I’m taking up the second part of this post in the evening on the day after the June 16th Planning Commission meeting. The Housing, Land Use, and Economic elements were all on the agenda; now there’s a little more to be done with the Economic element but the other two are ready to be put to bed.
Housing got the most attention, and I want to say more in this space about our problems and our problem-solving strategies in that part of the Comp Plan.
Ron Peltier, who of all the Council members has been the most interested in the Comp Plan update, had given the Housing element a thorough going-over, proposing additions and deletions to the draft of many Goals and Policies. He also offered his personal perspective, as someone who grew up on Bainbridge, on the last fifty years of the Island’s history.
While almost none of Ron’s suggestions ended up in the text that the Planning Commission reviewed and approved, he and I find ourselves mostly in agreement on some basic ideas. We talked after the meeting was over, and I’m going to continue my train of thought here.
Ron proposed some paragraphs titled Historic Trends and Forces, and I agree with him that we need to see our present population, our housing stock, and the cost of living on Bainbridge in the light of history. (“The past is prologue,” after all – and if we allow things to just run their course, the past will pre-determine the future.)
Ron starts with this general statement: “Over the past fifty years Bainbridge Island has transitioned from a mostly working class and farming community to one that is predominantly upscale and affluent.”
My own history on the Island goes back more than fifty years; I arrived here in 1945 as a first-grader in Lincoln School (where the Winslow Green is now). From my father’s stories about growing up in Port Madison and my own research in local history, I’ve gotten some sense of what the Island was like in the first half of the 20th century.
The first thing I’d say is that the transition from working class and farming began soon after World War II. My father, who came out of a subsistence farming background and was the first in his family to go to college (Washington State before it was a U), became part of the commuting white-collar workforce – not making a big salary, mind you, but somewhat distinct from the guys on the same boat with lunch-pails, taking the bus to the Boeing plant, and those going in the other direction on the Point White ferry to Navy yard jobs in Bremerton.
Ron continues: “Through its own brand of gentrification, Bainbridge Island in fifty years has gone from a community where everyone who worked on the Island could easily find a place to rent or buy, to a place where its affluent residents rely more and more upon a range of trades and service workers who cannot afford to live here.”
Ron describes a big change without an adequate account of its causes. The roots of the problem go back more than fifty years, and the big factors affecting the costs of land and housing are regional, not local. I don’t think any actions taken on Bainbridge could have (or should have) counteracted the rising affluence of Bainbridge residents. We can’t turn back the clock. But we must take some steps to intervene in the market for housing.
The term ‘gentrification’ was coined in the 1960s to describe the transformation of urban neighborhoods that had been working-class and shabby, even slums. In a gentrifying neighborhood, after its ‘discovery’ by new people with more money and ambition, property owners sell out for unexpected profits, renters are displaced, and many changes are set in motion. Pretty soon the first urban pioneers see neighbors coming in with more money and more conservative values than their crowd brought to the neighborhood, which is no longer ‘edgy,’ but a trendy destination. And so it goes.
This kind of gentrification has moved in waves through London, most of the boroughs in New York City, and many other cities. It’s happened, and is still happening, in Seattle. My wife and I saw gentrification in Washington, D. C., when we moved there in 1964, and we participated in the process ourselves when we bought and renovated a house on Capitol Hill in 1974.
When we sold our house and left D. C. in 2000, we had earned enough in sweat equity and the rising market to buy a small house on Bainbridge. By that point we had looked at low-end houses and apartments all over the Island and in Indianola: it was shocking how many places were shabby, poorly designed, and overpriced.
I would go so far as to say to Ron Peltier that something like gentrification has happened on Bainbridge, but it doesn’t bear comparison to the transformation of urban neighborhoods and the dislocation of masses of people.
I’m not nostalgic for Bainbridge Island as it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. That wasn’t an idyllic time, and the population wasn’t settled and stable. I wasn’t aware of it then, but looking back I think many people struggled to make ends meet, striving either to find a secure place in the middle class or to keep moving up within it. There was trouble in many families, and in accordance with the culture of that time, the veneer of conventional happiness and respectability hid problems that couldn’t be spoken of.
Bainbridge Island has become a more cosmopolitan, culturally diverse place over the past fifty years, as well as becoming more affluent. Now we’re at a fork in the road. Can we make the changes – more diverse and broadly affordable housing choices, an economy that is more robust and self-contained, a population that is working together toward a positive future – that will reverse the trends toward increasing affluence, stratification, and exclusivity?
I think so; I don’t think it’s too late. But we can’t mess around any more.
Lots of people don’t recognize it, but the Growth Management Act was created to deal with gentrification and related problems – all the pressures and barriers that tend to sort and segregate different cultural and economic groups.
The GMA also, and more obviously, requires counties and municipalities to control sprawling suburban development, with its inefficient use of land and wasteful consumption of natural resources. And the problems are linked together: suburban sprawl is another sorting and segregating process.
In my own view, Bainbridge Island has suffered more from suburbanization than from gentrification. But that’s another subject.