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The Fragile Block: How to Kill a Good Thing

Warren Buffet has some great insight regarding the natural progression of good ideas that he refers to as “the Three I’s,” which I feel applies directly to the classic gentrification curve. Here it is from the Harvard Business Review:

First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don’t. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. And then come the idiots, whose avarice undoes the very innovations they are trying to use to get rich.

So if we look at gentrification as a process where on one end of the spectrum you have high segregation by low economics (poverty) and race (specifically minority) and the other end of the spectrum also being segregation but by high economics (wealth) and race (specifically majority, read: “wealthy white”), the middle ground becomes an area where we find greater integration both economically and racially, but tends to be a fragile space in time to maintain due to a tendency of what Buffet calls “idiots” to over-capitalize on what is working, without realizing the balance of identity, economics, and integration is what makes the place sustainable (for jobs, affordability, improved health, character, et cetera). I’m also a partner at a small restaurant in our neighborhood, and our group gets asked on a weekly basis to take our concept and bring it to another city in hopes that the same energy can be rubber stamped elsewhere. While the idea of “cashing in” might seem appealing, what makes our place truly special is the local ownership and the connection with the people and identity of the neighborhood. As opposed to simply using the traditional developer backed economic gardening ideas, economic harvesting within existing neighborhoods is a much more powerful and lasting solution to help make a place vibrant and sustainable. Find the locals on the ground that always dreamed of owning their own businesses and partner them with others who can help them achieve their dreams. It’s harder work, but the results are much more powerful and honest.  I’m sure this process has been talked about at length by others, but we find this regularly when discussing revitalization of areas that suffer from mass disinvestment.

In our community, we have a small block of historic, walkable buildings filled with  30+ local businesses called the Bishop Arts District that have an interesting mix of quality and services (from $1.5o tacos to a 5 star restaurant) that exist at a very small moment in time. Fortunately, this area has a handful of property owners who understand the value of maintaining a places legacy, and that this fragile balance is important. These businesses provide affordable options for locals, generate much needed economics that bring a regional draw, offer jobs, promote an identity, but is also dangerously close to being damaged by its own success. For example, once investors from outside of the area see that they can quickly create a bar that’s going to generate a healthy profit, they will rapidly jump in to build on the area’s increased economics. Others will see and do the same and potentially over-saturate the neighborhood with something it doesn’t want and can’t control.  My business partner says “it’s like eating ice cream all the time”. It sounds like fun, but the reality is it’s extremely unhealthy and hard to control.

So should we stop creating these great places for communities that provide jobs, promote identity, lowers crime, and improve an area’s health? Absolutely not, but what we face is a supply and demand issue. Since most cities, like ours, have so few of these places (less than 1% of Dallas is made up of places with well connected, walkable neighborhood destinations), but the desire is so high to have them, they quickly can become overrun by excessive capital. The answer to the problem is for us to try and replicate the form and function of these small places and  have them throughout the city because everyone deserves great places to live and walk in their neighborhoods, regardless of race or economics. A large city should be made up of one hundred Better Blocks that are all well connected (pedestrian, bike, car, and public transit), but have small spaces that locals can create their own dream business which helps support the community. In fact, our “Think Small” mantra is key because an individual who has a dream of opening something like a bakery, has to have a small but affordable space to work from. And placing several of these small spaces together creates power in numbers that allows these small business to leverage their combined resources for marketing and placemaking. Once the scale of the building becomes too large, the local business person cannot afford the rent or overhead, which leaves a series of chains who will fill the void, but with empty calories that contribute little to the character and cohesiveness of the neighborhood. Obviously, more car-centric cities face an issue of low density (higher density is needed to maintain strong walkable commercial blocks), so this problem has to be addressed in the same way that we have to address changing the auto-dominated landscape…incrementally. The gut reaction to seeing a great place like the Bishop Arts District is to say, “It needs more parking!”…the reality is that this would make the place less walkable (the reason you love it in the first place), because historic structures surrounding the area would need to be leveled to accommodate cars which would ultimately hurt the area. So what’s the solution?

Incrementally reduce parking at a rate that is almost imperceptible per year (they reduce parking by 3% in Copenhagen), while incrementally increasing the density (use the same 3%). How do you handle the latter? Simple, return to the way we did it during our “streetcar suburb” period in the 1920’s. In our part of Dallas (Oak Cliff), homes were regularly outfitted with “granny flats” in the back, and we had a healthy mix of duplexes, triplexes, and quads sprinkled around single family homes. Sadly, we’ve outlawed many of these places, due to unfounded fears. Fortunately, with the advent of applications like AirBnB, several enterprising locals have figured out that they can generate a small revenue for themselves (which helps keep them in their homes…especially in case hard times hit…read: job loss), provides more eyes on the street (heightening safety), and greater economics (tourists spend money locally).

In the end, it’s a very fragile system, but as long as we understand the process that tends to take over, we’ll have a much better chance of mitigating the downside to helping revitalize a community.


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