Living in Portland feels like ground zero for the gentrification debates. Our African American community, once located primary in inner N/NE Portland is all but gone, dispersed, priced out, or for the fortunate ones cashed out. I don't have to look any farther for the deleterious effects of gentrification than the part of the city I've called home for the past 7 years.
The common response to gentrification is to note all that is wrong with the concept of the middle class moving into working class neighborhoods. That sentence doesn't elicit much backlash, but the word "gentrification" does even though in that sentence dwells the definition of gentrification (“middle class moving into working class neighborhoods”). For the past number of years I’ve taught about gentrification on the university campus in a number of urban studies courses.
The reason why I bring this up is not to sidestep the damage gentrification can bring. Instead, I bring it up to point out where gentrification may actually be helpful and in many cases the way forward for struggling rural communities.
Let me explain.
A few years ago I picked up Going Back to Bisbee written by University of Arizona professor Richard Shelton. It is a book that so captured me that I could barely put it down and towards the end I found my eyes welling up with tears. The book is a story of Shelton's journey back to Bisbee, Arizona where he first started off his career as an educator decades ago. Throughout the book Shelton masterfully weaves the story of Bisbee from its mining past to its current state as a funky artist's enclave. You see, when the Copper Queen mine closed in the 1970's the city and its economy began spiraling downward. People left, businesses shuttered, and this once grand city was at risk of becoming another Arizona ghost town.
But one visionary had different aspirations and dreams for Bisbee.
Long-time resident Ida Power had a vision for Bisbee post-mine closure. Call it what we want, but it was nothing short of gentrification … rural gentrification (again, it is defined as middle class residents moving into a working class community). She began inviting artists to move to this mountain town that sits a stone's throw from the Mexican border. It worked. A drive through Bisbee today reveals a vibrant town full of artist studios, galleries, amazing restaurants, and historic architecture second to none. It's like Sedona minus the price tag and vortexes (or mountain bike trails).
While the city is far from economically humming like in the heyday of its mining history, it has at least carved out a new way forward. Why? Because a bunch of ... call them what you want ... middle class residents, artists, artisans, white collar workers began moving into this blue collar, working class, and lower income community. Does this then reveal a blueprint for the revitalization of other like rural communities? We certainly see this hope and aspiration for those involved in mountain bike advocacy and economic development in rural communities.
Does this notion of gentrification garner the same backlash as when it happens in the city? More than that, can rural gentrification be one of the ways that communities outside of major urban centers turn around and begin to prosper? Is gentrification then viewed as dubious, contentious, and controversial?
As one who grew up in rural America, I'd be the first to openly admit that I want this for my home town. The last time I visited I saw a community still struggling. Seemingly most businesses downtown are shuttered. I also read that 60% of the workforce leaves the county everyday to drive to their jobs. I think it too could benefit from rural gentrification and an influx and infusion of new startups, businesses, people, culture, and the like. Is this what I want for my home town? I'd be lying to say no. Does this make me pro-gentrification in rural communities? It appears so.
Am I in the wrong? Misguided? Blind? Maybe time will tell. We're calling people ... individuals and businesses to move into these communities, plant their lives, and start businesses and non-profits. Is this then promoting gentrification in rural communities? Probably so. However, I see it more along the lines of the vision Ida Power had for Bisbee. Where would Bisbee be without Ida? For those who track the growth of mountain biking across the continent we certainly see the benefits (economically, socially, physically) when communities go all-in on mountain biking, tourism, etc. Maybe it is time to make the case for rural gentrification.
Words by Sean Benesh, Loam Coffee Founder and Brand Manager. Photo by Jason O'Neil