This time I.K. Bruto didn’t call me, as he often does. Instead he knocked on the door of my west-side home and entered before I could invite him in.
“So, what did you think of the forum?” Bruto, my longtime imaginary friend, asked about last weekend’s communitywide session on gentrification at El Rio Neighborhood Center on West Speedway.
It went well, I told him, but added that I didn’t see him in the crowd of more than 100 people from various west-side, downtown and university-area neighborhoods. “Were you there?” I asked.
“Dude, I was there and I can tell you that people are pissed,” he said, stretching out the s’s. Then to emphasize, he used a barrio word for angry that I can’t use here.
Yes, there were a lot of pent-up emotions that were released at the forum organized by the Barrio-Neighborhood Coalition of Tucson, a committee of local residents.
There is anger about escalating housing prices in the barrios and neighborhoods around downtown, the growing fears of displacement of longtime residents, continuing displeasure with construction of college-student housing circling the university, increasing traffic, pedestrian and bicycling conflicts, and wariness that true Tucson culture is disappearing and being replaced by homogenous “anywhere U.S.A.”
Tucson is not alone in dealing with gentrification. Many cities are having similar debates over its impact on older and increasingly valuable neighborhoods, many of them home to people of color. Talk about race and class cannot be excluded from the discussion about gentrification.
Karen Greene, one of the principal organizers of the community meeting, said this discussion was long overdue as the pressure has built up over the past several years. We didn’t have it earlier because the 2008 recession stopped the conversation on gentrification when the economy flamed out, said architect Corky Poster, who lives in the Miles Neighborhood east of downtown.
For Rebecca Renteria, who grew up on the west side and whose many family members are rooted in Menlo Park and Kroger Lane, gentrification means she can’t afford to move closer to her widower father who lives near West Grant and North Silverbell roads.
“We’ve always been here. We can’t talk about it in generations because we’ve always been here,” said Renteria, a recent master’s graduate in anthropology from the University of Arizona. The separation affects her deeply and leaves her feeling disconnected from her community. The land and the barrios make up her identity, said Renteria, who works for the UA’s Community and School Garden Program.
The fact that rising home prices prevent her and others from returning to the barrios represents a form of displacement, she said Friday.
“I stand with her,” Bruto said.
As do many others, I said, but I added that gentrification is a multilayered and emotional issue for everyone. While some would prefer to see little to no development, it will continue as the economy remains strong, and more people will want to move to downtown and its neighborhoods, and be close to a variety of cultural and entertainment attractions.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Bruto said, fueled by a cup of strong Mexican café. “Gentrification is real, is happening and is affecting a whole lotta of gente.”
Yes, I agreed, the remaking of the downtown neighborhoods is having an effect on many people. That was made clear. But it was also evident that there are a wide range of perspectives on what gentrification means, including the belief that development is not necessarily all bad.
That we’re having a discussion now is a good sign, said Randi Dorman, a developer in Tucson’s core area and a resident of the Millville Neighborhood, southeast of South Park Avenue and the railroad tracks.
“I am grateful that it happened. I felt it was a good way to get our toe in a very complex issue,” said Dorman, a 16-year resident of Tucson, in a phone interview Friday.
She said that since 2002 when she and her architect husband, Rob Paulus, started their first infill development, she has become aware “of the pluses and minuses of gentrification.”
Developing in the downtown areas and its neighborhoods requires sensitivity to the past and to the people who presently live there, said Dorman.
Dorman said gentrification is going to happen, but the key will be how to “protect the fabric of the neighborhoods” and balance that with a growing downtown. “It’s challenging but not impossible,” she said.
Bruto finished his second cup of coffee and got up to leave.
“Look, I get it that development will continue. I get it that people want to live in once-neglected barrios next to downtown and neighborhoods close to the UA. I get it that the economy is humming.
“But what I also get is that local and state governments are luring companies downtown with financial incentives and tax breaks, like Caterpillar.
“I get it, too, that longtime homeowners are hard-pressed to get commercial loans to fix up their barrio homes. What policies and programs are there to protect homeowners and renters? Let’s talk about that,” said Bruto as he walked away.
I’m sure we will, I answered back. The conversation has just begun.