“Flag Wars”

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Watching a movie at 9:30 on a Monday morning isn’t something I would choose to do, but that’s what we did in my Urban Planning History and Theory class last week — and I’m glad we did.

The movie was “Flag Wars,” a documentary about Olde Towne East in Columbus, Ohio, a predominately black neighborhood undergoing gentrification. I heard the theory before that same-sex couples are often gentrification crusaders, the reason being they usually don’t have children whose safety and schooling they have to worry about. Also, with two incomes they’re likely to have the extra money required for renovations. That was the case in Olde Towne East, which had originally been home to some of Columbus’ most prominent residents. Once the gay community started moving in and rehabilitating the grand old homes, historic district code enforcement began cracking down on the poorer residents. A tension arose between the blacks and gays. The black people had lived in the neighborhood for years and while they knew it had problems, it was their home and they didn’t like another traditionally oppressed group nudging them out. The gay people saw excellent architecture in disrepair and wanted to bring it back to its original splendor. In turn, they wanted a community of like-minded people to call home, even if it meant forcing out the black people.

Gentrification gets a bad rap, but it has some positives — historic homes get restored, it brings a more stable population, crime shrinks, and it cuts down on the number of long-distance commuters, to name a few. However, displacing lower income residents is never a good thing. For at least 40 years, preservationists have been faced with the issue of how to revitalize historic neighborhoods while keeping the current residents intact. Rent control, zoning, and community redevelopment departments have been used to fend off gentrification. So have private organizations. And I can think of one instance — Savannah’s Victorian Historic District — where there was a concerted, large-scale effort to revitalize the neighborhood through historic preservation and keep the residents intact. However, I wonder how successful these efforts have really been. The only thing I know for sure is that efforts to gentrify aren’t going away.

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