Everyday people make decisions about where to live; downtown, mid-town, the country, the suburbs. But aside from a good school district, being close to work, or close to parents, why do people decide to live in the house they’ve chosen? And on a deeper level, what does “home” really mean to them?
The I Live In! series will answer those and other questions about housing. This series will also educate you about different types of housing and the respective residents. What’s up with renters - do they really care about where they live? Or what about people who live in the country – why would they dare live so far away from the city! Suburbanites – do you feel like you accomplished the American dream? It is my hope, that this series gives you a new perspective on different types of housing and what home means to each individual resident.
To begin this series I contacted some close friends of mine from college to interview them about their home. Will and Sonceria Radford, and their three children (one girl and two boys), live in Salemtown, an up-and-coming neighborhood in Nashville. Located just North of Downtown Nashville, Salemtown is a historically black, residential enclave that for years has maintained its obscurity, despite being adjacent to Downtown, employment centers, and interstates that can get you anywhere in the city of Nashville within 15 minutes. It is now seeing new development and residents, and may be on the cusp of gentrifying.
Will and Sonceria chose this neighborhood roughly four years ago and underwent a massive renovation of a historic bungalow. Having always admired their accomplishment, I wanted to make this couple – my friends – the first subjects of the I Live series.
In our interview, I wanted to dive into the issue of gentrification. Gentrification is usually associated with non-minority residents displacing minority residents. Being that the Radford’s are an African-American family in this up-and-coming neighborhood, I was excited to dive into this issue.
We were able to discuss gentrification, but only after taking a long detour during the interview. During that detour, I learned that for Will and Sonceria, their home meant more than just a place live; it instead defined their family, community, and their future. By the time we got back on course, the topic of gentrification surfaced as a by standard to the real topic – the meaning of home.
CitySpeak: So, let’s start with the question - what does this home mean to you?
WillSpeaks: There are a couple of (meanings) – but one of those would be progression. I recall a moment I had with my uncle from Arkansas. When he visited, one of the first things he said was “Jessie Radford (Will’s deceased grandfather) would not believe this.” What he meant was, just to know where we - the family - came from. Knowing the little house our family started in. A one room house that grew into two rooms, then a four and six room home. One of those homes would only take up half the downstairs of this house. So definitely our house symbolizes generational progression. (Building this house) was something that we have done to move our family forward.
SonceriaSpeaks: It reminds me of the power of our community. Let me share about how we even came to get the house. We were looking for a house and Will’s secretary told him about an affordable house in “Germantown” – I knew nothing about Salemtown at the time. I visited the house and the owner was there – Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown was an older black man, who was part of the original community. We talked to Mr. Brown and we decided to put a contract on the house. This is how I think the house reminds me of a community working together. We were in the financing process, and Mr. Brown waited for us to get our financing so we could get the house. Mr. Brown had other contracts, but he waited for us. Then we had close friends who helped us with every phase of the project. We supported each other to carry out this vision, and God put it on their hearts to help us. This house is the manifestation of (our community helping each other).
Will and Sonceria bought a 1925 Queen Anne Victorian that was in dire need of renovation. Will and Sonceria, having studied architectural engineering at Tennessee State University, worked together to design an addition to the house and renovate the original structure. “Oh the design process!” they would both say cringing at the thought of the back and forth collaboration between CAD files on a personal laptop. This idea of building your home with your spouse with your own "four hands" was an awesome feat for the young couple at the time; without the help of the community Will and Sonceria may not have gotten their start.
In our conversation it was clear that Will and Sonceria were proud of being buyers-investors. The couple could have taken a different path, by purchasing a move-in ready home. But the couple took an investment risk in an “up and coming neighborhood” and bought a fixer- upper. The risk was well worth it…
A Home's Worth...
CitySpeak: Not speaking in monetary terms, what is this home worth to you?
WillSpeaks: Our home is worth its function. Our home is custom to what we wanted. Not just any family can come in and buy this home. It’s designed for our family. I walk in this space and it looks like me, and what fit’s my needs. Any subsequent home we buy would have to be 30 percent paid for because I’d have to invest even more money to customize it for my family all over again.
SonceriaSpeaks: (Function), that’s important because our family is bigger than just the five of us. Our family includes our church family. It’s important for us to have our kids and their friends over and sit them at this (custom breakfast nook, where we did the interview) and fit them all at one time. This home has always been about community.
