Part 1: Urban Villages and Transit-Oriented Gentrification

This is the first of a two-part piece that focuses on three aspects of gentrification in San Jose: transportation, language, and trauma.

Transit-Oriented Gentrification in San Jose: A Timeline

City planners, policy makers, and local government officials position transit projects, referred to as transit-oriented development or (the creation of) transit-oriented communities, as remedies to skyrocketing commute times, commute-caused pollution, and worsening daily traffic. While more transit hubs would create a more accessible city (and, to be honest, we should have free, accessible, and reliable public transportation that doesn’t cause displacement), these hubs also deeply effect the areas in which they’re built, and not always for the better. Transit communities are part of the Envision San Jose 2040 General plan, as components of the 12 proposed Urban Villages.

2011: City Council Adopts the Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan

With 12 strategies, the purpose of the plan is to make changes “…that reflect the community’s desire to see San Jose grow into a more prominent great City.” The fifth of these twelve strategies is the development of Urban Villages. The city describes these as walkable, bike-friendly, transit-oriented areas. According to the city, these mixed-use settings will “foster revitalization” through the reshaping of “underutilized properties.”  

2013: City Council Approves the Alum Rock Urban Village Plan

The future Alum Rock Urban Village will stretch the length of Alum Rock Avenue from King Road to the Jackson/Capitol 680 exit. It will have businesses, a charter school, and “affordable housing.”  Much of the housing on Alum Rock itself will be mixed-use style, meaning it will have storefronts at the bottom, and apartments up top.  Mixed use buildings are extremely common in areas undergoing gentrification.

2017: City Council Finalizes the BART Phase II Strategy

This  includes the Alum Rock, Downtown San Jose, and Diridon stations. Advocates of these spaces refer to them as Transit Oriented Communities, and the process of creating them, Transit Oriented Development. The language is important because words like development and community imply a benign kind of change.  More resources for current residents. Yet these terms actually serve to sanitize and naturalize a different outcome: transit-oriented gentrification.

Six Stages of Gentrification

‘Transit-oriented’ is a term used to specify the cause and type of gentrification, because while gentrification has a few different definitions, none are un­iversally accepted. Broadly, gentrification is a process where upwardly mobile yuppies (a shortened version of “young urban professionals”) move into a working-class neighborhood populated by immigrant communities and communities of color. Yuppies are often (but not always) white people. Their presence causes rent to skyrocket and landlords to evict tenants.  This reshaping changes the cultural, social, and political landscape of the area. 

Gentrification is sometimes said to occur in stages. 

Stage 1: Early Gentrifiers Move In

The presence of artists, design professionals, and white queer people are the signposts of the first stage.  Typically, these folks are college educated and from middle-class backgrounds and decide to move to working class or low-income areas for the affordable rent.  In some places, these first folks (who are sometimes referred to as “urban pioneers”) build artist communities and music venues.  This shifts a racist and classist assumption that the neighborhood is unsafe and transforms it into to an attractive and artsy neighborhood, making it more appealing to upper-middle class folks and developers who now see the neighborhood as a fixer-upper with character.

Stage 2: Old Places Get New Names

In the second stage, larger amounts of similar folks move into the neighborhood. Landords wrongfully evict existing residents, and remodel their homes. Redefining and renaming an area often take place in the second stage of gentrification. The chopping up of San Francisco’s Western Addition into NoPa, Hayes Valley, Alamo Square, and the Lower Haight is an example of this. Or, more locally, renaming and rebranding part of the Berryessa Flea Market as the hip millennial hangout “Garden at the Flea.”   The second stage can also be a stage of tension, with long-time residents feeling anxious about the changes and newcomers, but excited about the closer bus station, bike lanes, city-funded/family-friendly activities, and future specialty shops, just a few blocks away.

Stage 3: Outsiders Invest 

Gentrification ramps up in the third stage where outsiders invest more in development projects. Receiving more media attention, new residents promote the neighborhood to other middle-class folks. Part of this process includes making requests for public resources in an attempt to white-wash and reshape community life. 

Stage 4: Artsy Lofts Crop Up

The stream of gentrifiers continues in the fourth stage. Here, developers turn buildings into artsy lofts, condos, or mixed-use spaces, and boutique retail spaces open up. This stage can also include the displacement of the “initial gentrifiers” (urban pioneers), as they are priced out of a once affordable area. The semi-recent influx of white queers moving from San Francisco to Oakland is an example of this. 

Some writing on gentrification suggests that there two more stages; five and zero. 

Stage 5: Rich People Take Over

In stage five neighborhoods become so expensive that only the elite can afford to live in them. Manhattan is one of the few examples of this in the U.S, although some say San Francisco is moving in this direction too. 

Stage 0: The Pre-Conditions for Gentrification

Stage zero focuses on the conditions that create low-income neighborhoods to begin with. This stage includes legal, social, and economic components such as redlining, segregation, residents harassing neighbors of color, racism of real estate agents, and uneven access to resources.

Stage zero also shows how not all neighborhoods are equally susceptible to gentrification. Areas with limited resources, low-income communities, areas with higher proportions of renters, and broader changes in the city make-up the pre-conditions of gentrification. Another precondition is proximity to rail-stations. In San Francisco, neighborhoods within 1/2 a mile of a rail-station are 2x as likely to undergo gentrification.  This is transit-oriented gentrification. 

Gentrification and displacement are not single events. They impact individuals and communities very unique ways. Gentrification is also often linked to (other) trauma sources such as: xenophobia, anti-Black racism, classism, ableism, increased police presence, increased presence of white people, long term stress, decreased access to resources, isolation, exposure to toxic chemicals from living in an area undergoing constant construction, and the fracturing of families and communities. 

Gentrification in San Jose

From my perspective, it took a long time for gentrification to become a mainstream descriptor for, well, gentrification in San Jose. Even leftist discussions that focused on the San Francisco Bay Area often left San Jose out.  My guess is that there are a few reasons for this. 

First, unlike San Francisco and Oakland, San Jose isn’t getting whiter, even as it gets more expensive. This means that some of the narratives of gentrification don’t map well onto San Jose. 

Second, there’s the stereotype that San Jose=Silicon Valley. That is, we’re all wealthy techies, and thus immune to displacement. 

And third, the hot take that San Jose is a sleepy suburb devoid of culture, activism, or identity (outside tech). If we don’t have these things, then we don’t have anything to gentrify to begin with. 

But if you’ve managed to stay rooted here, you have been front and center to the undeniable and rapid changes in the city. While most changes are obviously physical and financial, they are also linguistic.

There is a particular language that comes with gentrification.  For some places it’s “urban renewal” and “revitalization”, for others its “growth” and “rehabilitation.”  For San Jose, its slogans like “activating place…”

[…to be continued]

OCTOBER MONTOYA is a mixed, queer and trans media artist from East San Jose. 

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