Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Tale of 40 Houses: Putting down roots on Green Street.

Screenshot 2015-02-22 11.25.00In late 2013, my wife and I bought a beautifully restored, century-old house in the Olde Uptown neighborhood of Harrisburg.

As editor of TheBurg, I certainly knew that some regarded that revitalized neighborhood as ground zero in the gentrification of the city. I’d even written a bit on that neighborhood and that subject.

However, I didn’t think much about the issue when I decided to buy there. I wanted to live in a spacious Harrisburg property that had much of its historic interior intact—the floors, the moldings, the staircase. I also loved the plans for the restoration and the charming neighborhood around me.

After I bought the house, I found out that the last occupant was an elderly African-American woman and her even more elderly mother, who had lived in it for decades. So, I thought to myself, intentionally or not, had I become a gentrifier?

A Myth?

Recently, an urban affairs reporter named John Buntin wrote an article with the provocative headline, “The Myth of Gentrification,” for the liberal online magazine, Slate.

Gentrification is commonly defined as upper-income, mostly white, people moving in and displacing low-income, mostly black, people from a neighborhood. That, however, rarely occurs, he argued.

What actually happens is something less dramatic and less conspiratorial.

Neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty are profoundly unstable, he stated. People move in and out all the time, as low-income renters tend not to stay long in one place.

Occasionally, a neighborhood may become more desirable for homeownership. One by one, people filter in and fix up properties and live in them. Over time, this may flip the racial composition from majority-black to majority-white (though, he wrote, when a neighborhood changes racially, it’s more likely to change from majority-black to majority-immigrant).

As people buy and fix up houses, lower-income people are also less likely to move out, according to several studies that he cited, since they also find the area more desirable. The overall population of renters may decline as low-cost rentals are removed from the market, but few individuals actually lose their homes.

“In fact, so-called gentrifying neighborhoods appear to experience less displacement than non-gentrifying neighborhoods,” Buntin wrote.

Individual Stories

My block tells an interesting story that mostly supports Buntin’s theory. Having said that: I find the reality to be more complicated than Buntin states and far more complex than those who view gentrification as a developer-driven conspiracy.

To get an honest picture of what has happened along the 2000-block of Green Street, each property needs to be taken as an individual parcel—as an individual story. To do that, I’ve examined property records and spoken with a number of my neighbors.

Let me first say that I live on a wonderful block. Most of the houses are renovated and owner-occupied by middle-class people, both black and white. Only a few non-renovated houses remain, including one or two that are boarded up. For the most part, the street is well-maintained, quiet and charming.

But, not long ago, it looked very different.

The 40-or-so houses were built as spacious middle-class homes a century or so ago. Following industrial job loss and the 1972 flood, the slumlords arrived in force, buying the historic buildings for pennies-on-the-dollar, refusing to invest in or maintain them properly and then renting them out cheaply.

According to my neighbors, the house next to mine was divided into several small apartments, where people came and went all day and drugs were sold. On the other side of me, the house was flipped seven times over five years, even serving as a guardianship group home before a developer restored it and my neighbor bought it.

Directly across the street, one house had seven owners over 10 years. Up the block a bit, a house has changed hands 10 times over a dozen years, including three times in a single year.

A number of abandoned houses, including the house two doors away and another four doors from mine, fell to the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority before a developer bought and renovated them about five years ago.

In other words, the block was dominated by troubled properties—abandoned, decrepit, bounced around by slumlords, sheltering illicit activities. Why would anyone, rich, poor or middle class, want to live there?

The block directly behind mine offers an interesting point of contrast. The snug houses on this street remain in poor condition, much like the Green Street houses were until recently.

The end house off the alley is boarded up—badly—so that squatters can sneak inside. Last year, police raided a house a few doors up, while, in another, a man had to be stopped from illegally breeding dogs he kept outside in his postage-stamp-sized yard.

But even the good tenants don’t stay. The occupant churn is very high, with tenants (both black and white) rarely staying more than a year, often less.

On this block, Buntin’s theory seems to hold. Something is displacing these people at a spectacular rate—the condition of the forlorn buildings, the decrepit state of the block, their own poverty. But it’s not because heartless developers are kicking them out.

Own History

My house has its own unique story.

Along the block, it was an exception, owner-occupied for decades by a single family. Before I bought it, a 90-something-year-old woman lived there with her 70-something-year-old daughter, who cared for her.

According to my neighbor, the pair lived in just a couple of rooms since much of the house was not habitable due to severe structural problems, including holes in the roof and extensive water damage. After the mother died, the daughter moved out and, in 2013, the house went to sheriff’s sale, reverting to Fannie Mae.

I can attest that the house was in horrible shape when WCI Partners bought it from Fannie Mae. When I first saw it, I questioned whether it could be saved at all. It was made livable—even beautiful again—but it took a comprehensive, costly renovation to do it.

So, to return to our original question—is gentrification a myth?

A place—a street, a block, a neighborhood—is a collection of many individual stories and lives. On my block, each house has its own history. Those histories share some common elements, but each also has its own path.

Some have been flipped repeatedly by slumlords. Some still are. Some are empty. Many were foreclosed on or went to tax sale. A few house inter-generational families. Some have been restored fully, others partially, and a couple not at all.

In the end, I don’t regard gentrification as a myth so much as a simplification of a complex reality. Along the 2000-block of Green Street, you may see more racial diversity than you once did, but what you’re really seeing are more people who are choosing to live on the block, who are coming and not leaving, thus helping to stabilize what was, until recently, a very transient place.

People are selecting that parcel, that house, that history. They are buying and putting down roots—and they plan to stay.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

Disclosure: Alex Hartzler, TheBurg’s publisher, is a principal with WCI Partners LP.

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