Last time I sat down to write for this blog, I poured out some relatively unstructured thoughts on gentrification, the arts, and the kinds of amenities that attract young professionals. There’s a potentially problematic relationship between these three things – one wherein an emphasis on arts, culture, and the kinds of things young people love wind up changing the feel or the economics of a city in a way that pushes people out.
My job is to work with other people here in Claremont to make this city’s economy better… more vibrant. Pushing people out is something that worries me.
I wanted to write a little about this for Stay Work Play because I think it’s an important thing for this group to consider. Readers here care deeply about our state, and recognize that we need some new, young bodies to carry it forward. Readers here also think New Hampshire is special and would hate to see it lose some of those special qualities.
So in this series of articles, I’m trying to write about the ways we can have both – how we can add amenities and culturally enriching opportunities without making people feel uncomfortable.
Gentrification v. Displacement
I should make a quick distinction though. In the February issue of Governing Magazine – an issue dedicated to “The ‘G’ Word” – the editors acknowledged that “Gentrification is hard to define.” In a critique of Governing’s issue, Joe Cortright at CityObservatory.org notes that “it’s become almost impossible to talk about neighborhood revitalization without objections being raised almost any change amounts to gentrification.” The word has come to mean a whole lot – and in that, maybe nothing.
But Cortright draws an important distinction that’s crucial here. “The reason policy analysts and public officials are concerned about gentrification, to the extent that it happens,” he writes, “is because it holds the potential to displace the poor from their longtime neighborhoods.”
Bingo. That’s what I’m worried about. I want to help make Claremont’s City Center better, and more attractive to businesses, more attractive to city residents who live outside the downtown. More attractive to new young people – the Stay Work Play demographic.
But I’m not trying to push anyone out to make that happen. So less about “gentrification” – the big, difficult-to-define term – and more about displacement.
The City Center Initiative
One thing that’s important to remember when thinking about the development of neighborhoods – and how we can make them more attractive to young people – is that changes at this level happen very slowly. A city’s life is measured decades at a time. The redevelopment of Claremont’s City Center is a long story.
I’m going to jump into this story in the mid-2000s. The redevelopment of the Monadnock Mills brought hundreds of jobs, a hotel, and a new restaurant right into the heart of the City. As the Mill redevelopments started to change the fabric of the downtown economy, other restaurants and retailers started finding more success on Pleasant Street and in Opera House Square.
Economic growth and increased commuter and pedestrian traffic raised some key policy and planning questions. The city applied for and received a HUD Sustainable Communities Grant, to tease the questions out in a very public way. That launched the City Center Initiative, a 12-person public board meant to represent the interests of all Claremont citizens.
The board focused on development, transportation choices, economic development, and housing, while influencing the zoning ordinance to be sure the downtown was business-friendly. The members of the committee hit the streets, walking every road and sidewalk to map needed infrastructure improvement in downtown neighborhoods. And they left in place key recommendations on how to manage coming development.
When I showed up in Claremont – at the end of 2013, one of my first assignments came out of those findings. I was tasked with looking into the quality of housing in the downtown, and exploring the way other communities in our region had improved their housing stock. Reading the CCI report was step one. And after my meetings and research revealed the kind of work we would have to do to be successful – long-term, grassroots work – Nancy Merrill (the Director of the Planning and Development Department) decided to reboot the CCI itself.
Now, again, we’ve got a public group, made of up 12 city residents, focused on all kinds of issues key to downtown development. Some are downtown residents. Some own businesses down there. Some are from other neighborhoods in Claremont, and just want to see the City Center thrive. My housing work brought new non-profits to the table, groups who are collaborating with CCI boardmembers to address housing in a way that is inclusive and beneficial to all residents – especially the group most commonly affected by displacement.
And for the Stay Work Play crowd, one of the best parts of the new CCI group is that about half the board is under 40. A quarter is under 30.
“As someone raised in this quiet community, with knowledge of both its flaws and saving graces, I saw this as an opportunity to help guide the city towards a brighter future,” says Catherine LaCasce, a millennial serving on the City Center Initiative board. “It’s the responsibility of my generation to take up the ropes and continue the progression; I feel fortunate to participate in creating change.”
So – step one in avoiding displacement? Get a public group going to represent the interests of everyone affected by a changing community. And do it early, well before you think you need it.
Next time, we’ll bring the arts back into the conversation, and focus on a homegrown nonprofit looking to bring enriching, transformative opportunities to everyone.