In the tumultuous early years of the 20th century, hope was a scarce commodity for many Americans. Caught in the grip of poverty and far from imagining — let alone living — the American Dream, many among the nation's yearning masses turned to radical political parties and labor unions while the privileged few lived the life of the Great Gatsby.
We all hope never to see a return to such extreme disparities in wealth and opportunity. But an economy that steadily increases wealth at the top while leaving the rest of us with stagnant or declining wages, and ever-shrinking jobs for those lacking in exceptional skills, has dimmed the torch of the American Dream.
Two recent stories reflect our growing economic disparity. In San Francisco, some residents have taken to protesting private shuttle buses that carry 35,000 employees of Google and other Silicon Valley technology companies to their workplaces, about 30 miles to the south. Their concern: that the tech workers are driving up housing prices and pushing out those of more modest means.
Closer to home, some African-American community leaders in Northeast Portland have lined up against Trader Joe's plan to build a store on a long-vacant lot along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a once-decayed commercial strip that has steadily regained some of its former vibrancy. While some opposition is fueled by the city's plan to offer a cut-rate deal on land, some neighborhood residents have the same fears as their San Francisco counterparts: that their community is becoming both unaffordable and unrecognizable as those with means displace those who have far fewer choices.
Battle grows testier
This process of renewal and displacement — commonly called gentrification — is nothing new. But the battles over those who unintentionally trigger such change and those who suffer from it seem to be getting testier. Instead of rising with the tide, many feel like they're about to drown beneath its wake.
The Bay Area may provide the starkest example. The technology that improves our lives is eroding many jobs that have traditionally served as multi-generational entryways to the middle class. Examples are everywhere: the online sellers that have eaten away at local bookstores and other retailers; the self-checkout lines at grocery stores; the ride-sharing systems emerging in some cities that will reduce demand for public transportation. The innovative, energetic entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere harvest great wealth, while those whose jobs disappear slip further behind. The long-held belief that technology creates jobs to replace those it eliminates is facing a serious test.
Portland's vaunted reputation for attracting the young and well-educated, as well as equity-rich refugees from California, spills over to Vancouver and other surrounding communities offering lower-cost housing. The revival of older neighborhoods is welcome, but the line that separates welcome renewal from worrisome gentrification is a thin one indeed. And if our middle class keeps shrinking, we may not like the looks of a future that shines for the few but dims for the many.