In Porters Community, a neighborhood of shotgun houses situated closely together in a tight weave and separated by bursts of foliage and chainlink fences, Charles L. McKnight’s bright green house jumps to the foreground, impossible to miss.
“The color,” he said, surveying the house front, “was a mistake.”
Over 90 years old, McKnight’s is one of four remaining original houses in the Porters Community, which dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Of course, it’s more than a piece of Gainesville history — it’s a chronology of McKnight’s family story.
“I was born in this house with my two brothers and my one sister,” he said. “We were all born in that room right there, where I live now.”
McKnight has lived in and out of Gainesville over the course of 73 years, each time returning to a changed Porters. In the past 10 years, he said, the development has picked up.
And in the past five, the changes have been so rapid and widespread that the neighborhood is becoming hard to recognize. He added that when his sister visited this year, she could hardly believe it was the same neighborhood she grew up in.
“She couldn’t believe it, all of these apartments back there,” he said. “I said, ‘They’re right by our doorstep now.’ You could almost get lost in your own neighborhood.”
Community organizers in the neighborhood are calling these changes for what they are: gentrification.
Gentrification is a process in which houses and commercial property in urban neighborhoods are bought and restored, usually by wealthier private investors and homeowners, with the goal of increasing market value. As a result, many families in the “revitalized” communities are pushed from their homes due to rising rent prices. This phenomenon is most closely documented in big cities across the country like Baltimore, D.C. and New York City, but smaller cities like Gainesville are no less susceptible.
Porters, sandwiched between downtown and the University of Florida campus, is prime real-estate. Outside developers, the City of Gainesville and UF are buying property left and right, true to the pattern of gentrification, community organizer Faye Williams said.
“You see what’s happening on Main Street, what’s happening on Depot Avenue, what’s already happening on Sixth Street all the way up to the University Avenue,” Williams said.
“Sixth Street all the way down to Southwest 16th Street — they’re building and expanding,” Porters resident and community organizer Tyra Edwards said. “Rent is going to be high, so if you work a regular a job and you make $11 an hour, and your rent is $600 a month, it’s going to go up to $800 a month. They push people out slowly.”
With rising property prices and the subsequent spike in rents, families that have lived here for generations are forced to move in search of affordable housing, causing the Porters community to rapidly shrink, said Civic Media Center co-coordinator Nailah Summers.
“Porters, at some point, went from 13th to Waldo and is now this tiny, tiny little place. And it’s still disappearing,” Summers said. “It’s Main to Sixth Street, from Depot Road to maybe Fourth Street. Black communities and the homeless community are being pushed and pushed to the margins. Everybody is going to be in Hawthorne in the next six years.”
It’s a telltale sign of gentrification: As the people in the community are displaced, the community itself changes irrevocably. According to a 2010 National Social Science Association Study, “the indigenous sociological community is destroyed and replaced by another,” changing the neighborhood’s demographic profile.
For Edwards, the changes will rob future generations of a sense of history.
“Take your child down that street 10 years from now and—” she said, gesturing into the distance, miming the act of showing a child what the neighborhood used to be like. “‘That’s Mary’s house, and she had the best fried chicken and rice.’”
“We need to keep these communities,” Edwards continued. “If you don’t fight for your community, you will lose it. There will be no community. There will be no, ‘I’m home late from work, and Miss Nancy picked up your mail.’ There will be a Starbucks next to you.”
McKnight agreed with this sentiment.
“It’s a very mixed breed of things, just like the North is now,” he said. “You don’t know who your neighbor is, not like the old days.”
The Porters community, established in 1884, is the second-oldest historically black neighborhood in Gainesville, after the Pleasant Street district. The land was originally owned by Dr. Watson Porter, a former Union Army surgeon assigned to the Third U.S. Colored Troops. He eventually became principal of the city’s first school for black children, Union Academy. He began selling the Southwest Gainesville land exclusively to black families to encourage self-sufficiency.
Unlike the historically black Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street neighborhoods, which housed prominent churches, businesses and professionals, Porters was a working-class area, according to local historical restoration consultant Murray D. Laurie. It’s streets were unpaved, it had no nearby schools and it received few city amenities, such as trash collection. Similar to McKnight’s home, the original Porters constructions were tiny shotgun houses with one or two bedrooms.
In the 1960s, according to an article from The Gainesville Sun, owned homes became rental properties as the residents moved into public housing projects throughout the city. Many abandoned homes were left vacant, then used as waypoints for drug trafficking. In this time the area saw more crime and violence, as well as neglect from the city: For years it was called “The Forgotten Neighborhood,” according to a 1990 Gainesville Sun article.
For example, according to the same article, it was only in a push led by community homeowners in the 1970s that the city started paving dirt roads. According to another article in 2001, “The neighborhood lacks sidewalks, streetlights and neighborhood parks, and it is the recipient of the environmental impacts of industrial activities along Depot Avenue, which bring dust and fumes into the neighborhood.”
In another article in 2000, local historical author Ben Pickard was quoted saying, “There was no sort of historical preservation effort here. (Some people) thought there was nothing to save.”
But through all of this, the neighborhood kept its close-knit, familial character rich with history. Post-World War II, “the neighborhood was a world unto itself,” longtime resident Janie Williams said in the same article, which also details the way the community cared for one another. “We didn’t have a lot, but we shared what we had,” Williams said. “If someone was sick, the community would rally around.”