Image Credit: (Credit: Salon/Svinkin via Shutterstock / via http://www.salon.com/2011/12/24/can_gentrification_work_for_everyone/
Finally we came to the topic of gentrification. In my studies of gentrification, I’ve learned that it is a dynamic concept, whereby the symptoms and causes are numerous and difficult to quantify; it is difficult to quantify the number of people who are displaced and the reasons for displacement. This is why gentrification is often defined in qualitative terms –changes in the essential character and flavor of a neighborhood, cultural norms, institutions, and demographic population. In popular culture, gentrification is often associated with race, but those that study the subject (including myself) understand that there are also income and educational components as well. Therefore, could an affluent African-American family contribute to gentrification? I explored this question with the Radford’s.
CitySpeak: Do you think that you’ve contributed to the gentrification of this up-and-coming neighborhood?
WillSpeaks: Yes. When you invest money, you expect a return. Meaning if I purchase a house, I expect to sell it and make a profit. If you expect the same out of an up-and-coming neighborhood, you are a part of the gentrification. I expect, money to multiply. But I must say I am comfortable with the current state of the neighborhood. Meaning, I don’t think that the only way that money can multiply is if the people in the neighborhood change. I don’t think that.
I asked an elderly neighbor down the street, who has a for sale sign in her yard, if she felt forced out, and she said no. She just couldn’t afford to keep up the maintenance. So there are various reasons why people have to move, and it has nothing to do with what goes on in the neighborhood. So goes the pattern of investment, when one has to move on, the house is upgraded and someone else moves in. Its unfortunate, but true.
SonceriaSpeaks: No. I think it’s the natural progression of a neighborhood to gentrify. But the reason I said “no” is because I’m perfectly fine with what the neighborhood is…the Bloods on 4th (we break into laughter), the water company a few streets away, the Mission. (Ironically) I’m comfortable with that mix. I don’t need Garfield Street to become ‘mixed-use’ or whatever, immediately. I haven’t bought into the “my way now” trend. I appreciate the fact that there is the elderly lady up the street that I’m cordial with from time to time. Also we meet existing residents often and they are common people, nothing to be afraid of.
So therefore, (I believe) that I don’t actively participate in it. I may indirectly participate in it because we have a newer house, but we don’t support initiatives that push people out, or that may change the character of the neighborhood, I don’t support that. I would like to see more resources to help people keep their house up-to-date. For instance, this house had a new roof put on it because of a renovation program for low income residents.
WillSpeaks: And with similar programs, I can help to renovate a home, to assist in someone staying in it. (Note: Will is a commercial – residential contractor).
CitySpeak: So you believe that a mixture of people (income and race) who care about the neighborhood would be beneficial. But then why do our peers who have educational and economic resources stray away from up-and-coming neighborhoods?
SonceriaSpeaks: Lack of vision. People don’t often see the potential in a community or a home, in up –and-coming areas. Some don’t know about the future plans for a community, or they may not understand how equity works. Also (our peers) are used to instant gratification; we don’t want to put work into it, we want the glamour now. And there are very few examples of people who’ve done it, to know that it’s doable.
WillSpeaks: There is very little precedent, and there is some level of ignorance to the tools out there for a young couple. People need to not be on the consumer side, but on the investor/owner side. I see my money more for what I can get, not for what I can buy…there is a difference. For a certain amount of money I can buy anything, but if I take that same amount of money and use it wisely, I can GET so much more.
Will and Sonceria took a risk in an up-an-coming neighborhood, and the reward was great. What they ‘got’ was a home that is the representation of community and generational progression. They are also the manifestation of the goals of anti-poverty programs like HOPE VI (a federal program with the purpose of redeveloping public housing into traditional neighborhoods to disperse poverty). In Salemtown, existing residents benefit from the resources, education, income, of new residents – like the Radfords. This intermingling of socio-economic backgrounds is a noted benefit in many gentrifying communities; particularly when the gentry are minority residents that may help to preserve the character and flavor of a neighborhood.
Up and coming neighborhoods may mean location and profit to some; to Will and Sonceria however it also meant ‘community’ and ‘progression’. So while they are a part of the new gentry in the Salemtown neighborhood, it’s their outlook on community that sets them apart…
CitySpeak: So do the kids know that you guys built this house yourself?
WillSpeaks: Oh yea, I tell them all the time - I built the house for mommy!
(We break into laughter – again)
CitySpeak: Well I guess you won’t have to worry about your daughter accepting anything less from future boyfriends - I mean you built her Mom a House!
WillSpeaks: That’s right!
Now YouSpeak – would you invest in a fixer upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood?