The truth was that Gwen Lewis had seen too much.

The 65-year old Venice Park native witnessed Atlantic City seize her grandparents’ home in the 1980s under eminent domain, she said.

She moved decades ago, fearing gentrification would ruin her city as it did others in the region. Now, she’s returned. Yet, to her, it’s the same as before: Atlantic City has never changed — not then, and not yet.

“I came back and I find the same difficulties as I did in the ’70s. Actually, I think it is worse,” she admitted. “There’s a lot of greed in the city.”

Atlantic City is in the infancy stages of changing its look. Since June 2014, the city began monthly “Noon Time Talks” with the Department of Planning and Development, to understand what the community and the city want the future to look like. Fifteen meetings later, the city believes it has a better grasp on that.

The consensus: Residents want to see a better city, but they want to have a big say on how that will happen. Elizabeth Terenik, the director of Atlantic City’s Planning and Development Department says they will, and that the lunch time talks are a way to give residents input.

Meanwhile, the city’s planners are working at ways to reverse declining property values.

Major public projects, like the rebuilding of the Absecon Inlet seawall and boardwalk are one way. They are part of a city strategy to make the city a more desirable place to live for homebuyers, most notably baby boomers, millenials, and second-home buyers, according to city officials.

But one person’s neighborhood revitalization is another’s forced dislocation of long-time residents, often with racial bias. For Lewis, it’s a process that won’t sit well with her.

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A 20-year veteran at Resorts Casino, she fears the city wants to push her community out of the neighborhoods residents created.

Lewis fears gentrification, if done incorrectly, might ruin Atlantic City.

“I don’t think they give a hoot about the city or people who live here,” she said. “Some of the houses that they’re building, they want a certain credit rating. We live in the projects. Do you think we have a certain credit for these properties?”

* * *

Gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding with an influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas, often displacing poorer residents in the process.

But according to Dr. James Peterson, the director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, gentrification is a set of complex processes. He said first, property is systemically neglected and devalued, then poverty can form in these communities. Developers can then absorb the property at smaller rates, he said.

“We tend to think of (property values) as a hard market metric, but nothing can be farther from the truth … race informs property values,” he said. “That’s one of the consequences of how institutional racism can form in the real-estate market.”

But Terenik has said for months that city administration wouldn’t displace current residents.

She said in June that numerous vacant lots and homes citywide mean gentrification could be a future issue. She said that as long as change is managed, the city’s renovation won’t go in the direction residents don’t want. She also said the city is far from the point of people being displaced.

Terenik said she sees this moment as a turning point for Atlantic City. She called it a way to define the city’s character.

“I listen a lot to the residents that grew up here. They talk a lot about the way their neighborhoods were when they grew up,” she said. “I believe that both sides want mostly the same thing. We want people of diverse background to be successful and stay in the city.”

* * *

Mahogany colored almost every inch of Mindy Solkin’s abode. There were lush love seats in the corner. The living area was dotted with cheetah and zebra print decorations, and she joked she had animal prints because she was born in Africa.

Portraits of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State building hung on the wall between the home stereo system and her study. She called her new place her New York apartment at the shore.

The nearly 1,400-square-foot abode with an ocean view was Solkin’s latest renovation. She moved from Manhattan in October 2014 because she wanted to be part of Atlantic City’s revitalization.

Solkin said she wanted to merge the world outside Atlantic City and the communities already inside the city. But as founder and head coach of the Running Center, she said her role in the city’s gentrification would be to help improve the fitness of the existing communities in the city.

“You can say that Atlantic City is America’s playground and all the vices that come with it, I’m all for entertainment, but there should a sense of vigor,” she said. “There should be more businesses along Atlantic Avenue, because why not?”

But when it came to revitalizing the city, she said it took a joint effort with the community. To Solkin, it was cut-and-dried. She wants to help the city’s black population, but residents have to want to help themselves first.

“Do they like living in drug infested neighborhoods?” she asked. “If there are people who go to work every day and have a family, I’m sure they would love gentrification.”

* * *

Terenik said the next step in changing the city is to look at bigger areas, specifically beach blocks like those between Kentucky and Pacific avenues and the Boardwalk.

The city wants to create a sense of community in places that don’t have it, she said.

“We have to get to the point where we can build million-dollar homes and people will buy them. We can’t make these steps in a foolhardy manner,” Terenik said.

Lewis wants change but she’s tired of the city’s focus being on gaming. She said the city has a responsibility to keep the community involved with any changes. But, she doesn’t see her community in Venice Park having much say on the matter.

“I’m fine with any changes that come. ... But the city needs a new vibe” she said. “It’s like apartheid here in Atlantic City. (Black people) are the majority, but we don’t rule.”

Solkin, who practices Judaism, took a quote from 20th century Jewish culture to describe Atlantic City. She said her own religion has held her back, and that she, too, has been unfairly discriminated against.

As long as the city isn’t gentrified improperly, she said, there could be change. But currently, the feelings about her culture and the minority cultures of the city’s past are alike.

“The Jew lives in a Christian world, the black lives in a white world,” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7260

Twitter @TylerRickyTynes

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