Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How's that gentrification going?

Edit: This has been cross-posted at the always-thoughtful Stuff White People Do blog. If you haven't already, give the rest of Macon D's posts a looksee.

This might be TMI for an anonymous blog, but I live in Harlem. When we moved to New York, we had a weekend to find our place, and this was the second building we looked at. It was in our price range, on Manhattan, and in a great location relative to Boyfriend's work and (where we presumed) I was going to school at the time. The building was brand new, gorgeous, and just right for us. So we moved to Harlem.

At the time, I didn't think twice about it. My knowledge of New York City and its neighborhoods was pretty limited, and although I associated Harlem with its large African-American population, I knew little of this thing called "gentrification." That's a term that New Yorkers (and I'm sure residents in other cities) throw around pretty often. I didn't even hear it for the first time until we had been here for about two weeks. I can't remember where I heard the term or in what context, but something prompted me to look it up (Wikipedia, natch).

Gentrification is, as Wikipedia defines it, the change in an urban area associated with the movement of more affluent individuals into a lower-class area. Let's not forget that class is hopelessly entangled with race as well, and so in places like Harlem the more honest definition of "gentrification" would be: When rich, white individuals move into a poor, black and/or Hispanic neighborhood. For the city and the affluent people who move to lower-class areas, gentrification is a real boon. It produces more revenue for the city in terms of higher property taxes, changes the character of neighborhoods, and can reduce neighborhood crime rates. The City of New York would like to see Harlem and places like it gentrified. In fact, I believe my building was part of the city's conscious effort to do just that: The city auctioned off "postage stamp" lots for a bargain price of $1 million. My landlord bought one of these properties, and on it she constructed the building in which I sit typing this.

Unfortunately, it turns out those benefits for the city come at a cost. A human one. Higher property taxes mean the current neighborhood residents can't afford their homes anymore. Higher rents on gentrified properties drive up rents of surrounding buildings, and landlords force out their tenants with inflated rents. People who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations suddenly have to find somewhere else to live. People become homeless. And when I say that gentrification changes the "character" of the neighborhood, what that usually means is that it makes the neighborhood "whiter." Suddenly, a neighborhood in which residents have spent years socializing and bonding on their stoops and on the sidewalk is antagonized by white residents who don't understand the culture and make noise complaints. Instead of small, locally-run shops, a couple of Starbucks and Duane Reades move in. Although the wealthy white people who now occupy the neighborhood (and run the government) may see these things as an advantage, they are decidedly not beneficial to the already disenfranchised residents.

When I finally took the time to do some reading about gentrification, I was astounded and saddened at my own ignorance. I didn't know about it when we moved, and I was ashamed to be part of the problem. Correction: I am still ashamed that I am part of that problem. What I saw when we moved was a beautiful apartment in our price range, in a good location, that was well below what landlords in other areas were charging for units that weren't even as nice. We aren't "rich," and so we jumped on the find. But although we aren't rich, we're obviously better off than many of the other residents in Harlem, particularly those who live in the housing projects beside us and across the street. We're especially better off than those who stand in line for the food pantry every Sunday at the church on the other side of us. Oh, and did I mention that we're automatically more privileged in this society than every minority resident in Harlem simply by virtue of the fact that we're white?

So yeah, I feel pretty fucking bad about moving to this neighborhood. And it's not because it's "dangerous" or because residents harass us in some way. To the contrary, in the nearly-year that we've lived here no one has bothered or hassled us in any way that we haven't encountered in other city neighborhoods; I regularly stumble home drunk at 2 am feeling no more danger than I would stumbling home elsewhere at 2 am; and I've never lived someplace where the neighbors have been friendlier. I feel bad that the very act of signing a lease in this neighborhood poses a serious threat to the future of Harlem and its residents. I feel bad that the neighbors who are so friendly might be forced out in ten years' time, and that Harlem will soon become indistinguishable from Park Slope. I feel bad that it's my fault.

Maybe it's because I grew up without much money myself and have faced class discrimination that I empathize with the people whom gentrification adversely affects, but I thought any city resident would be able to see what a problem this is. I guess not, because this week a rich, white professional asked me, in cheerful and optimistic way, "So, how's gentrification going up there?" This is not the first time someone has asked me this question, and it is certainly not the first time someone has asked it as though they were inquiring whether my open, festering sore had healed nicely.

When asked in such a manner, that question boils down to this: "So, how's the forced evacuation of blacks and Hispanics going? And the poor in general? You've driven them out as well? Excellent."

I'm never sure how to answer that question. I try to be diplomatic and polite (something along the lines of "fine" and switching the subject usually works), but maybe I ought to be more direct about my feelings on the subject. What would I say? "Yes, depriving poor minorities of their homes and businesses is going swimmingly. I certainly love waking up each morning and thinking: What can I do today that will squelch the local culture into a bland, white mass?"

