Why gentrification is ‘our problem’: Headmaster Kiser Greenville News Editorial

Following the Pope Francis Forum for Dialogue and Diversity discussion in September, many of the students, faculty, staff, and parents of St. Joseph’s were eager to learn more about the impact of gentrification on West Greenville neighborhoods. In an editorial to the Greenville News, Headmaster Keith Kiser shares his experience of what came next.

Why gentrification is ‘our problem’

Your Turn, The Greenville News
Keith Kiser, Guest columnist

On a recent Friday afternoon, I accompanied a dozen St. Joseph’s Catholic School students to West Greenville. A couple of weeks prior, Father Pat Tuttle, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, gave a talk at our school about his parish’s fight to stop gentrification of the neighborhood surrounding his church and school.

The students were deeply moved by stories of how the working poor are pushed out of their homes through gentrification, a process that increases median income, raises property taxes, and ultimately forces landowners, who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, to sell their homes. This creates a problem not only for these homeowners, but also for those whose rents are raised to unaffordable levels.

Our students responded by asking what they could do to help, Fr. Pat invited them to come to St. Anthony’s one afternoon, and then go door-to door in the neighborhood to tell residents about the situation. Specifically, they could collect signatures so that residents could be represented by the students at an upcoming meeting about a 1-acre parcel in the heart of the neighborhood that a developer wanted to buy to build 3-story, multi-unit townhomes. Each unit would cost eight to 10 times the value of current homes in the community. Before the townhomes could be built there, several laws would need to be changed.

So after school on a Friday, a dozen students and a handful of faculty boarded the St. Anthony’s bus (driven by Fr. Pat himself ) and headed for West Greenville. After taking us on a little tour of the neighborhood, Fr. Pat dropped the students off two at a time with a chaperone.

It probably goes without saying that the West Greenville neighborhood where we were standing, getting ready to knock on doors, is totally different from the upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods most of the students and I live in. To say the students (and I) were more than a little nervous is a bit of an understatement.

My wife and I accompanied two pairs of St. Joseph’s junior and senior girls. It took only a couple of visits with friendly residents before the girls (and I) calmed down and thought, and even said, “This isn’t so hard.” The residents wanted to talk about the problem and were appreciative that our students cared about what was happening.

One man we talked to gently corrected one of the girls who told him that we were visiting to inform them about the issue “in y’alls community.” He wagged his finger and said with a wry smile: This neighborhood is part of your community, too, referring to Greater Greenville.

That comment changed her perspective and mine. The impending gentrification of West Greenville and displacement of the working poor, mostly service workers who staff downtown restaurants and retail stores, is not “their” problem; it’s “our” problem.

As we finished our routes, Fr. Pat picked us up. The mood on the bus was jubilant as each pair shared their experiences. The students must have collected 50 or 60 signatures, and more importantly, they had 50 or 60 conversations that helped to foster empathy, mutual understanding, and respect.

As we made the final pass, Father Pat showed us where the new Unity Park is going to be built, pointing out that his parish’s West Greenville neighborhood borders the new park, thus the sudden interest in a neighborhood that few cared much about until recently.

As my wife and I drove away from St. Anthony’s, we commented about the “inevitability” of West Greenville’s gentrification, if not for Fr. Pat and the parishioners, who in recent years have purchased and renovated 14 rent-controlled houses in the community.

It seemed very sad to us that the women and men of West Greenville could very soon be priced out of their own neighborhood and not able to enjoy “Unity Park” up-close.

Can Greenville truly be considered one of the most-livable cities in the country when the working poor are moved farther and farther from the heart of the city? This is not “their” problem. It’s all our problem.

I don’t pretend to have any easy answers to this complex issue. I only wish that more people would follow the lead of our students and be concerned about how gentrification impacts the poor in our community and then be willing to put their considerable resources and talents to work to find a just solution.

Can Greenville truly be considered one of the most-livable cities in the country when the working poor are moved farther and farther from the heart of the city? This is not “their” problem. It’s all our problem.