Jacquelyn Gist

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Jacquelyn Gist talks about how she came to be involved with the local government of Carrboro and how she has attempted to use her position as an alderman to build community in Carrboro. She discusses how gentrification and “studentification” is changing the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of Carrboro, as well as how she is attempting to use her position to push back against them. She talks about her involvement in passing ordinances allowing food trucks to operate in Carrboro at a time when they were a relatively new phenomenon. She discusses the initial reservations some Carrboro and Chapel Hill residents had allowing food trucks to operate, and how the food trucks have enhanced Carrboro’s downtown life and economy over the years. She talks about the challenges local government has in attempting to resist gentrification without overstepping its power or infringing on people’s individual rights. She discusses the uniqueness of Carrboro’s sense of community and her desire to effectively manage inevitable change without losing Carrboro’s sense of community and diversity.



Alex Kellogg: This is Alex Kellogg, today is March 20th, 2018 and I am interviewing Mrs. Jacquelyn Gist, the Alderman of Carrboro, current Alderman of Carrboro. And, and so just before we begin, do I have your consent to record this interview?
Jacquelyn Gist: Yes you do.
AK: Fantastic. So as long as we sit a little bit close to the phone it should be just fine. So to begin, in what capacity have you served the city of Carrboro in terms of your official titles, and for how long?
JG: I have been a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen since 1989, so 29 years (static). I’ve been a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen since 1989, so that’s going on 29 years.
AK: And what initially got you interested in working for local government?
JG: Well when I was little I was gonna be the first woman president. That, that’s not working out. So, I’ve always been interested in government, and I’ve always been interested in the ability of government to affect positive change. I know that sounds funny to be saying in 2018, but I’m still a believer. I believe that local government is the closest thing that we have in our society now to a direct democracy. Is this still on (static). I believe that local government, and particularly in small town, is the closest thing that we have to a direct participatory democracy, and I, I find that very exciting [00:02:00]. When I was in graduate school, I was involved with and ended up helping to coordinate the, the starting of the, of the homeless shelter, the (inaudible) which is now on Rosemary Street, actually its moving out to Homestead Road, and that kind of got me involved in how things, how things work here (static). And then I was also involved with a group called Friends of Old Carrboro, which was working on the preservation of the historic district in Carrboro. So I got, and I taught pre-school, and a lot of my pre-schoolers now live in Carrboro, so I kind of knew people that way but in a very grassroots kind of way (static).
AK: And (static) so I saw on your website that you arrived in Carrboro in the seventies or so. And in your opinion, how has the city changed in terms of socioeconomic, political and ethnic demographics? And how have the residences of Carrboro general, generally welcomed or perhaps not welcomed these changes?
JG: When I (static), I moved to Carrboro on July 4th, 1976 and there were around 5,000 people living there. Students were just beginning to move to Carrboro because of, because the rents were lower. But Carrboro was still a very very very conservative town, and there were, there, there were very conservative people on, on the board. But Carrboro began to look at economic development in a different way than Chapel Hill, and decided to put its emphasis on the arts and on things for, for older people, as [00:04:00] opposed to like kiddy bars and T-shirt shops in, in Chapel Hill. So Carrboro began to change as artists started moving there and more students started moving there. But what has happened fast forward, and I could spend two hours talking about this, over the course of the forty years that I’ve been there is there’s been extreme gentrification.
AK: Mmm.
JG: And so that has directly to do with the students, with “studentification”. There are people going in and buying up properties and turning them in, ah everybody, all the, all the students want to live in Carrboro because it’s the cool place to live, and they’re buying up properties and making them into four and five bedroom homes where they rent each bedroom bathroom combination for seven eight nine hundred dollars a month, and that’s pushing out our minority communities, our middle class. So, so we are quickly becoming gentrified, and with gentrification the percentage of the community that is, that is African-American or Hispanic has begun to drop. The, we had a great surge in the Hispanic community in the eighties and, and into the nineties, kind of following the construction boom. And so first the men came, and there were some issues surrounding that. I think anytime you have a group of young, single men living alone you’re gonna run into problems. Take a look at our fraternity houses.
