Ryan Holeywell | September 11, 2015
Research reveals stark differences among how middle-class residents perceive redevelopment.

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | September 11, 2015

Downtown looms behind Moody Park, located in Houston’s Northside neighborhood. Photo via Elizabeth Korver-Glenn Downtown looms behind Moody Park, located in Houston’s Northside neighborhood. Photo via Elizabeth Korver-Glenn

Among journalists and researchers, gentrifying neighborhoods are often presented as monoliths.

Narratives about re-development are typically one-dimensional, with existing residents described as simply supporting or opposing the changes thrust upon their communities. Usually, those narratives focus on low-income residents – the ones who are most vulnerable to the effects of those changes.

But Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, a doctoral student at Rice University, wanted to take a different view: what do middle-class residents think of redevelopment?

Traditionally, researchers have focused on how low-income Latinos living in “barrios” are impacted by redevelopment, but Korver-Glenn was especially intrigued at understanding the views of middle-class Mexican-Americans living in a redeveloping barrio.

It’s an especially important question, she argues, because those middle-class residents tend to be influential and can use that influence to contest or welcome redevelopment. What she found was a community that had vastly divergent views.

Korver-Glenn, a researcher affiliated with the Kinder Institute, focused her work on the Northside, a predominantly Mexican-American barrio in Houston. The area is in the middle of a redevelopment boom, thanks largely to its proximity to downtown and a new light rail line. Overall, the community is roughly 82 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, and 8 percent non-Hispanic white; the overwhelming majority of Hispanic residents are Mexican-American or immigrants from Mexico.

In her study that appeared in the December issue of the journal City & Community, she writes:

Northside … like other Houston barrios, has been the home of important cultural institutions, such as historic Catholic churches. It has also been the site of racially charged events, like the Moody Park Riot in 1978. Houston’s barrios also share a common marginalized past, with deplorable infrastructural conditions lasting through much of the 20th century as well as low-quality wooden houses for a core population of predominantly lower income or working-class Mexican-origin individuals (Feagin 1988; San Miguel 2001).

I chose to focus on Northside, within the broader context of Houston’s Mexican-origin communities, for two reasons. First, Northside has a sizable minority of middle-class Mexican American residents and thus provides an excellent setting to examine how this group perceives and uses barrio places and institutions and its attachment to local places, institutions, culture, and people (see Table 2). Second, Northside has been the focus of major redevelopment efforts in recent years.

In the two years she's studied the Northside, she’s seen big changes. The rail line has opened for business. That, in turn, has prompted more retail and commercial development nearby. More houses are being built, and that’s drawn different types of people – namely, white professionals – to the community. List prices and appraised values of homes are rising too. It’s a classic story of redevelopment and gentrification.

“One neighbor, he pointed out from his porch how the homes on his street had changed,” Korver-Glenn recalled. “His block had gone from majority Hispanic to mostly white, young professionals.”

But the Northside wasn’t just interesting to Korver-Glenn. It’s her home. She’s one of the many newcomers her neighbors are starting see.

Korver-Glenn and her husband bought a house in the community in 2012, just as METRO Houston was finishing up construction in the area. Like many young professionals who’ve been drawn to the area in recent years, moving to the Northside seemed like a no-brainer in a city where real estate prices – especially for homes in the city’s inner core – are quickly rising. “It was a place we could afford to buy that’s close to downtown,” Korver-Glenn said.

Her research led her to church meetings, little league games, the local Fiesta grocery store and others staples of the community. Initially, she asked her neighbors broad questions about what they thought about changes to the neighborhood. But eventually, her focus morphed into one that examined how residents’ identities affected their views. “They were incredibly welcoming,” she said. “If you ask them questions that aren’t leading and just give them the opportunity to tell their stories about the neighborhood, they’re willing to open up.”

The people she interviewed generally fell into one of two categories: those who were excited about the development and those were skeptical about its impact. Both groups of people were middle-class Mexican-Americans. The results were somewhat of a surprise, since prior sociological research would suggest you’d get similar responses from people who share similar classes and ethnic identities.

The cause of those split opinions, Korver-Glenn said, was based on how close the respondents felt to the community and how much their daily lives intersected with it.

Those who were “actively” attached to the Northside were involved with local churches, schools, businesses, and other institutions. They tended to be concerned about development affecting property values and rent, leading to displaced residents and a loss of neighborhood character.

Take Carol, a middle-aged Harris County employee, who worried about the redevelopment trend. She feared the Northside would develop in a fashion similar to Midtown, an area adjacent to downtown that has rapidly gentrified. (Note: these names are pseudonyms, and the jobs don’t refer to their exact occupations.)

“I don’t think as many people want to [leave Northside] now, because now it’s sort of trendy now, and everybody wants to come and live here. But the housing market’s getting so expensive! ...and I think my biggest question is how do we keep some of this flavor without losing all of it and it becoming not Northside....I mean it’s...the real quirky...sort of things. How can we keep all that while still building it up—I don’t want it to be Midtown, I don’t think anybody does.”

Ricky, a semiretired band director, echoed those concerns.

“Well, I think with the light rail, you’ll have a lot more affluent people...lookin’ for affordable housing.... If I’m a landlord of some of these houses...and a developer comes through and says, ‘hey, I’ll give you so much.’ I’m gonna sell ‘em...I won’t have to deal with renters anymore. So that’s gonna displace a lot of the community ‘cause we have a lot of renters.... Where are they gonna go?”

On the other hand were “symbolically” attached residents generally felt the changes were a sign of progress. Those residents tend to spend less time in the Northside and used schools, churches and grocery stores outside of the community.

Derrick, a 35-year-old lawyer, had this comment that’s representative of their response:

“…but I think from a community development point of view, [the rail]’s a huge opportunity for the area. And I’m hoping that the community recognizes that and takes advantage of it.”

Or take Deborah, a 53-year-old administrative assistant. She saw development as the embodiment of progress in a long-marginalized community.

“And so the property, yeah, they were poor little wooden frame homes that could be bought out and have some good townhomes built, and...so with Metro Rail coming in, it has really been a blessing.”

Those different opinions manifested themselves in other ways too. People who were “actively attached” often took actions that reinforced their opposition to redevelopment – such as voting against the rail, or encouraging neighbors not to sell their properties to developers. Those who were “symbolically attached,” on the flip side, took steps seen as welcoming of redevelopment – for example, by voting for the rail or lobbying for non-profit or for-profit redevelopment efforts.

The work reveals much about the Northside, but more importantly, it helps shed light on the nuanced story of redevelopment occurring across the country.

Often, gentrification is presented as a zero-sum game, with outsiders changing a community and longtime residents either embracing or rejecting those changes. “These redevelopment processes are occurring across U.S. cities,” Korver-Glenn said. “But the ways they’re experienced by local residents will be different, even within a ‘homogenous’ community.”

And understanding those nuanced opinions matter, considering the vast sums of public money that are used to spur development.

“People and entities that are redeveloping the Northside may tap into people who say ‘we’re really welcoming this,’” Korver-Glenn said. “But they may be doing that without tapping into this other swatch of middle-class, educated Mexican-Americans who think redevelopment can be destructive.”