Gentrification Pressures Weigh On The Economy For this week's Hanging On, NPR's Rachel Martin talks with poet and activist Bobby LeFebre about gentrification in North Denver. LeFebre has watched his neighborhood change over the past 15 years.
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Gentrification Pressures Weigh On The Economy

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Gentrification Pressures Weigh On The Economy

Gentrification Pressures Weigh On The Economy

Gentrification Pressures Weigh On The Economy

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For this week's Hanging On, NPR's Rachel Martin talks with poet and activist Bobby LeFebre about gentrification in North Denver. LeFebre has watched his neighborhood change over the past 15 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You have what you need, but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat, then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000 probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me. And it means I'm in trouble (laughter).

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is Hanging On, our series about the economic pressures of American life. And today, we're going to talk about gentrification. It's happening in cities all over the country. People, often white people with money, move into neighborhoods that are less white, where there's less money.

New businesses move in. Condos go up. Longtime residents end up moving out. Bobby LeFebre has watched that story play out in his own neighborhood of Northside in Denver. He's a poet and an activist. And his art addresses the complexity of gentrification. Bobby LeFebre joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BOBBY LEFEBRE: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Tell me about the Northside that you grew up in, your neighborhood.

LEFEBRE: I have deep roots in the neighborhood. My grandparents and great-grandparents were all living in the neighborhood in the, you know, '50s until today, so long history - long family history there. And when I grew up, you know, the neighborhood was definitely different than it is now. Predominantly a Chicano neighborhood, so there was a lot of mom-and-pop businesses, local restaurants and strong ethnic enclave that had been developed over generations - and so that is sort of being erased with this process right now.

MARTIN: How has that manifested? What does the change look like in Northside today?

LEFEBRE: The neighborhood has always existed as sort of an immigrant community. From the founding of the neighborhood back in the, you know, 1800s, there were these different identifiable waves of immigrants that came by. You know, the Irish were there. The Germans were there. Before the Mexican and the Chicano community, the Italians had built community there.

And our community is the kind of most recent, you know, arrival to the neighborhood. And just about everything in the neighborhood is shifting. Demographics are shifting. We're having lower-income folks that are being forced to move. Real estate has increased rents and home prices resulting in, you know, not only involuntary displacement, but just really a lot of tension around people who had been there for while.

MARTIN: So who do you blame? Who do you think bears most of the responsibility?

LEFEBRE: I think everyone has a little bit of blame. You know, I blame my own community. I blame myself for not starting to organize sooner. I blame developers who are coming in opportunistically and not caring anything about the character or the history of the neighborhood. And I blame our elected officials who are so concerned with authoring Denver as the next great, world-class city that they're forgetting to write into that story the people who made it great in the first place.

MARTIN: Your own neighborhood, as you mentioned, used to be a different kind of place - right? - with Italian immigrants and before that, immigrants from Ireland or Germany. So to some degree, is change just inevitable?

LEFEBRE: It is inevitable, absolutely. But the type of change that is occurring at least can be critiqued. So we're having people with more money, more social and political capital coming into these areas. And with that comes a certain ignorance. And I mean that in the, you know, dictionary definition sense of - they don't know necessarily what was here before. And to a large degree, a lot of people that we've spoken to don't necessarily even care.

MARTIN: How do you fix that? I mean, when outsiders move into your neighborhood now, do you want to make them part of your community? Or would you rather them create their own separate thing?

LEFEBRE: No, no.

MARTIN: And if you want that integrated community...

LEFEBRE: No, no.

MARTIN: ...How do you make the first move?

LEFEBRE: It's absolutely necessary for them to become part of the community. But part of that requires a process of unlearning for those folks because a lot of these folks that are moving in benefit enormously from white privilege. And there's sort of a disconnect from that privilege. So the first step is really folks need to unpack some of that and recognize their privilege. They need to learn the history of the neighborhood. They need to become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. They need to stretch themselves outside of their comfort zones and listen to long-term residents.

So a lot of the times when we're organizing something or when we're, you know, creating a protest or even an online forum dedicated to discussing gentrification and critiquing it, we get a lot of backlash from people, mostly new residents, who are saying, you know, kind of - get over it. Times change. There's nothing you can do about it. And so we created an online platform called We Are North Denver that really aims to have those conversations.

We absolutely want them to be part of the neighborhood. But it requires work on both ends. And if that work's not being done, we're really just creating further segregation and siloing that isn't going to lead to anything good in the neighborhood.

MARTIN: Do you think you could share a poem with us?

LEFEBRE: Sure. Sure, I could do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "DENVER, WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?")

LEFEBRE: I remember when my neighborhood was just called the Northside. Now they've rebranded it the Highlands. Bilingual bookstores are now boutiques. The liquor store is carrying exotic wine. They call it progress.

MARTIN: That's Bobby LeFebre reading from his poem "Denver, Where Have You Gone?".

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "DENVER, WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?")

LEFEBRE: Last night, I walked your streets in search of you, bounced around like a pogo stick possessed. You were nowhere to be found. Or maybe, maybe I passed you a million times. Maybe I didn't recognize you through the new makeup and clothes. Maybe you are more comfortable with I, with who you are becoming. Maybe you crossed the street on purpose as you saw me coming your way.

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