We were ignorant when we moved, but we know better now. We would like to move and not be part of this problem anymore, but I will admit that it is difficult, because we fall into what you would call New York's middle class (if it had one). We're somewhere between affording Harlem and affording Chelsea, but there isn't much in the way of accomodating that. We're recent college grads and it will take time before we are able to afford a place in an affluent neighborhood. But there's the rub: I can defend why we, and other gentrifiers choose these neighborhoods on the grounds that high prices elsewhere have driven us out; however, I can't defend doing the same thing to an even more disadvantaged group, especially when we have cause to believe we will eventually possess the earning power to move to those affluent areas that we can't afford now. Many residents of this neighborhood won't ever have that opportunity, and all we're doing is destroying the only place they have so we can have a temporary foothold on our way up.

So yes, we are looking for a new place at the end of this lease, in a different neighborhood. The shitty economy may work in our favor this time, as dropping rents may make those neighborhoods more accessible to us. I can't guarantee that we'll be able to find a place, and I genuinely enjoy our current apartment. But it would sadden me to be part of this problem for much longer, especially now that I know about it. That said, I realize that nothing is going to stop gentrification: What the local government wants, the local government gets. And really, nothing can change the fact that we've already contributed to the problem. But if we move, at least I can finally sleep at night knowing I'm no longer helping the government further disenfranchise the poor. And maybe the next time someone asks me the dreaded gentrification question, I can tell them how I really feel about it.


Macon D said...

I think it's great that you're awakened to this process and to your privileged part in it. Have you thought about doing anything to counteract your privilege? Have you tried to take part in the community at all, and maybe even use your privilege to help in some ways?

Herding Cats said...

I understand how you feel. I also think though that you are not a HUGE part of the problem. Like you said, you guys are struggling college grads. Yes, you may be better off, but I doubt anyone is looking to you as the problem. If hoards of families start moving in, it might be different. You are very aware and respectful, and it is awfully considerate of you guys to think about your role in a community.

Phoebe Caulfield said...

We have done a few things, although I wish we had done more. When we moved, we donated a few spare blankets to a group of homeless around the corner from us. We also signed up for a volunteer organization, but unfortunately we have yet to find the time to actually volunteer. We also consciously refrain from interfering with the other residents; for instance, not calling in noise complaints for loud music in the street.

You are correct, though: We ought to do more to contribute.

Rj said...

That was really deep and heartfelt

Mellow Yellow said...

What you write about gentrification (the opposite of the white flight from urban centers of a few decades ago) and minority displacement is real, and I've seen it in two cities I have lived in. But I don't think you can discount that some of this has been fueled by the housing boom, as people of means (and many with excessive credit) snapped up cheap properties to flip. I'll be curious to see how the housing bust may affect the efforts to gentrify, and I wouldn't be surprised if the trend slows down. My fear is that neighborhoods will start sliding down an even scarier path than gentrification: vacant properties that devolve into eyesores and even hazards. However, I'm optimistic that the market is self-correcting, and it's already opening doors to people of modest means and self-restraint who are finding the opportunity to move into the neighborhood of their dreams, wherever that may be.

Also, I think the gentrification movement deserves credit for making huge differences in the quality of life in some areas that were formerly blighted and ignored by businesses. Maybe a new Duane Reade isn't your idea of a store with character, and the world probably doesn't need another Starbucks, but I've seen grocery chains finally take the leap into neighborhoods where formally there were no such services. I see gentrification as a driving force in bringing services to people in areas that were basically isolated because of real and imagined stigmas. Maybe the motivations aren't selfless and the circumstances aren't ideal, but there is a communitywide benefit to be had.

Then there's the question of a neighborhood's character. Certainly many neighborhoods are sought after because they become the center of certain ethnic communities, where traditions, values, history, and language are shared. But that can also be a very isolating situation. What's wrong with a rainbow of people? I think neighborhoods that are undergoing gentrification are in a messy, confusing tween stage, where the rainbow exists, but there's no mixing of colors. But perhaps this is just the first step in a process of creating a mixed community, where probably some unfortunate homogenization will occur, but for the greater good of actually realizing a melting pot in America.

Further, I'd like to see more people abandon the notion of the suburban ideal and return to our cities, because sprawl isn't bring our country closer together socially, and it's not doing our environment any favors either. With respect and care, urban areas can be beautiful homes to many, many people, and we can stop building highways that tempt us to spread out and out across all of our land.

I'm throwing a lot out there, and maybe I'm a hopeless optimist. But I think it is too harsh and too self-hating to completely discount the benefits, both existing and potential, that gentrification represents. It's certainly fraught, both for the locals and the newcomers, and mistakes will be made. But I don't think isolating yourself by your ethnic community or by earning power is the better option.

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