I’ve long been curious about a Vietnamese coffee shop in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The storefront is a mix of new and old, shiny white tiles and hipster chalkboard signs with handwritten diacritics. It’s a stone’s throw away from where my partner and I stay during our trips to the Midwest; on slow mornings, we walk two blocks to order cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). But Patricia Nguyễn, founder of Axis Labs, an organization dedicated to growing and preserving Chicago’s Argyle neighborhood, tells me the Vietnamese café is an unwelcome addition to Pilsen, a neighborhood that used to be 89 percent Latinx, but is rapidly changing.
Just as many other neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country, Nguyễn’s beloved Argyle neighborhood is being gentrified, but Axis Labs’s roster of artists, urban planners, and scientists are fighting for a better outcome. They’re taking an “intersectional approach to community building that centers marginalized voices [and] addresses existing structural injustices.” Curbing the impact of displacement on Argyle’s Southeast Asian refugee community is one of its core concerns. Among the big questions they are grappling with are, “How do we build this neighborhood in a way that doesn’t usher in gentrification?”
Queer people of color across the country are asking similar questions as their neighborhoods, cities, and homes are transformed—sometimes decimated—by gentrification. Vanessa Riles, an Oakland-born and raised interfaith activist, organizes with the East Bay Housing Organization, a nonprofit that aims to protect and preserve affordable housing. “Looking around and seeing what it was like when I was a kid and what it is now is something I’ve been activated around for a long time,” Riles says. Oakland, like San Francisco and Chicago, is becoming increasingly whiter and wealthier: The rising cost of living, influx of white tech employees, and lack of affordable housing have devastated this port city that was once a haven for Black people fleeing the Jim Crow South. Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s Black population fell from 43 percent to 26 percent, the largest drop of any racial group in that city.
Merika Reagan, an American descendent of slavery who was born and raised in San Francisco, knows this reality all too well. She works with the Oakland-based Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), which organizes tenants in the Bay Area to expand public land trusts and fight unjust rent increases. Reagan joined the fight after her own landlord raised her rent by $300 a month—an increase that she was unable to afford. “I was already working seven days a week, 12-,14-,16-hour days on overnight jobs,” she says. “I’m already working as much as I physically possibly can.” ACCE helped her negotiate a $50 monthly rent increase, and she decided to start organizing alongside them. “[I] joined the fight [because I] was watching people around me [being] evicted left and right,” she says.
Tenants Together, a statewide coalition of organizations dedicated to safe, decent, and affordable housing, estimates that more than a million California residents face eviction every year. Increasing rental costs and evictions have caused a mass uptick in California’s homeless population, an issue that disproportionately impacts queer people of color. A 2017 report from the University of Chicago found that young LGBTQ adults are 120 percent more likely to become homeless than straight and cisgender people and LGBTQ youth comprise up to 40 percent of the total unaccompanied homeless youth population. Forty-one percent of Black trans people say they’ve experienced homelessness at some point, a figure that’s more than five times the rate of homelessness for the overall U.S. population. In her 2013 book, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, American Studies professor Christina B. Hanhardt argued that the development of gay white neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, and other major cities has made the queer and trans people of color who call these places home even more vulnerable to displacement.
Because of these statistics, activists like Reagan are committed to centering their communities in the fight against gentrification. Reagan says the high number of Black homeless people is “not by accident; it’s by design,” and other housing activists believe that poverty and displacement cannot be remedied by policies that focus solely on new residents.
Bills like California Senator Scott Weiner’s SB50 promise to create more housing through upzoning or increasing housing density in residential areas, but similar bills have already caused property values to soar in cities like Chicago and New York, increasing the overall cost of living for residents. According to University of California, Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, SB50 might create indirect displacement pressure from increases in land and housing prices. This could in turn “pose significant risk to existing and future low-income residents,” according to Michael Storper, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Put more succinctly, SB50 “will gentrify what’s left to gentrify,” Storper says. Tech money flowing into YIMBY coffers only increases political power for those who are the least impacted by gentrification.
In the movement against the churning financial, political, and social forces of gentrification, who fights—and how they fight—matters. Riles, Reagan, and Nguyễn are navigating the realities of ongoing gentrification as well as the racial and gendered shortcomings of movements against it. Nguyễn, for instance, faced anti-Black racism when she tried to fight the slow chipping away of an ethnic enclave in the Midwest, where, she notes, “Design decisions were deeply racist and embedded in the criminalization of Black and brown neighborhoods.” Reagan says that multiracial housing activism and its use of the “umbrella [term] ‘people of color’ [puts] Blacks last.” Riles adds, “Sometimes it’s challenging to folks that I also want to bring up queer identity.”
Critical insights like these often come from longtime residents who know their neighborhoods, communities, and the coalitions within them best; it’s crucial to funnel resources toward activists and organizations, like Axis Labs, Causa Justa, and St. James Infirmary, who fully understand the landscape. “There’s something to be said about being born and raised in Oakland,” Riles says. “It’s my heart; it’s my home. It feels like [I’m] fighting for my home.”