It’s a story seen across the nation – a neighborhood formerly known for rundown houses, empty shops and limited resources now finds flocks of millennials coming to the area’s trellised cafes and bars for brunch and drinks on weekends.
What formerly made the neighborhood “sketchy” or caused outsiders to steer clear is now marketed as a selling point of its “character” to new investors and residents.
It’s a change called “development” by many of the investors seeking to move in, and called “gentrification” by some who are skeptical of the impact that the rapid inflow of money has on longtime residents of a neighborhood.
Yet, many of these conversations about the challenges – and opportunities – of gentrification have left out the institutions at the heart of many of these neighborhoods: the churches.
“It’s been a mixed blessing,” said Fr. Michael Kelley of St. Martin’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.
Established in 1901, St. Martin’s is located in the middle of the Bloomingdale neighborhood of D.C. In recent years, the predominantly African-American neighborhood has experienced rapid economic change, as investors have started paying higher prices for land in the area, and new shops, bars and other amenities have sprung up in the middle of what used to be a major drug market.
In the midst of these changes, St. Martin’s has remained committed to its mission of hospitality and outreach to the larger community – both new residents and old residents. “We work hard to be a good neighbor,” Fr. Kelley said.
Their efforts to help their neighbors have actually been a factor in making the area enticing for the investors now moving into Bloomingdale. Local Christian pastors, working together and with the city, helped to diminish the drug trade and offer aid to those with addictions, the priest explained. In a way, the churches began a process that gentrification finished.
However, new residents don’t always give credit to the vital role the parishes have historically played in the communities – and still do to this day.
“You all just really need to move your church, you’re getting in the way of what we’re doing here,” new residents have told Fr. Kelley and other Bloomingdale pastors. The priest recalled one interaction with a new homeowner who criticized the churches’ presence in the area. “I remember saying to someone, ‘How long have you been here?’”
“Oh I moved in about six months ago,” the man responded.
“I’ve been here for 24 years,” Fr. Kelley told the new resident. “I remember when people were shooting up heroin in my backyard, breaking into my house and stealing our TVs and computers. I remember when there were drive-by shootings every night and I almost got hit once. I lived here when it was a very dangerous place to be.”
“If it wasn’t for the churches being here as the anchors of the community, you wouldn’t have the community to move into that you have today.”
“Development” by any other name
Gentrification is a broad term for the movement of wealthier residents into an existing urban area, a demographic shift which changes a district’s character and culture, often affecting neighborhoods that have previously been home to ethnic minorities or immigrants.
The result: historically working-class neighborhoods are transformed into up-and-coming “hipster” or “arts” districts, and eventually, to high-demand – and usually high-rent – neighborhoods.
The gentrification process can be characterized by an increase in median income and housing prices, as well as a decrease in the neighborhood’s proportion of racial minorities. Crime rates often drop, while investments in high-end businesses and infrastructure often soar.
Sociologists argue over the root causes of this phenomenon and the ways in which it is different, historically, from other kinds of demographic changes in cities. What is undeniable, however, is that the shift from primarily minority, lower-class neighborhoods to majority white, upper-class districts brings challenges for long-term residents as well as the benefits of increased resources and new businesses.
As an integral part of many developing neighborhoods, local parishes are also feeling the strain of these changes.
New Mission Territory
Fr. Mark Doherty is an associate pastor at St. Peter’s in the Mission District, San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood, and an area of the city that has been predominantly Hispanic for decades.
He told CNA about the changes the Mission District is facing as millennial tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and programmers for startups like Dropbox and Airbnb have bought up properties in the neighborhood.
“The young tech professionals, they want to live in the city, and a certain number of them – the more hipster type – want to live in the Mission District” because of its “grungier” feel, Fr. Doherty explained.
But the stark economic divide is making life, and parish ministry, more challenging for the Latin American immigrants who have called the neighborhood home for generations.
Many members of St. Peter’s are facing housing issues due in part to the arrival of wealthy property-owners and tenants looking for luxury accommodations, Fr. Doherty explained.
“You have a fair number of first-generation arrivals who are having to move because property owners are either selling the buildings or redesigning them to make them more appealing to the younger set of professionals that are coming in.”
Parish ministry has also been impacted as the changing neighborhood demographics have, in a sense, turned St. Peter’s back into mission territory.
Most of the parishioners at St. Peter’s are Mexican-American and speak Spanish as their first language. “Our time is mostly dedicated to meeting the sacramental needs of theses first-generation immigrants who live in the neighborhood,” Fr. Doherty said, citing Masses, weddings, baptisms, quinceaneras and funerals as among the focuses of parish resources.
“That means that the other folks who are moving in – the young tech professionals who now make a substantial part of the neighborhood – it means we don’t have nearly the kind of time available or the resources at hand to try to engage that population.”
