A stop sign at the intersection of Dell Avenue and Venice Boulevard protests gentrification in Venice, California.
Palisades Charter High School

Deconstructing gentrification through the arts

Palisades Charter High School’s winter show, “Clybourne Park,” enjoyed a two-week run from Feb. 26 to March 5.

The play is a spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun.” The first act, set in 1959, tells the story of a white, middle-class family that unwittingly sells their Chicago home to a black family. This decision causes uproar in the all-white neighborhood. The second act, set 50 years later in 2009, meets Clybourne Park when it has transformed into a ghetto, with the imminent threat of affluent white families moving back in. A heavy critique of American society and intolerance, “Clybourne Park,” written by Bruce Norris, is a black comedy with more relevance to today’s world than most modern Americans would like to admit.

“Clybourne Park is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play,” director and drama teacher Ms. Nancy Fracchiolla said. “I think it’s great for us, in an educational setting, to look at our collective history, and have a conversation about race and see what has and hasn’t changed over the past 50 years.”

With its multi-dimensional characters and candid dialogue, Clybourne Park tackles two topics Americans love to avoid: race and class. In the first act, a neighbor attempts to convince a white couple not to sell their house, as property values will go down and the neighborhood will lose its white homogeneity, a phenomenon known as “white flight.” To the audience, this act feels more like a history lesson than relevant social commentary. It’s the second act that makes viewers uneasy. Clybourne Park delves into the politics of property and borders, and though the word is never said aloud, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue: gentrification.

The set of “Clybourne Park” in the second act is the dilapidated home in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. Photo by Kiana Toossi.

Gentrification is a political buzzword nowadays. We see it everywhere: in big, bold newspaper headlines about cities such as San Francisco, Brooklyn and Chicago, in protests, even on stop signs. But the definition of the word itself is a bit elusive. Some researchers prefer the term “urban displacement” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “urban renewal.” In 2005, researchers Mark Davidson and Loretta Lees of King’s College London laid out the four elements by which gentrification can be identified: “(1) reinvestment of capital; (2) social upgrading of locale by incoming high-income groups; (3) landscape change; and (4) direct or indirect displacement of low-income groups.” Media outlets have a tendency to focus on the third and fourth elements, as storefront transformations and changing demographics are the most visual consequences of gentrification.

Studies that attempt to pinpoint the effects of gentrification have yielded disparate and often contradictory results. A 2004 study by Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi for Columbia University revealed that poor residents of nongentrifying neighborhoods of New York City were actually more likely to move than their counterparts in areas experiencing gentrification. On the other hand, a UC Berkeley/UCLA study headed by professor Karen Chapple found that 53 percent of poor households in the Bay Area were at risk of or experiencing gentrification and subsequent displacement. These numbers may very well be an understatement, considering housing prices have surged in the region since the 2013 study.

There is no universal definition for gentrification, and trends and statistics vary drastically from city to city. But to the average city resident, eyewitness accounts of neighborhood makeovers are clearer indicators of change than any research paper.

Locally, one need look no further than Venice for evidence of this transformation.

“Venice has changed quite a bit since I was a kid, but has changed more in the past five to seven years than probably the 30 before that,” Venice native and AP Language teacher Mr. Steve Klima said. “The one area that has changed the most recently is Rose Ave. When I was younger, the best thing about Rose Ave. was Pioneer Bakery. Rose is now completely gentrified and new restaurants, wine bars and boutiques have popped up from the beach to Lincoln Boulevard.”

On what sparked the change, Klima replied: “I think the biggest change came about when tech companies, like Google and Snapchat, moved into the area. You had young millennials with money who wanted to be able to walk or bike to work and they bought up many of the older houses and fixed them up.”

In our own city, long-time residents have expressed anger and concern over soaring housing prices in once-affordable neighborhoods like Downtown, Venice, Echo Park, Silverlake and Koreatown. Displaced and at-risk Angelenos are left, with little protection from skyrocketing rents, to escape change or embrace it.

There’s no end in sight for the debate over gentrification, whatever you choose to call it, which makes provocative works, such as Clybourne Park, all the more relevant.