Gentrification is not just coming but is here. I have worked in this community for more than 40 years and to say the complexion of the neighborhoods and businesses has changed would be an understatement. Those who once lived here can no longer afford to live in neighborhoods they were born into.
According to the first Census report for Gainesville, there were 46 African Americans and 223 Caucasians living here in 1860. Ten years later, African Americans outnumbered Caucasians 765 to 679. African Americans moved to Gainesville after being released from local plantations like Haile Plantation, the Stringfellow Plantation, Major Bailey Plantation and others.
African Americans built self-sustaining communities in the Porters, Seminary Street and Pleasant Street communities. This was the home of the second certified African-American school in the state. Grocery stores, places of worship, movie theaters, hotels, bed and breakfasts, doctors, dentists, medical clinics and a hotel are just a few of the businesses that were in these thriving neighborhoods.
By the time I came to Gainesville I was able to patronize many of these businesses. But then by the late 1960s and early ‘70s there was a noticeable decline in businesses and many houses were boarded up.
The first Fifth Avenue Arts Festival was an attempt to sound the alarm that gentrification could be in the future. Roll forward 39 years and there are just traces of a once-thriving African American residential and business district.
Looking at future plans, it will be even more financially difficult for low-income residents or the working poor who used to reside in such neighborhoods to afford to live here. Minimum-wage jobs do not allow you to pay rent, pay utilities and eat most of the time.
We need to discuss ways that we rebuild neighborhoods from within. As the Greater Duval Neighborhood Association did with its neighborhood survey, find out not only what residents need but what human resources they have.
There is certain infrastructure that has to happen in order to even the playing field for east Gainesville and Alachua County. Equity has to happen. We have to figure out how to keep most of the income earned in these communities so that growth is a reality.
We have to have all hands on deck to make this one happen. We need community leaders (that means those actively working for change), elected officials, faith-based groups and allies from east and west to be partners in de-gentrifying our communities. We need investors who are more concerned with building safe and vibrant neighborhoods for all.
This weekend, the Fifth Avenue Arts Festival celebrates the rich cultural heritage of African-Americans who settled in the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street area, creating a self-sustaining community. Our theme this year is “Ujamaa (Collective Economics), Moving Towards De-gentrification.”
This year’s activities include a discussion April 21 at the Santa Fe College's Center for Innovation and Economic Development at University Avenue and Sixth Street. The forum will discuss why economic growth has not occurred east of Waldo Road for more than 40 years, where are we now in plans to create economic growth and what economic growth looks like for east Gainesville.
Who will be at the table when we get serious about economic growth for all residents of Gainesville?
Nkwanda Jah is executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition, and one of the founders and longtime organizer of the Fifth Avenue Arts Festival.