OPINION: Gentrification hurts the most for those least able to fight it

A simple drawing of a house with a tree next to it. The house has pink paint with a pale pink door and a blue window. Next to the house is a bulldozer that is advancing on the house.
Graphic by Donnie TC Denome

Gentrification hurts. It displaces people and dismantles the rich cultural and historical fabric that holds communities together. And it’s not just an American problem; it impacts marginalized groups of people in neighborhoods all around the world. 

My grandparents’ house in Vietnam — our family home for many generations — became victim to gentrification a few years ago. Here’s their story.

In 2014, my grandparents received a letter from the Urban Planning Committee of the city of Hai Phong about a plan to build an industrial park in the area surrounding their neighborhood. In embellished and flowery language, the letter exalted the new construction project as potentially transformative for the city. 

At the bottom, in bold red letters, it said that my grandparents had three months to vacate the premises. That was the moment that their world, and ours, turned upside down.

My grandparents’ house was nestled in a little alleyway, tucked away from the bustling Hai Phong cityscape. The neighborhood surrounding it formed an intricate network of dilapidated houses and buildings that had been there for generations. Their house was no different. 

The house had been subsidized by the state to my great-grandfather when he earned professorship at Hai Phong University. Albeit small and run-down, it was a great source of pride for him, and it had become our family home as it was passed down to my grandparents.

The neighborhood was storied and deeply interconnected. Everyone knew each other, and treated one another as if they were close family members. Whenever I went to my grandparents’ house, I would have to make the rounds through the neighborhood to say hello to everyone. 

Every time I walked around the neighborhood, I would feel a sense of overwhelming love and warmth. These people had gone through the darkest times together, whether it was building bomb shelters together during wartime, secretly sharing food stamps with one another when rations were low or even helping deliver each other’s babies. They had established bonds of friendship and a sense of community culture that was unshakable.

To the government, however, all of this was entirely dispensable. As Hai Phong became industrialized, the area that the neighborhood was in became an eyesore to the uniform urban planning. Needless to say, when they came up with a plan to build an industrial park, the neighborhood would be the first to go. 

My grandparents tried to protest. They could not afford to lose either the neighborhood or the house. They had watched their children grow up there and had become lifelong friends with their neighbors. 

In the attic of the house, my grandparents created a memory room where they held onto past family memorabilia — all of my great-grandfather’s war medals, black-and-white pictures of their marriage, toys that my mom used to play with. My grandmother spent many years growing as many plants and flowers as she could on the tiny rooftop garden that they shared with their neighbors. 

However, their protest was futile. As the construction project began, each household in the neighborhood was meagerly compensated and forced to relocate.

On the day my grandparents were evicted, our whole family was there. My grandfather was the first to shed a tear, even though we had never seen him cry before. We wept for the neighborhood, for future uncertainties and for the house that had been integral to our collective livelihoods.

After living with my parents and I for a while, my grandparents found a small apartment close to our house. The apartment is too small for a memory room, but my grandmother still manages to grow her flowers and plants on the balcony. 

They still haven’t been able to bring themselves to go back to Hai Phong, even to visit. Five years later, it still saddens my grandfather to tell us a story of anything that took place in the old house. 

Their old neighborhood friends are now scattered all over; many still haven’t been able to settle down. Real estate skyrocketed in Hai Phong due to industrialization, so it was almost impossible for people to find a new place to live with the compensation sum they received. Some “lucky” families were not in the path of construction, but later had to relocate because of the toxic fumes from the factories. 

This story did not have a happy ending, but stories about gentrification often don’t. The fight against gentrification is a battle for the preservation of family pedigree, culture and history in the most vulnerable but storied communities — not just in the U.S., but all over the world.

Nam Do PO ’23 is a prospective double major in music and history. He loves his family more than anything. 

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