“These young professionals who have moved into the neighborhood generally have no connection to the Church whatsoever, and more generally seem to have none or very little religious experience or background to speak of,” Fr. Doherty continued. “It means that engaging them is very, very challenging and it comes down to one-on-one encounters more than anything else.”
While these personal encounters “have the opportunity to become significant and deep,” the priest said, they take a significant amount of time and effort – a difficulty in a large parish with an already-established community and many sacramental needs.
This place would be a very different community if it wasn’t for the churches. -Fr. Michael Kelley
One parish that has seen some degree of success at merging different communities is St. Dominic’s in the Highland neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.
The old Victorian houses in the area had long been home to a large Vietnamese and Hispanic population, many of whom were parishioners at St. Dominic’s. But as housing prices have risen with the influx of technology companies, startups and other incoming industries, some long-time residents have had to move to other neighborhoods while a new young adult population moves in.
“The families who have been pushed out – they come back,” said Fr. Luke Barder O.P., parochial vicar for St. Dominic’s. He told CNA that some parishioners will “drive 30-40 mins to come to Mass.”
Since many of the longtime parishioners have remained engaged in the parish despite moving to new neighborhoods, St. Dominic’s has refocused its efforts on integrating and welcoming new residents into its existing parish ministries.
To refocus on its changing role in community, the parish has updated its mission statement, Fr. Barder said, and started targeting some ministries to the young adults in the area, including an Octoberfest beer festival and the Frassati Society, a group for fellowship and prayer.
“Families and homes go together”
The limited availability of affordable housing is an issue that the U.S. bishops have aimed to address for decades, said Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for U.S. bishops’ conference.
Reyes told CNA that within the Catholic Church, “for the last 10 years, housing has actually been one of the top three issues for community concerns and engagement, from the neighborhoods themselves.”
“The way the Church has always framed it is that families have the right to decent housing,” he continued. This drive to protect families – and to defend parishes as spaces in a community – has led the bishops’ conference to be explicitly involved in affordable housing initiatives since 1975.
In the document “The Right to a Decent Home,” the U.S. bishops lay out guidelines for Catholics on how to think about the need to ensure affordable housing. This concept was reinforced this past year in Pope Francis’ letter, “Amoris Laetitia,” in which the Pope asserted that “Families and homes go together,” and warned that housing difficulties may lead couples to delay starting a family.
Reyes pointed to efforts by the U.S. bishops’ conference to help ensure fair rents, promote the building of good housing and prevent homelessness.
In particular, he highlighted several initiatives by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the bishops’ conference which has set up land trusts enabling local communities to own and control land in their neighborhood to keep it affordable for future generations.
Helping people – old and new
In Washington, D.C., St. Martin’s parish is still working hard to meet the needs of the predominantly African American community and its “very clear Black Catholic identity,” while also reaching out to the influx of white young adults.
“Our philosophy is: everyone is welcome; all gifts are needed; everyone can help build up the Church,” Fr. Kelley explained.
All parishioners are welcomed and encouraged to serve in all areas of parish life, from the gospel choir to the parish council. St. Martin’s is also looking at expanding childcare services and other ministries to accommodate the increasing population of young families.
At the same time, the parish has been careful not to stall its current ministries, particularly its role as the D.C. meeting location for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In addition to hosting the meetings, St. Martin’s also subsidizes the cost of utilities and operations.
“Even though the neighborhood is changing, people are coming from all over to come to the meetings,” Fr. Kelley said, emphasizing their importance both as a ministry and as a catalyst for change in Bloomingdale.
The influx of new residents has brought some benefits to the community. With the help of new parishioners, the parish been able to help secure housing protections for current residents against rapidly skyrocketing rental and property prices. In the 1990s, Fr. Kelley recalled, a row house in Bloomingdale could be bought for less than 10,000 dollars. Today, the same house could go for nearly 1 million dollars.
New residents in the neighborhood have also helped to attract attention to Bloomingdale’s longstanding issue with sewage flooding during heavy rains.
“For a long time, no one responded to the problem and plight of poor black folks complaining that we’re getting sewage in our basement when it rains,” Fr. Kelley said. New residents, though, had the resources and know-how to place enough political pressure on the city to jump-start repairs on the aging sewer and waste system in the neighborhood.
Still, challenges do remain for the community, with some new residents failing to understand the history of the area, and some older residents feeling like they are not respected and do not have a voice in the neighborhood as it evolves.
In the midst of these continuing tensions, Fr. Kelley said the parish must resist the narrative of “us against them.”
“I want us as a Church to continue to be involved, to share the Good News of Jesus, to continue to welcome everyone who comes and to try to meet people’s needs as best we can with our resources,” he said. “Our basic principles are hospitality, generosity, using God’s abundance to make a difference in the neighborhood locally and in the larger community.”
“It’s not like I’m trying to keep anyone out,” Fr. Kelley said of St. Martin’s role among the neighborhood’s many changes. “If anything, I’m trying to connect people more.”
This article was originally published July 13, 2016.