The Library’s Role in Gentrification

Here’s an ugly word: “gentrification”.

There are some beautiful words floating around Detroit right now. “Resurgence”, “booming”, and “exciting” are shouted boldly from large headlines. Without a doubt, over the past 10 years the changes that have taken place in Detroit are… breathtaking. New buildings and new businesses are popping up everywhere. In a bid to pull in Amazon, some amazing promotional videos feature the heart and soul of Detroit – and make you want to cry from the glory of it all.

Yes, Detroit may be growing again, but Detroit is nothing if not a city of extremes. We are still a city where most of our children live in abject poverty, and the last Census reported 39.4% of families live in poverty. We have schools with mushrooms growing from the walls, and students have to fight for the right to literacy, a fight that they recently lost. Apparently, you can force kids to go to school, but you don’t have to teach them to read. And we are a divided city; just last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Race Riots. (The Detroit Free Press put out an annotated timeline on the Detroit Race Riots that I strongly recommend.) And if you think those days are over, don’t forget that neighboring cities put up literal walls to keep Detroiters out as recently as 2014.

Enter gentrification.

Detroit is not alone in it’s extremes, particularly in the area known as the “Rust Belt” (a phrase coined in the 1940’s and which is now insulting to some of those who live here). Cities across the nation have to deal with gentrification, from San Francisco to New York. For those who are unaware, gentrification is when wealthy (often white) people move into a traditionally poorer neighborhood. Their arrival often brings in wealthier businesses and extreme increases in the price of living; rent, food, even utilities can become more expensive. Like almost no other topic, “gentrification” can turn an otherwise normal conversation into a heated debate in 0 seconds flat. After all, what’s wrong with improving a neighborhood and bringing in jobs? (There’s a lot wrong.) Something to consider: the word “gentrification” has its roots in the word “gentry”, or the rich, aristocratic class. Nothing about that screams equality. 

Enter the library.

This is an old story to those who have worked in urban libraries. There are two populations on completely different ends of the class spectrum that need service. You have one library. How do you serve both populations? An even more troubling question is, do libraries have a duty, a responsibility, to fight gentrification – a fight in service to one population, but to the detriment of another? As writers from HLS have stated before, libraries are not neutral.

When Barack Obama announced that the Obama Center will be built in the Southside of Chicago, there was some… interesting debate. Some folks living in the area are furious at the prospect of gentrification. These are serious accusations against a man who worked as a community organizer, who has made a name for standing with the poor. (Mr. Obama has addressed this concern, but the reception these remarks received was a bit cool.) Into the fray steps the Chicago Public Library, who proudly bolster the digital library proposed in the original Center plans with a physical branch (yay for a physical library!). The CPL doesn’t currently have a Southside branch; there is, however, a location a few blocks west in West Englewood. The addition of a Southside branch will undoubtedly increase property values, as nearly all libraries do. So, one could argue that libraries, just by existing, help gentrification happen.

To be clear, I am not calling out the Chicago Public Library for gentrifying the Southside, though, to my knowledge, they have not made a statement one way or another on the topic. This is a problem that we all face, just by our very presence. I also argue that it’s something that we should address, even if our libraries didn’t increase property values, simply because we serve our patrons, and this is what our patrons need help with. It’s also something that I haven’t seen discussed that much. In my reading, only one study of the library’s role in gentrification bubbled up, and that was in Switzerland. (Though there is a tangential, but interesting article on “gentrifying public libraries”.)

In my mind, this tension between libraries and gentrification is a tragic twist. Librarians serve people. Librarians serve all people. Our motto might as well be “Do no harm”. Yet here we are, face to face with a force that pushes people out of their homes. Granted, gentrification is a complicated topic, but we are librarians – we deal with complicated topics all the time. So how do we deal with a library’s role in gentrification?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I have some ideas, but I think many more librarians have to come together to find a solution. To get the conversation going, I believe that academic librarians have to step up their use and dissemination of data resources that help combat gentrification before it begins. I believe that they have to take an active role in government decision making by interpreting that data in the defense of those who do not have the resources to defend themselves. As always, bring the best information and resources to the table, so that people have the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. Libraries of all kinds can (and should?) start designating one librarian as the expert, and give them the time and tools they need to become so. I imagine that there are a thousand ideas, even if the solution to gentrification is still shrouded in mystery, and there are as many opinions as there are people joining the debate.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss all that libraries do already to help those who struggle, in one way or another, to get by. Detroit Public Library has already gone above and beyond to help the homeless of the city, as have many libraries, despite (or because?) the rampant gentrification in nearby Cass Corridor. The Michigan Library Association runs workshops on the homeless in our libraries. But more can be done, including partnerships across multiple libraries to develop a more holistic plan to tackle gentrification. With the purchase of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s iconic ruin, by Ford Motor Company this past year, more communities in the city will be grappling with the very real effects of gentrification. Will the robust but poorer Latino population in nearby Mexicantown find librarians who help and relate to them? Will they find an ally in the people working in their neighborhoods?

Detroit isn’t going away, but it is changing. As with other cities, the libraries in and around the city will have to think about how we deal with gentrification, and other important issues of class and poverty. I would love to start a collection, or contribute to a collection, of resources to fight gentrification for librarians. If you have a collection, or have an experience with gentrification in you library, I would love to hear from you.

Image in the public domain. Can be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org

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