Riding a wave of shows about gentrification
Within the first 30 seconds of CBS’ new sitcom “The Neighborhood,” the tweenage boy of a white family relocating to LA from the Midwest tells his parents matter of factly that Granny “wishes we weren’t moving to a black neighborhood.”
His father, Dave Johnson, played by Max Greenfield, scrambles to manage the taboo, saying, “Buddy, I wouldn’t call it a black neighborhood.” His son innocently asks, “Really?” and then points out of the window of the car, announcing, “He’s black. He’s black. She’s black.”
As gentrification reshapes urban areas across America in increasingly complex ways, co-executive producers Jim Reynolds and Cedric the Entertainer wanted to address the topic — but didn’t want to pull punches. “My goal from the beginning has been: Let’s be honest,” Reynolds says.
“The Neighborhood” is based on Reynolds’ own experience of moving with his family, about five years ago, into a historically African-American area of Pasadena, Calif. Then Cedric joined the project and fleshed out the experience of the Butlers — he plays the father — who have lived in the neighborhood for generations and whose hospitality toward the Johnsons is coupled with skepticism.
The show joins a swell of others tackling the topic on television. In TBS’ “The Last O.G.,” ex-convict Tray (Tracy Morgan) leaves prison to find the Brooklyn neighborhood where he used to sell crack now populated by coffee shops, strollers and selfie-taking millennials. In Season 5 of Showtime’s “Shameless,” hipsters move into the Gallaghers’ poverty-stricken Chicago neighborhood. And NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” set in Charlotte, did an episode about gentrification in 2016.
Los Angeles is a frequent backdrop for gentrification stories. “Vida,” a Starz drama, is set in Boyle Heights, on the Latino-dominated eastside, where gentrification is rampant. Also set there is the short-form show “Gente-fied,” which premiered at Sundance last year and is currently in full-series development with Netflix. And the changes happening in the Baldwin Park and Inglewood neighborhoods have been a recurring subject on HBO’s “Insecure.”
“The Neighborhood” is inspired by an LA where the black population’s proportion is decreasing (from 13 percent of Los Angeles County in 1980 to 9 percent in 2010). Many historically black LA neighborhoods are majority Latino now (70 percent of Watts in 2015, for example). Only a handful of neighborhoods in LA remain black majority, such as Inglewood, Windsor Park and parts of Pasadena. And gentrification is coming. The Los Angeles Times reported that average rents rose from $124 per square foot in Inglewood in 2012 to $217 per square foot in 2017.
“These are the last black neighborhoods in greater LA. It’s really unsettling,” says journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, who lives in Inglewood and frequently writes about African-American issues.
All of this informs Cedric the Entertainer’s character, Calvin Butler, whom Reynolds describes as reeling from “what he feels to be the erosion of his community.” In the pilot, Calvin explains to his son, “Our family has been in this neighborhood for generations, and the culture that we’ve worked to create is worthy of respect.”
“We want to make people aware that where people grow up and where they live, and how they identify themselves is important,” Cedric says. “The idea that because somebody comes in, you no longer belong, has to come into the conversation.”
In the show, the families are candid with one another. Calvin’s son Marty pops by the Johnsons to meet them, saying, “I had to come and see for myself.” When Dave expresses reluctance to attend the Butlers’ barbecue because he doesn’t want to put off Calvin, Marty explains, “You’ve got to come or you’ll seem racist.”
Do neighbors in Kaplan’s neighborhood speak that candidly with one another? “Uh, no,” she says with a laugh. With some exceptions, she laments, “I’m aware of these white people not communicating with any of us. I feel this terrible loss of control in my own neighborhood. A friend of mine put it this way: They are just waiting until the cavalry arrives. ‘You will be gone soon enough, I don’t need to know you.’”
It’s no accident that the Johnsons are transplants from the Midwest instead of another LA neighborhood. Reynolds wanted them to be, he says, “as socially isolated as possible, which would force them to make friends and reach out to their neighbors.” He also wanted the outsider family to embody the traditional Midwestern values of being friendly and neighborly.
“Vida” depicts a very different dynamic. It’s set in a historically immigrant neighborhood southeast of downtown LA, where a radical anti-gentrification movement has led a handful of recently opened galleries and at least one coffee shop to close and leave.
Many of “Vida’s” scenes are ripped from the headlines, including when the character Mari spray-paints “white art” (along with an expletive) on a gallery window, an actual oft-cited act of Boyle Heights activist vandalism. The show tells the story of two sisters who grew up in the neighborhood but left for Chicago and San Francisco. Show creator Tanya Saracho says “Vida” is about gente-fication, “gentrification of a Latinx space by other, usually upwardly mobile, Latinxs,” she says. “By definition, the sisters coming back and taking over their dead mother’s bar, with plans for improvement, makes them gente-fiers.”
Now Saracho has herself been accused of gente-fication. Activists argue that she and Starz are profiting off the neighborhood by telling a story about it, and have issued calls to protest on location during production for Season 2. Saracho declined to comment on the topic, preferring to discuss her aims for the series. “I seek to humanize us,” says the showrunner, who was born in Mexico. “We have gotten so very few chances to tell our stories that we are thirsty for any attempt at representation.”
Reynolds and Cedric also have lofty goals. Calvin and Dave will become friends, allowing more of their cultural differences to bump up against one another. Cedric describes it as a “family comedy with some degree of the old Norman Lear energy.” He adds, “We wanted to show how we have to learn to grow, accept, let go of ideas, and allow us to be better people.”
At the end of the pilot, Dave earnestly expresses to Malcolm Butler, Calvin’s second son, in a quiet moment, “I really think that if we could focus on what we have in common rather than what makes us different, then we could solve a lot of our problems.”
Malcolm replies, “That may be true. But I also think it’s a lot easier for someone like you to believe that than it is for someone like me.”
Dave responds simply, “OK.”
Kaplan isn’t sure whites and blacks can ever truly be neighbors. “Gentrification is a euphemism for nonintegration. Whites come in and when they occupy space, it has to be white.” She describes an advertisement she saw on the website for an apartment complex on Crenshaw. “I was very startled to find the site has all white people in the pictures and ads. It was chilling.”
Kaplan describes neighborhood diversity — of race or class — as typically temporary, only existing during gentrification, which is a small window. These television shows depict that window. “The Neighborhood” argues that we can learn to get along if we become neighbors. But once the forces of gentrification are in motion, we might not be neighbors for long.
It’s already happening to Reynolds’ Pasadena neighborhood. “When my family moved in, it was with zero intention of being gentrifiers, but I have come to realize that, despite that intention, we are contributing to that development,” he says. “People I have come to appreciate and befriend are moving away. To see my community replaced with something more homogenous is the opposite of what I wanted. And yet there is a sense of inevitability. It’s a system. It’s driven by money. And it is much larger than the individuals themselves.”