AK: (laughs)
JG: It’s absolutely no different. Although because some men were brown and poor, instead of white and rich, the problems were treated differently.
AK: Mm-hm.
JG: But it was the same thing, it was getting drunk and hollering at women and getting into fights. Tell me that doesn’t happen in frat court. But when it was happening in Abbey court, they were treated as two different things, and I made that exact same statement in those words to the DTH when, when, when that was happening. And now we’re seeing our Hispanic community begin to drop [00:06:00] some, and I think that has to do with the great crackdown on migration and people becoming afraid. African commu, American community is getting priced out of Carrboro, and for a long time middle and middle-upper class African-Americans were moving to Durham anyway which they felt to be more welcoming and the schools better for African-American kids because they didn’t feel stereotyped in the Durham schools as they did in the Chapel Hill Carrboro. So I’ve seen the ethnic population in flux, and I think the past couple years its been due to studentification and due to gentrification, those two have walked along together. We’re now having in our historic neighborhoods people buying houses, I can’t believe the houses go for $400,000, but they’re older homes, they buy them for $400,000, tear them down and build a one-point-some-million dollar home on, on that lot. So, as we’ve, it’s the “SoHo Effect”. As we’ve become a cool and popular, kind of artsy place to go people want to live there, so the very people that made it cool and artsy and a fun place to live can no longer afford to, to live there. And so that trend has affected many many people. I mean it’s affecting me, I worry that I will spend my life building community and not be able to retire there. But it’s particularly affecting our minority communities. That’s the long answer.
AK: (static) And I appreciate long answers on this (laughs). Well no that’s interesting that you mention gentrification, I might actually skip ahead to a question exactly about that. So as an alderman, how is the issue of gentrification, particularly in hor, historically black communities like Northside, currently being addressed by the board? [00:08:00] And how are more expensive projects, like hotels and expensive housing like, immediately across the line in Chapel Hill, impacting Carrboro?
JG: (static) We have our own expensive ho, hotels too. I think people need to realize that we have very limited authority. That if we, there are things that we can’t do because we get all of our authority from the state. And so there are, there are lots of things we can’t do, and we live in a market economy, so we cannot, we live in a capitalistic system so we cannot say “you can only charge so much for rent” or “you can only build so big a house”, we’re not allowed to do that. One thing that happened to Carrboro was when Chapel Hill passed its no more than four people in one house, unrelated people in, in one house regulation, that, that pushed the builders and the speculators into Carrboro. And they began buying up in our side of Northside as well as, as our other downtown neighborhoods. We’re just beginning to address that, we’re looking at having our own no more than four unrelated people in one house rule. We had fought that for many years back in a different time because we believed it would be used to discriminate against same sex couples. But now that marriage equality is the law of the land, that issue wasn’t as pressing. There are other protections against that. The state also recently said that we could no longer restrict size of houses or number of rooms. We had for awhile had a, an ordinance that said you could only have so many bathrooms cause we were allowed to do that. The state took that right away from us, last year. And unless you were in an HMO or [00:10:00] historic district, which means only communities where rich people live, can put those things into place. But like neighborhoods like Lloyd Broad and my neighborhood, we don’t have a homeowners association, and we’re not a historic district, so we can’t do that. The state took away our, our ability to do that. We’re looking now at limiting the number of parking spaces, which, which we should be able to do. The other side of that coin though that you need to consider is the developers are paying a lot of money for those properties, and so why should we be able to say to an elderly retired African-American couple “you can’t sell your house and make money off of this gentrification cause we want to preserve your neighborhood.” That’s pretty patronizing, and it’s denying them the right to benefit economically in the same way the rest of the community is. So, so it’s very complicated. At, at my suggestion, and they kind of fought it a little bit, but this year our board retreat is going to center on gentrification and, and, and what to do about it. We have some members of the board that refuse to use the term “studentification”, although it’s true. I mean I love students, I was a student and I work with students, but it is the student house, it is the student housing and retired rich people who, who are changing what, what’s being built in Carrboro, it, it’s those two groups.
