Resident's thought about gentrification: Bring it on!

September 1, 2013 

At the corner of East Fifth and Race streets stands a large bastardized apartment building, its original front door and some of its windows boarded up. Near a side door are 10 mailboxes, a few missing their lids and other parts. The mailboxes mirror the decrepit state of the building itself. Stenciled onto the plywood covering a first-floor window are the words "Stop Gentrification."

No doubt the sentiment is aimed at the development just across Race Street: a row of new, modern, brick and vinyl houses with attached garages, pristine concrete driveways and manicured lawns. The houses, with their underground utilities and front porches, are a stark contrast to the apartment building, which, judging from the eight electric meters and multiple window air conditioners, continues to be home for many.

This intersection, prominent 100 years ago when it was the main entryway into the old Kentucky Association Racetrack, today represents the two faces of the East End.

If the new houses on Race Street and the nearly 100 others that make up Equestrian View are indeed gentrification, then I say bring it on.

In fact, I can hardly wait for gentrification to spread across Race Street and consume that unattractive apartment building, along with a few other neighborhood eyesores in far worse condition.

Not all my East End neighbors will share my sentiments. After all, gentrification generally results in a displacement of poor residents — oftentimes black — to make way for more affluent residents — oftentimes white. But I submit that Equestrian View has been good for East End because it brought a diverse mix of new residents who, without the availability of new, affordable houses, would have never considered East End as a place to live.

Equestrian View, and indeed the entire redevelopment of the former Bluegrass-Aspendale public housing site, has been the cornerstone of what is being called the renaissance of the East End. As a homeowner since 1994 on East Third Street, the major corridor through the East End, I welcome that renaissance, even if a byproduct of it is that we become less black and more diverse. Again, I say bring it on.

I've long advocated for more owner-occupied housing in the East End, under the theory that homeowners are more vested in the neighborhood, less transient and less likely to turn a blind eye to what goes on around them. Equestrian View, though far too suburban in appearance for my taste, is a good start.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm hoping the change will result in increased property values, thus enriching me when I decide to put out my own for sale sign. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

While the brick-and-mortar projects have been vital in changing the image and reputation of the East End, so too have the many recent and ongoing initiatives to reclaim and celebrate the neighborhood's rich history. Some examples:

Bright yellow banners along Elm Tree Lane honor the East End's most iconic figures; markers inform passersby about the Kentucky Association Racetrack and William Wells Brown; the long-delayed Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden may soon be a reality; a painter has begun work on a mural reflecting East End history on the side of the Pac 'n Save store at East Third and Race streets.

Beyond my desire to see the general appearance of the East End improve, an even bigger desire is to see more East End residents take an active role in their neighborhood's future.

For all the projects that have been undertaken in recent years, a relatively small percentage of residents has come to the table, and an even smaller number have taken on any responsibility. There are far too many able-bodied people in the East End -- and this includes business owners -- who have yet to step to the plate.

I have on numerous occasions painted large banners and hung them throughout the neighborhood to promote everything from neighborhood meetings to lighting the community Christmas tree and the Juneteenth program. I've stopped doing this because I'm unconvinced they do anything to increase attendance, much less participation.

This degree of disengagement — rampant among new and old residents alike, homeowners and renters — is inexcusable considering all that is at stake.

I just don't buy the notion that we're too black, too poor and too disenfranchised to help ourselves.

East End resident Thomas Tolliver is a neighborhood activist.

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