The last time I was back home in Buffalo, NY—the city of my birth—my sister, who still lives there, took my wife and me to a new restaurant near the old neighborhood where we grew up.  When we were kids, our area, Myrtle, Swan and Seneca Streets, was the playground of poor kids, mainly black and Puerto Rican, but also Italian and Polish.   The area has now been gentrified, with fancy restaurants and bars.   As with other once impoverished spots throughout Buffalo, this area has become trendy, hip, and old spaces have become “new.”  But the “old” represents someone’s past, someone’s childhood, someone’s sacred memory-space.  Gentrification can thus be seen as an act which seeks to erase that, as the old neighborhood is transformed into a site of newness, for some.

Recently, in Nashville, TN, where I live and work, I ran into a church mother who belongs to a historic black congregation on Nashville’s North side, in close proximity to downtown.  Her husband, who is in his eighties and a civil rights pioneer, is someone from whom I have learned abiding lessons about Nashville’s black history. “Dr. Dobson,” she says, “They were trying to take our church.  They want to buy it to tear it down to build condos.”   She talks about how their church, one of the oldest black churches in the state, has been the object of real estate developers, “because where the church stands is a prime location.”  I know this church as a site where generations worshipped, wept and prayed; a site where history-making preachers proclaimed God’s word, blessed babies, and inspired their flocks to “keep holding on.”  I know it as a sacred space, where civil rights workers gathered together to tear down the walls of racism.

Now, real estate developers, probably wealthy, probably white—perhaps with little regard for the sacred memories held within the bricks of the building—want to tear down the walls of their little sanctuary.   This church mother--a soft-spoken, serious woman, whose gentle spirit typifies the heritage of the black South—leaves me with the words, “You pray for us.”  And I do, hoping my prayer can build an impenetrable wall around their sanctuary, so no bulldozer can level it.  I’m angry, as I see gentrification as crime, not the purchasing of the physical space, but the crime of “rendering invisible” the sacred memories of those for whom a site such as this is more than mere land.  The crime of gentrification is that those who “gentrify” and those who follow these developers into the “newly built” physical spaces don’t seem to have a care or clue about the sacred-memory space where they now sip cappuccino or listen to soft jazz.   As I walk away, I realize that one abiding lesson of the civil rights movement is that we are always just “holding on,” combatting forces that seek to assault or tear down that which we hold dear, sacred, whether that be our children’s lives, or our own, or even the places we still call “home” the sacred spaces we may have physically left that still hold precious memories.