the refrigerator removed from the garden. It was later found that several of the names on the petition were signed under false pretenses, believing the petition was for traffic control, not for removing the refrigerator. Community Movement Builders collected another petition of residents on the block and captured sixteen signatures. When CMB canvassers knocked on Gordon-Hays’ door with our petition, she called them “Black Devils” and slammed the door in their face.
Afterward, Community Movement Builders called a community meeting in the garden to discuss the refrigerator. The Neighborhood Association President decided we needed a police presence for the meeting (it was the first time in the 6 years we have been the caretakers of the park that any police have been in the small neighborhood garden/park). The white officer notedly wore a “Blue Lives Matter” face mask to “monitor” the meeting. At the meeting, there were decidedly more people who wanted to keep the refrigerator in the community. One sister, a resident of over a decade, stated that she had been trying to bring a food pantry into the neighborhood for years and was so happy once Free99Fridge and Community Movement Builders were able to erect the fridge in the garden. There was a loud minority of people, however, who wanted the refrigerator to be removed. All of them – except one – had moved to the neighborhood within the previous three years. Also, all the white residents of the block wanted the refrigerator to be removed. As the meeting was happening, a mother and her two small children came by to get groceries from the refrigerator. Gordon-Hays yelled, “We don’t want this refrigerator bringing undesirables into our neighborhood, bringing our property value down.”
CMB listened to both sides of the argument and suggested that we discuss the decision internally and report back a proposed solution within ten days. CMB also asked that no one escalate the situation further until the community attempts to forge a compromise as neighbors. Lastly, CMB asked, as the caretakers of the garden, to be included in any next steps. Everyone, including Gordon-Hays and the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Association President, Johnny Floyd, agreed. However, 7 days later, CMB’s urban farmer saw Atlanta City Council Woman Joyce Shephard, Floyd, the Atlanta Parks Department, Gordon-Hays and three other non-Black residents of the block meeting in the garden, discussing the Free99Fridge. CMB was not informed of the meeting, nor was any other resident except those who were in favor of removing the refrigerator. They were clearly meeting to make plans against CMB and the fridge.
This was confirmed later that week when the owner of the Free99Fridge communicated to CMB that she was receiving pressure from the city to remove the refrigerator. Moreover, Councilwoman Shepherd and Neighborhood Association President Floyd met with CMB Director Kamau Franklin to discuss the fridge. At this meeting, they threatened to remove Community Movement Builders’ Caretaker status of the garden, even though the Parks Department stated this was among the best maintained urban gardens in the entire city. Prior to CMB becoming the caretakers, the garden was not in use and had weeds literally seven feet high. Upon becoming the caretakers of the garden, CMB poured our own time and resources into revitalizing the space, transforming it into a welcoming environment and food-producing resource. Amid all of this government pressure, the owner of the Free99Fridge opted to move the refrigerator from the garden in the next 2 weeks.
Even after this decision had been reached, Gordon-Hays did not let the situation die. She repeatedly called the Atlanta Police Department on Pittsburgh neighborhood residents who were simply trying to get food from the refrigerator while it remained. She also called the police on Community Movement Builders and its organizing members twice and called the Housing Code Enforcement Bureau on the organization once, making baseless claims. The first call to the police was to surveil the organization while CMB had one of its monthly “Garden Days,” where members and others in the neighborhood, including families with small children, would learn how to grow food and help clean up the community garden. The second time Gordon-Hays called the police was to give a citation to one of CMB’s members for parking on the sidewalk – a measure that neighbors requested and agreed upon at the community meeting to ensure that no traffic was blocked on the one-way street. Lastly, on March 15th, Gordon-Hays called code enforcement, claiming there was “excess clutter” on the CMB porch. There is no more furniture or “clutter” on the CMB porch than anyone else’s in the neighborhood. However, CMB does offer a basket with fresh produce harvested from the garden that neighbors can take at their convenience.
This open gentrifier, Gordon-Hays, has also gone to neighborhood association meetings to spread a false narrative about Community Movement Builders and the refrigerator. She stokes fears of a “criminal element” being brought to the community through the refrigerator, although there has been no evidence of such an “element.” At this same meeting, on March 6th, an elder and long-term Pittsburgh resident exclaimed how excited she was about the refrigerator. She explained how, for years, a gentleman used to purchase groceries and deliver them to the elderly in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, he recently passed away. She mentioned how the free fridge in the garden fed many community elders in his absence. She continued, exclaiming how she only hopes none of those elders die because they no longer have this food source in the neighborhood.
At the neighborhood association meeting, Gordon-Hays also claimed Community Movement Builders have used intimidation tactics against her and she fears for her safety. The truth is that this has never been the case; such actions would directly conflict with CMB’s core value of Black love; and Gordon-Hays cannot point to a single occurrence of such tactics. At the same meeting, Gordon-Hays stated, “I am for gentrification” and “I am pro-police. I want more police in the community.” Notably, she is requesting a higher police presence from the same police department, and indeed the same police precinct – Zone 3 – who murdered Rayshard Brooks at a nearby Wendy’s just last summer.
Gordon-Hays’ latest stunt was to go to Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), the Atlanta NPR affiliate, to have them air a story demonizing Community Movement Builders as a racist and inconsiderate private “company” seeking to sew division in the community. GPB aired this story with no follow-up or comment from CMB. Gordon-Hays tried to paint a favorable narrative of herself and supposedly others like her as Black people trying to build “generational wealth” in contrast to the vast majority of Pittsburgh residents, who are renters. If the changes she envisions come to pass, only a select few middle and upper-income people could benefit from rising property values – and this benefit would be on the backs of many more poor and working-class Black people being overpoliced, priced out, and displaced from their community.
The aforementioned series of events outlined in this article shows the various ways that gentrification manifests itself in poor and working-class Black communities. Gentrifiers will criminalize current residents. They will perpetuate fear-mongering and further instigate over-policing in a neighborhood. Gentrifiers will literally rob poor and working-class people of needed resources that support long-term residents of the community, for fear that their property value won’t increase as much because of foot traffic of the very neighbors they want to displace. They will employ neighborhood associations and city council representatives who are only for their pockets, not the people, to enact policies that remove resources from community organizations who aim to stabilize the neighborhood and provide resources for long-term residents. They will weaponize the media to divide the Black community and create a false dichotomy between ideas of “generational wealth” for a select few vs. meeting the needs of the masses of Black people. Gentrifiers, just like the investors, neighborhood associations, city councils, mayors, and other government entities are not just complicit in the violence of gentrification, but explicitly cause harm to the Black community.
Since the refrigerator has been moved, numerous people have knocked on the door of CMB’s Community House looking for food and asking why it was moved. Community Movement Builders has recently brought another free refrigerator back to the neighborhood, this time on our front porch. CMB’s priority is not with the gentrifying few, but with the struggling masses. As we continue to fight for self-sufficiency and autonomy over our own communities, it is on all Black people to organize within our neighborhoods and take care of one another. We must recognize that the governing bodies and the classist elite within our current capitalistic framework, no matter what color their faces are, will not do it for us. Therefore, we must provide for ourselves. Join an organization. If there isn’t one around you, form one. We all we got. By Any Means Necessary. All Power to the People. Stand Up, Struggle Forward.