Why Raleigh canceled a planned talk on gentrification in the city

A city-sponsored talk on gentrification was canceled this week after community members and some Raleigh leaders complained about the poster advertising the event.

The discussion, originally planned for Wednesday, was called the “The promises and realities of gentrification: the case of North City.”

The event was part of the city’s Urban Design Center’s lecture series and would have been led by Kristin Williams, the Planning Department’s new engagement coordinator. She’d researched the “significant negatives” of gentrification in the northern parts of St. Louis and had presented her research previously, said Planning Director Ken Bowers.

The event didn’t follow the normal approval channels, he said.

“Marketed as the savior of the city, gentrification has become an increasingly popular redevelopment strategy in the urban core,” the poster summary said. “This talks draws on interviews with residents and community leaders in a gentrifying neighborhood in St. Louis to tell the story of how the reinvestment process has reshaped the physical, social and cultural environments in a particular St. Louis neighborhood and how these changes have affected the lives of locals.”

“Has gentrification saved this community? Drop by to find out.”

‘Listen and learn’

Gentrification can mean different things to many people.

It typically refers to the revitalization of an area that benefits some while displacing long-time residents, often people of color or lower income. It’s playing out across the country, raising housing costs in cities including Raleigh.

More than 60 people move to Wake County every day.

The Wake County Affordable Housing Plan found one in four households — about 91,000 families — are spending more than one-third of their income on housing. Wake County lost 5,000 affordable housing units including naturally occurring and subsidized units between 2009 and 2015.

One of those who complained about this week’s planned talk was Raleigh City Council member Corey Branch. The city can’t be the only voice when talking about gentrification and the displacement of people, he said. Branch represents Southeast Raleigh, one of the areas hit hardest by gentrification.

“No one knew about it,” he said. “There wasn’t proper communication to staff or to council about that topic. Especially since it has such a negative impact on my district. The wording was horrible. The wording in the flier was horrible.”

Council member Nicole Stewart, one of two council members elected at-large, called the wording on the poster “inflammatory.”

“We have to be very thoughtful,” she said. “I think we have to be a convener and let other folks lead so we can learn. So we as a council can learn instead of not listening and not learning. We need to listen and learn.”

Comments on social media also prompted the city to cancel the event. A public records request from The News & Observer asking for communication on the creation and cancellation of the discussion had not been fulfilled as of Friday afternoon.

A bigger conversation

“The original intent of the UDC talk was to share a case study of how gentrification negatively impacted a community in St. Louis,” said Damien Graham, Raleigh’s communications director. “Recognizing that gentrification is a challenging issue for many communities, including ours, we decided to cancel the event in order to consider potentially expanding the conversation to include local perspectives.”

Those local voices, Bowers said, need to include people in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Raleigh’s affordable housing, zoning and planning policies reflect the realities of gentrification, he said. And Raleigh leaders have set aside a penny on the property tax rate to put toward affordable housing. But gentrification, by name, is rarely discussed during council meetings.

“Regardless of how this is structured and whether the city takes the lead, or is participant with other partners, the UDC talk which is usually a small-scale talk aimed toward urban and design professionals, was never the right venue for having that discussion,” Bowers said.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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