AK: (static) Yeah no that’s so true. I’m actually staying next year in a, one of the six-person, grandfathered in houses (laughs) and.
JG: Yeah.
AK: That should be fun, but.
JG: Be considerate of your neighbors.
AK: Exactly, yeah. I’ll definitely make sure to do that. So around 2008, 2009 [00:12:00] I understand that you were involved in making it easier for food trucks, often owned by immigrant families, to operate in Carrboro. Could you talk a little bit about I guess just the political dynamics of that? What were, why were food trucks initially an issue in the city, and what changed that allowed them to more effectively operate?
JG: (static) It wasn’t that anybody had anything against food trucks. It was that we didn’t have ordinances in places, in place to support them because it was a relatively new phenomena. And then when we realized that our ordinances were preventing that, or not enabling it, we quickly changed things in order to help. And a lot of the food trucks are owned by, by immigrants. Not all of them but a lot of them, particularly in the early days as kind of a way to get started. And so the, the food trucks have to work with property owners, like commercial property owners. The other businesses in Carrboro were really supportive in, in allowing them to, to use space and didn’t, yeah, it was fine, and it’s added to the vibrancy of, of downtown Carrboro, particularly in like, like in the evenings. Chapel, Chapel Hill was much more, there was, there was so much more stuff even we are anyway. I often say Carrboro is what Chapel Hill thinks it is.
AK: (laughs)
JG: And I have a bumper sticker that says “Chapel Hill: walking distance to Carrboro” (laughs). I think Chapel Hill was much more bureaucratic and stuffy and we were just “oh, we didn’t know we had this problem, let’s fix it” as our immigrant community was changing. Also wanted to have places where people could afford to eat.
AK: Yeah.
JG: Which is another thing food trucks do for us.
AK: (static) Yeah, I definitely rely on cheap
JG: Yeah.
AK: (laughs) taco truck food a lot of the time. I’m very thankful for that [00:14:00]. So, I guess, what is the process, do you know, and if it’s, it’s not that’s fine, the process now to start a food truck in Carrboro? How does it compare to starting a traditional restaurant in terms of expenses or taxes or health regulations or zoning permits? And have you spoken to food truck owners, specifically those owned by immigrants, about what their concerns are running their franchises?
JG: (static) Not in many many years. I’m not a food truck fan. I think they’re good for Carrboro, but I don’t like them. I think you wait in line too long, both to order and to get your food, and then there’s no place to sit. I love them for Carrboro, I don’t love them for me, and I’m glad they’re there. I know you have to have a, pass health department regulations. With us, they’re, you have to have a relationship or an agreement with the owners of the, of the property that, that, that you’re parking on. It’s a lot cheaper than opening a regular restaurant. I think there was some concern in the early days from our brick and mortar restaurants that it would have a negative impact on their business, but I think it’s been the opposite, that it’s helped to make Carrboro kind of the food destination that, that it’s become. Just kind of added to the mix.
AK: (static) Yeah, as I was researching this, for this interview I saw someone had commented on a, I think a letter written way back in 2009, about like unfair, non-tax paying competition from the food trucks for brick and mortar restaurants but, as you said it seems that there’s been more of a contribution to like the culture of Carrboro from food trucks. Is it known actually like [00:16:00], quantitatively what the economic contribu, contribution food trucks gave to Carrboro as a whole?
JG: (static) I’m sure it is (coughs). I’m a social worker not an economist. I can’t imagine that it hasn’t had a positive, they don’t pay property taxes but they do pay sales taxes like, like everybody else. And they may have individual arrangements with the companies, with the establishments where they park in their parking lot. I don’t know that for sure but I can see where there would be a little bit of rent charge that would then go towards it, but they, they pay sales tax like everybody else, or they should. And they have to follow health department regulations. So other than the brick and mortar tax, which is significant, they’re paying the same. Yeah.
AK: (static) And I guess pivoting slightly from food trucks and just, just cause this issue of gentrification is, is so big and nation wide issue, I know that, that very large, green infrastructure that had, that’s near Northside? The.
JG: The park?
