Gentrifiers Can Help Stop Urban Gun Violence by Uplifting Long-time Community Residents and Engaging with Existing Organizations

A few weeks before I participated in the gentrification of Bushwick, a livery cab driver was shot and killed outside my new apartment. The murder received little attention. I only learned about it because I decided to investigate the makeshift memorial I passed each day.

Fake red and blue flowers spelled out the word "DAD" on a pallet perched atop a chain link fence outside a vacant lot. A small Dominican Republic flag flapped above the flowers, which gradually faded as the years passed.

Recently, I realized that the memorial had disappeared. I do not remember when I last noticed it because, to me, it had receded into the landscape long ago. I often encountered it but rarely considered its meaning.

My experience reflects a pervasive attitude toward urban gun violence. Newspapers devote a couple paragraphs to some shootings. Homemade memorials fall to the ground where they become garbage for the street sweepers to churn up. We forget about the victims. We ignore the incidents or consider gun violence an inevitable urban reality.

Speaking to gentrifiers, like me, who want to stop gun violence

Mass shootings, like the weekend massacre in Orlando, dominate the national conversation about gun violence. Indeed, I considered gun violence through a lens of "no more Newtowns" until I realized that prominent attacks - the incidents that provoke the most media attention - almost always involve white, middle-class victims unless the shooter was motivated by extreme hatred. We ignore the daily gun violence in communities of color.

Meanwhile, such communities have experienced an influx of young, white, upwardly mobile newcomers like me. You know us as hipsters, yuppies and gentrifiers. Our arrival makes once-neglected communities palatable to real estate interests, attracts high-income development, inflates rents and constructs a new community on top of an existing one. Thus, gentrification alienates, squeezes and displaces long-term residents. These forces further exacerbate problems like gun violence.

Although I am ambivalent about gentrification, I nevertheless participate in the process. I wanted to learn how I could best support constructive, inclusive change in and around my community. Therefore, I reached out to Crown Heights Save Our Streets Executive Director Amy Ellenbogen and Program Manager David Gaskin. Crown Heights S.O.S. members adhere to the motto "Stop Shooting. Start Living." They host events that foster unity among neighborhood residents, engage in street outreach and provide conflict resolution to stop violence. Gaskin leads a team of outreach workers who identify and support individuals at a high-risk for gun violence. The workers all hail from the same communities as the people they serve. Their experience and willingness to engage with individuals twenty-four hours a day enables them to connect with young people.

First, examine your behaviors and role

Because gun violence arises from a confluence of social factors, we must first consider the drivers of violence in urban areas, Ellenbogen explained. These drivers include poverty, alienation, reduced access to opportunity and deliberate disinvestment. At the same time, we must examine our own role in upholding such trends and resist behavior that promotes oppression.

"[Gentrifiers should] get involved in whatever they can do to keep the rent down [and join] whatever organizing is going on in your neighborhood," she said. "You're helping the long-time residents stay in their neighborhood and deflecting real estate practices that push out people of color and that contribute to an erasure of the people who live there."

Unfortunately, gentrifiers tend to isolate themselves from neighbors who have lived in the area for years. They seem to replace the existing neighborhood rather than engage with the community. Ellenbogen said that such behavior alienates community members and "creates a feeling of toxicity among long-term residents." Neighbors, especially those from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, often exist in separate silos devoid of meaningful interaction. Ellenbogen suggested that new residents engage with the original community members to limit a sense of "invisibilization."

"Patronize the long-term businesses, learn the history of the neighborhood and meet your neighbors," she said. "It can seem like all the younger, lighter-skinned residents all know each other and go to certain places and don't see the rest of the neighbors who have been there forever."

"Know your neighbors," Gaskin added. "Greet your neighbors. I personally shouldn't move into a block [without wanting] to get to know what's going on. A simple hello. This is how I make my inroads."

Join the existing community

Ellenbogen also encouraged newcomers to donate money and time to the organizations and activist networks that already function in the community

"People will say, 'I don't want to just donate. I want to volunteer' and that's great, but you really do need to donate and donate locally to the places that have been there and that have been contributing to the strength of the community," she said.

She advocated for newcomers to engage in existing organizations rather than spearhead solutions to perceived problems without community input.

"[The community] did not just come into existence when you moved in," she said. "Offer your services in the back seat . . . Get involved in a way where you're listening and taking leadership from the long-time leaders of the neighborhood. They've been working hard and they were working hard before you came."

Utilize your talents

Ellenbogen encouraged individuals to exploit their skills and interests in order to build community, promote conflict resolution and help spread the movement's message. For example, she said, a graphic designer could create appealing t-shirts that young people will embrace. A computer programmer could help an organization bolster its website, she added.

"You don't have to change yourself in order to work in this movement," she said. "We just need to think creatively about how to plug in."

In addition to channeling their skills, she advised that individuals who want to get involved must be willing to perform the laborious tasks of organizing, such as unfolding chairs for an event. Such activity creates buy-in among new members and enables an organization to more easily achieve its goals.

Work to construct a healthier, more equitable society

Finally, Ellenbogen and Gaskin explained that reducing gun violence involves overcoming inequities in other social systems and creating an environment where young men feel comfortable expressing emotions besides anger, a concept which Gaskin calls "healthy masculinity."

"The work isn't just about stopping gun violence," Ellenbogen said. "It's about repairing a community to the place where we believe that we together can fix our school system, fix our housing system, fix our healthcare system and create a community where people are loving and kind toward each other. That's the big picture and those little things are steps in the right direction."