Nicknamed by Chicagoans as “the earmuffs,” Illinois’ 4th Congressional District is one of the most strangely drawn and gerrymandered congressional districts in the country. It snakes around the far West Side of the city and through a few Near West suburbs, with a narrow band connecting two rounder regions. Inside the earmuffs reside a vast population of Hispanics, largely of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. Since 1993, the district has been represented by Luis Gutierrez, a national figure in Hispanic politics, and today, he is succeeded by Jesús “Chuy” García. As voters flocked to their polling centers in November, the gentrification of this district weighed heavily on their minds, many worrying that their neighborhood is becoming increasingly unaffordable. One mother, however, sang in praise of it.
Edith Munoz, a 59-year-old Latina mother of three and grandmother of two, believes that lackluster allegations have been levelled at gentrification while its benefits remain unsung. According to Munoz, who lives in a neighborhood of houses and apartments, gentrification has decreased crime in her neighborhood, improved amenities, and increased the value of her home.
Gentrification has become a very dirty word in America. The popular narrative today goes something like this: wealthy whites descend upon poor minority neighborhoods, bringing with them Whole Foods, Soul Cycle, and a lot of organic kale, avocados and kombucha to phase out the local culture. Rents increase alongside appreciating property values, forcing out long-time, working class residents.
However, urban economists have repeatedly found that gentrification improves neighborhoods with no measurable increase in displacement. The two are in fact, not synonymous. Some even argue the inverse – that the absence of gentrification causes displacement.
Munoz went to the polls today to vote for equality. “What’s been happening with immigration since Trump was elected has really hurt me,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I have three kids, and while they’re grown up, I also have grandkids. This is not the future I wanted for them.” While Munoz and many Latinos face a wave of racial tension in the U.S. today, Munoz had only praise for gentrification and what it has done for her family.
Gentrification is a well-studied phenomenon in the U.S. In 1970, for example, Cambridge, Mass., implemented rent controls on residential properties built before 1969. This policy ended in 1995 after a state referendum to eliminate rent control was passed during the 1994 general election. In 2014, MIT economists observed that crime fell in Cambridge after it ended its rent-control scheme, allowing for gentrification. Munoz has observed the same in her neighborhood. “I like the white people coming in, crime is falling, and things are safer.” she said. “People just don’t like the word gentrification. If we called it something else, I don’t think anyone would care.”
“We have better supermarkets and stores, and the schools are improving.” Munoz said. As a full-time nanny to her grandkids, Munoz appreciates that she spends significantly less time and money commuting to run errands.
Munoz bought a home in the early 90s. She said that her home was recently valued at a figure she’d never have expected. Though she declined to provide the dollar amount, Munoz shared that many of her friends’ homes in the same neighborhood had experienced a similar price appreciation.
In the U.S., left and right leaning proponents of equality have lamented economic segregation stemming from the lack of investment in minority neighborhoods and white-flight to city centers. Nevertheless, the seemingly subversive benefits of gentrification that have reversed these trends have left few pleased, even though evidence suggests that gentrification does not directly correlate with displacement. Maybe we really should just call it something else – puppies and rainbows, perhaps.