“It was more of a family-oriented lifestyle as I was coming up,” McKnight said. “If the lady down the street caught me doing something wrong, she would get onto me. We’ve sort of stretched out now.”
In 1987, nonprofit group United Gainesville Community Development Corp. developed a 32-acre, $2 million complex called “Porter’s Oaks” in the middle of the neighborhood. The complex, the first big development project to hit the Porters Community, displaced 11 families, relocating them “to other homes throughout Gainesville and Alachua County,” according to a 1988 Gainesville Sun article.
And the development, called an “aggressive program to rid neighborhoods of blight,” continued into the 1990s. In a cleanup effort in 1996, the city staged a mass demolition of abandoned homes, allowing firefighters to burn 12 houses on SW Eighth Avenue as a training exercise.
“They’re not into renovation, they’re into relocation,” Edwards said. “People can’t afford to live in these high-priced places. When you don’t have the money, you live on the outskirts.”
And the development continues today. Outside businesses and programs have begun to see untapped potential in the neighborhood — what people call an “up-and-coming” neighborhood. Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency, a government program that aims to attract private investment to underserved parts of the city, has called the area surrounding Depot Avenue “Gainesville’s next frontier.”
From 2012 to 2014, brothers Bret and Tim Larson bought property along SW Fourth Avenue, including a strip plaza. Tim Larson’s plan, he said, is to draw young working locals to the building, which he plans to fill with a collection of cafes and night time spots with live music. According to a June Gainesville Sun article, “he expects to benefit from their location between UF and downtown.”
Larson said he wants to make the area nice.
“(It is) a lot nicer than it was, now that we actually have businesses that are open to the public,” he said. “We were trying to put picnic tables out here to make it a place and a space that you could actually bring kids.
“We probably filled seven or eight full trash bags with beer cans, glass bottles, and just trash,” he said. “We cleaned this whole area out. We’ve done it ourselves, so that people can use it in the future. It’s just been neglected for so long.”
Three years ago, Florida Organic Growers established Porters Community Farm, a quadrant of land on SW Fifth Avenue and SW Fourth Street. Volunteers at the garden grow food for St. Francis House, Peaceful Paths and Gainesville Community Ministry.
Kayvon Bahramian, manager of the community farm, said few people from the immediate neighborhood come to work on the farm — the volunteers and interns mostly come from the university.
“Some people feel that the project was started without community support,” he said. “[Community members] were never really engaged and not asked what they wanted from that space.”
“My feeling is that it is here now, and you can get involved,” Bahramian said. “I’m not big on holding people’s hands. If there’s something obvious happening in your neighborhood and you want to know about it, just ask. If there’s a bunch of white people working there, I’m not oblivious to that, but there are also black people working — ask them.”
Williams said private companies have approached local homeowners, offering to buy their houses for extremely low prices.
“We are resilient and ready to fight back,” Williams said. “Because we are not going to sell our houses — especially not for $60,000 when we know that each house over there is worth over $103,000.”
The outside businesses and private companies that insert themselves into the community view the uptick in property value as a benefit. But there are few programs that exist to help longtime, low-income residents who can no longer afford to live in their changing neighborhood. Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency, at the instruction of the former property owner, intends to build a mixture of market-rate and affordable housing along Seminary Lane, a neighborhood on NW Fifth Avenue. But according to Nathalie McCrate, a project manager at the agency, this is still in early development.
“The conceptual master plan was only founded this year,” she said. “We’re still figuring out what our definition of ‘affordable housing’ is.”
This year the agency built a 0.4-mile sidewalk along the north side of SW Fourth Avenue, one of the few sidewalks in the neighborhood. It also constructed a large sign on Main Street that reads “Welcome to Porters.” During the sidewalk’s construction, Porters resident Vernon Jackson was able to find a job with the construction workers, McCrate said. Jackson was then hired full-time by the contracting firm and facilitated the hiring of two friends.
Though the rising cost of living is something to consider, McCrate said, the benefits of improving a neighborhood often outweigh the costs.
“Think about what would happen if somebody wouldn’t make improvements,” McCrate said. “Something can happen if you do do something; something can happen if you don’t. The act of not doing something has extraordinary cost as well.”
And while the process of gentrification is complicated — it correlates with decreased crime rates, for example — the revival of downtown Gainesville and surrounding areas is pushing black communities to rural areas on the outskirts of the city where jobs are scarce, schools are scant and public transportation is absent.
“If you don’t have a car to drive 10 miles into work every day,” Edwards said, “what are you going to do?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Places Initiative, homeowners and renters displaced by gentrification often have limited access to “affordable healthy housing, healthy food choices, transportation choices, quality schools, and bicycle and walking paths” and in turn are at higher risk of “asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
Edwards said that she plans to fight gentrification by staging a long-term investigation of Gainesville’s historic black neighborhoods through a survey — which she calls the LOUDD Survey — assessing how poverty affects these areas. Through this, Edwards said she hopes to bring awareness not only to gentrification, but to how it affects her community and the greater Gainesville area.
“This is home. This might not look like a home to you, but it’s home to us,” Edwards said. “When you gentrify a neighborhood, you don’t just gentrify their neighborhood, you gentrify their whole life.”
Tori Deutch contributed to this report.