Gentrification: Interview with Imhotep Adisa

Members of the Kheprw blog team recently sat down with Imhotep Adisa (M) Executive Director of Kheprw Institute to talk about gentrification in Indianapolis as part of a series focused on equitable development and empowering community solutions.

How do you define gentrification?

M: When I think of Gentrification I think about it in very broad ways. Fundamentally it’s displacement, physical, cultural, social, economic, etc. etc.

Say more about cultural and social displacement.

M: The local diner which used to serve collard greens and grits now serves swiss chard and tofu. Gentrification comes and the menu changes.

The new grocery stores appeals to the taste, palettes of folks who have not historically lived, worked and played in these communities.

How does that displace people?

M: That is displacement, it’s not necessarily a physical displacement, but a social and cultural displacement. It may very well lead to economic displacement, where those types of small business entrepreneurs are pushed out of those communities. They can no longer afford the potential rents or their customer base is forced out and those businesses are no longer able to sustain themselves.

As gentrification comes, code enforcement comes. The economic pressures of code enforcement for businesses to make costly repairs forces them to close. This is an outcome of communities in the process of being gentrified.

How do you see gentrification playing out in Indianapolis through the lense of race, class gender and power?

M: Let’s start big. Gentrification is a symptom of a much bigger global economic phenomena. A particular approach to development that places profit over people as the primary reason for being.

This is a global phenomena. As it relates to the issues of race, class, gender and power, these social constructs intertwine with each other in different ways based on the particular types of community.

In some communities, cities and countries, the issue of race will have a higher level of precedence over class and gender. In other communities the class phenomena may have larger influence in how gentrification unfolds in a particular community.

Given the racial segregation of Indianapolis’s power structure, race and gender are the dominant attributes that define power relationships in the city. These power relationships dominate any and all forms of decision making in Indianapolis. In the economic development community and most other circles the primary voices are white males.

This is not an attack on white men, rather a call for critical discussion on systemic racism, classism and sexism. In Indianapolis, the 12th largest in the country, most decisions are dominated by a handful of powerful voices and institutions. When there is “diversity” added to the room these voices may be diverse in gender and race, but rarely a diversity of thought and often limited to the professional class hired to support the interests of the powerful.

As it relates to Indianapolis, given the growing income inequities, disparities, poverty, the gentrification questions becomes more exacerbated as Indianapolis leaders attempt to redefine the city and struggle to maintain its viability for a certain segment coded through race, class and gender.

The current economic paradigm leads to outcomes that are unlikely to take the stresses off of the marginalized. A global economic model that places profit over people will never be able to address the core challenges these communities face, at least not for everybody, climate change included.

Can you give some examples of communities that have been gentrified past or present?

M: Fountain Square is the first one that comes to mind. There was an article in one of the local publications some time back about how property values have quadrupled in that neighborhood. I would argue if you look at that community you see cultural and social displacement as well.

A recent article in the Indianapolis Monthly focuses on the current development at 38th and Illinois, which would be another example of an investment initiative that creates the conditions for heightened gentrification in that community.

Another example are activities in the Northwest area. 16 Tech on the South and the possible Herron charter school on the North help set the conditions for heightened gentrification in that community.

Some would argue that for a long time the city’s population has been on the decline and vacant houses have become a drag on neighborhoods and the city’s tax base. Given the challenges you mentioned with the city’s development model how do you create positive change in Indy’s most distressed neighborhoods?

M: First of all, it’s not the city’s development model. It’s a development model tied to a global economic phenomena, where cities particularly in the US are impacted by pressures to find solutions to address their declining tax base.

As a student of gentrification, I don’t claim to be an expert on these challenges. With that said, what’s needed is leadership that’s willing to have honest, open and frank discourse around these realities.

This discourse must include the systemic challenge of race, class, gender and power. Anything less than that won’t provide any viable solutions to the challenges we face.

At a minimum policies in both the public and private sector must build in initiatives that provide direct support to the residents that are most directly impacted by the current economic challenges.

I should also mention that citizens of these communities are often blamed for their conditions without acknowledging any root causes (historical and present) for the conditions i.e. exporting jobs, housing discrimination, the prison industrial complex to name a few.

In addition, bold and courageous leadership not constrained by professional or economic self-interest must lead community initiatives that push back on the tsunami.

While this may sound romantic and idealistic, students of history can see that authentic and real change only takes place when this occurs.

Do you see this archetype of leadership emerging in the present?

M: The voices of resilience and resistance always exist in communities. Through an African American cultural context, we see it with members of the hip-hop community, politically we see it with the Black Lives Matter movement along with numerous unseen individuals doing the work of community day in day out without the need or desire for recognition or reward.

The broader challenge is to strengthen the social fabric and organizational infrastructure to support these courageous voices who are envisioning a new future based on the best of yesterday.

Often critics of the current paradigm are met with the question of how you would fix it. What are your thoughts on this?

M: These are very dark times and life as we know it on this planet is in peril so any discussion about what to do must begin with a critical look at what’s wrong and what not to continue to do. With that said, again with the risk of seeming romantic, we must resist the idea that the current model is the only possibility and rediscover ways to reconnect our humanity to each other and the planet we live on.

This effort by enough of us will lead to a redefinition of reality which may make what seems impossible today possible tomorrow and help us regain a sense of purpose for what it means to be human.

Next Interview

Practical ideas for social change: What can be put in place to change culture? What action can we take to positively impact local residents?