The cascade of abuse targeting a local ink! Coffee shop in Five Points is an embarrassment to Denver. Are all small business owners really supposed to know that “gentrification” is a charged term whose clumsy, jocular use could land them in scalding water?
Keith Herbert, ink!’s founder, obviously hadn’t spent enough time immersed in the rhetoric of urban politics when he authorized signs proclaiming, “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado,” and, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” As a result of this ignorance, his store quickly became the target of public vitriol, protest and vandalism, not to mention demands for ritual apologies and re-education.
The head of the local chapter of the NAACP actually called for the store to be shut down, as did a number of hanging judges who opined online.
Ink!’s harshest critics denounced the signs as racist, as a deliberate celebration of the neighborhood’s shifting ethnic mix — more whites, fewer people of color. And yet obviously Herbert and his ad agency meant nothing so sinister: No sane businessman sets out to inflame neighbors and ignite a heated community debate.
“I am embarrassed to say that I did not fully appreciate the very real and troubling issue of gentrification, and I want to sincerely apologize to those who understand firsthand the hardship and cultural consequences that gentrification has caused,” Herbert said in a Facebook-posted apology.
So can we move on now? Of course not. This is 21st century America, when even the most harmless barista must be bullied into the proper ideological mindset. Councilman Albus Brooks, in his initial Facebook post on the dustup in his district, wrote, “To reconcile, I am asking for INK to have each staff member go through cultural competency training by a member of our community, I am asking them invest in our community through local organizations and low performing elementary schools, and lastly to consider hiring our local ex-offenders in 80205.”
In other words, an employee who has done nothing more offensive than greet customers with a smile while cheerfully inquiring what beverage they would like to order should be treated as a potentially bigoted ignoramus requiring an attitude adjustment.
As for investing in the community, what does Brooks think ink! did when it opened a store there? What does he think it is doing when it pays its employees and property tax? Maybe Brooks could benefit from a little re-education himself on how businesses that flock to revitalizing neighborhoods lift the tax base on which crucial government services depend.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s Denver leaders set about to rejuvenate its institutions, neighborhoods and schools, in part to retain and attract the middle-class families that are indispensable to a healthy city. Denver had not succumbed to the downward spiral that afflicted many urban centers in the Midwest and East, but warning signs abounded.
Midway through the second decade of the 21st century, these efforts — as well as a host of equally important influences, such as shifting residential and generational preferences — had paid off to an extent that could hardly have been imagined. But now, insist ink! critics, we are supposed to treat the ongoing transformation of neighborhoods on the city’s north side and in and around downtown as a cultural catastrophe because many of the more affluent newcomers are white. It’s an ugly sentiment in its own right, and one that misrepresents the natural flux of cities.
Yes, there are losers in gentrification, mainly those who can no longer afford rising rents and must find cheaper housing elsewhere. Their displacement rightly evokes our sympathy and discussion of what policies might be justified to help them (although in Denver the rent squeeze afflicts other neighborhoods, too). Their plight also explains why the coffee shop’s signs were indeed boorish and jarring, a tasteless mistake. But those bemoaning Denver’s evolution, which by the way has been touted by political and civic leaders alike, talk as if urban neighborhoods historically have been frozen in amber, when the opposite is often the case. Sweeping change — including demographic change — is hardly unusual, both here and around the country. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, gentrification is a major issue in Tuesday’s mayoral race in Atlanta, which over the past half-century has gone from majority white to majority black to being on the verge of majority white again.
Even neighborhoods that are seemingly stable for decades are often subject to remarkable flux. In a thoughtful if largely negative piece about gentrification in Denverite, a news website, reporter Erica Meltzer acknowledged that “gentrification doesn’t always bring displacement, and poverty itself creates a lot of instability. Chronically poor neighborhoods lose more residents over time than gentrifying ones. Most neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 are still poor, and chronically poor neighborhoods have lost 40 percent of their population in the intervening four decades. That is, people who can get out, do.”
Of course they do. And if they own homes, they may eagerly pocket the outsized check that a developer or incoming resident thrusts before them when housing prices start to rise. The idea that everyone who leaves gentrifying neighborhoods has been “forced” out is patronizingly absurd.
No one should expect the neighborhood they grew up in will remain unchanged — that a thrift shop will not be replaced by a high-toned coffee shop, for example, as in the Five Points sequence. And if they do harbor such expectations, they are shockingly naive regarding the relentless power of the social and market forces that trigger such makeovers. No wonder every alleged fix for displacement trotted out for adoption — more subsidized housing, job training, property tax assistance, and so on — sounds positively puny compared to the surge of folks willing to pay what is necessary to move into neighborhoods they like.
Of course, there may be one sure-fire cure for gentrification: urban decay and recession. Stop investing in infrastructure and fundamental services, neglect public safety, let your cultural institutions go to hell, and pray for an economic downturn.
Any takers? Then give ink! a break.
Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]