AK: I think it’s the, it’s, it’s a housing development of some kind, I think it’s apartments. It, it has, it’s supposed to be like very eco friendly and has like plants growing.
JG: God I hate that thing. Greenbridge?
AK: That’s what it is, Greenbridge, I believe so.
JG: Yeah. I call it the Itha (static). I call it the “Ithacus Project” cause the guy flew too close to the sun. It’s just like, it’s just ego, it’s just progresso, bro ego.
AK: (laughs) Yeah I was just (laughs) gonna ask you.
JG: What I thought of it?
AK: Yeah, specifically like how did it come to be? Did [00:18:00], did members of the community talk with you about it? I’ve been for, for this class, I’ve been volunteering a little bit on Northside and they definitely don’t like it cause it’s right across the street but.
JG: (static) I can’t stand it. It represents the best of, or the worst of the “progressive bro culture” where you get an idea out of a textbook and think that it can immediately transplant in, into, into Carrboro. That thing is in Chapel Hill, not in Carrboro. It’s right, right on the line, it dominates our landscape, I think it’s ugly as homemade sin. But they built it to save the world. Which it didn’t. It has some moderate income housing in it that goes to the land trust. But the people who got those properties are not poor, even the one who got them through the land trust happened to be people who are at the beginning of their income cycle and are now making a lot more money than when they got them, and I have some negative feelings about that. But it’s mainly very very expensive, and very arrogant, and I think kind of leads the charge in, in gentrification. But there are many many people who would strongly disagree with me on that, and show me many many examples from Copenhagen and San Francisco and New York that prove that I’m wrong.
AK: (static) And, I guess the last question, slightly more personal but, what do you like the most about Carrboro, and what is the thing you’d most like to see change? And in addition to that, where do you see, as well as hope to see, the city moving over the next decade or so, especially with like self-driving cars and things like this, I’ve heard that’s a big conversation [00:20:00] in the board.
JG: We haven’t had that yet (static). You know that yesterday was the first instance of a self-driving car killing somebody?
AK: Oh no.
JG: Yeah, it was an Uber self-driving car that ran over somebody and killed them yesterday. So I hope that’s not coming to Carrboro soon. I hope we can find a way to prevent gentrification, and if not, I won’t be able to continue living there. I’m truly a middle class person and won’t be able to afford to live in the community that I’ve built. What I love about Carrboro is I truly truly truly feel like I live in a community. My husband and I get bored, all we have to do is walk out the door and go for a walk and within three minutes, we run into people who we know or find something interesting to do, people are kind to each other, people seem to really really care about the community. Other towns our size will try to have community meetings and get five or six people to show up, we have hundreds show up and, we have a very smart community that’s very, we have the same values, we have different ideas of how to get, of how to, of how to express those values and what those values mean, but it, you know it’s definitely a loving, caring blue bubble, and that’s what I don’t want to see change about it, and I worry that with gentrification, you know, the richer people are the more conservative, they tend to be except for some of the, you know, “progresso bros” or the trust fund. We, we have a fair number of, of “trustafarians”, trust fund radicals you know? Living the simple life on $250,000 a year, we have a fair number of them and they can be kind of obnoxious. So I think those people can buy with the rich retired people coming in. We have to make sure that we find a way to welcome them and not change ourselves [00:22:00] in their image.
AK: (static) Well, thank you for talking with me and that’s about all the questions I have. Do you have any other additional comments that you’d like to say for the project?
JG: (static) That everybody wants Carrboro to be like it was when they moved there.
AK: Mm-hm.
JG: And that it is changing. Change is inevitable, change is, and I, I hate the people that say “change is good, and change for change’s sake!” Change is gonna happen, so the key is to manage the change in a way to like hold on to your values. One of our values is having a, having a community where people from all different backgrounds live and work and hang out and have fun together. That’s what I’m worried about our losing (coughs). I’m worried about losing our, our ethnic diversity. So we, and that comes hand in hand with our economic diversity so I don’t know what the answer is to that. If I knew what the answer is to that maybe I would be the first woman president instead of an alderman.
AK: (static) Thank you so much, and I appreciate the contribution.
JG: You are welcome.