Anonymous asked: Writers, artists, musicians and the people that study/follow them around have been romanticizing the NYC of the past: when the Village was cheap, artists actually lived in SoHo, and immigrant enclaves were vibrant. Gentrification and real-estate booms (created by mayoral policies) have made all of this a distant memory. What are your thoughts on this? Shouldn't we be glad that the city has become more clean and safe, or should we bemoaning the erosion of culture and creativity?
gentrification is a hot topic right now because it is rapidly transforming many neighborhoods across nyc (as well as other cities worldwide) and many people feel angry, threatened, and/or guilty, depending on their position within the process of gentrification. if you don’t feel any of these emotions, then you are not paying attention to the gross injustices that are going on.
but lots of people will say that gentrification has some good things about it. they will say that gentrification can make a city cleaner and safer and that it can revitalize an economy through investment and tourism, both of which are vital measures for a broke city with broke people. yes, more money and talented workers can benefit any neighborhood, but the question that needs to be asked is: do these benefits serve the people that already live there or do these benefits serve the newcomers that are to displace current residents? i would characterize the former as community development and the latter as gentrification.
the coy answer would be that there must be some balance between the two. you can’t have one without the other, there is no clean path, and etc. as a culture, we tend to see resources as coming from the outside and having trickle-down functions instead of capitalizing upon valuable assets from within already existing and long-time established communities. however, this analysis sets up a false dichotomy of urban vitality and urban decay, with gentrification as the primary and preferred mediating mechanism. our culture strikes up fear that if there is no generosity of a savior, community development and community resources will not be possible even though they have always existed. i am not saying that outside resources are not necessary and are not desired by underserved communities. however, in the process of gentrification, when those resources come in, the assets of the already established communities are invalidated, their neighborhoods are invaded, and their needs are disregarded.
many people will also say that change is inevitable and that nyc is the epitome of how cities change all the time and how cities cannot be defined by nostalgic notions of authenticity. based upon this reasoning, gentrification is regarded as natural and to be expected. not only is this a false claim, it is a dangerous claim because gentrification is not natural. gentrification is a structured process. there are city permits that need to be approved, purchases being made all the time that should be regulated, and negligent enforcement of housing laws that lead to illegal evictions. personal anecdote: i’ve seen chinese immigrant clients walk into my organization’s office holding 20-page court papers they cannot read and holding eviction notices for reasons they do not understand. if you could see the worry and anxiety on their face, you would not believe that this kind of housing insecurity is nor should be natural.
even if change is the most constant quality of nyc, when we talk about gentrification, we can’t think of change as politically neutral. gentrification is a structured process and change has always been politically contentious. the questions to ask here are: who gets to manage the change? whose input and needs are not accommodated by the change? whose security and safety are actually negatively impacted by the change? there are community organizations and community advocacy groups that fight against gentrification all the time. these are the same groups that provide services for the underserved communities who have made previously “unlivable” neighborhoods into their homes. yet new luxury condos continue to soar while affordable housing stock is under threat and bougie lifestyles vendors are engulfing long-time culturally competent establishments.
another point that is often brought up in discussions of gentrification is that there have always been demographic shifts and we can’t just define gentrifiers as people who arrived in the city later than us. the counterexample i get all the time is how chinese immigrants took over little italy and now little italy is a single street while chinatown is a prolific immigrant enclave. but the gentrifiers we are currently seeing are actually not recent immigrants nor are they working-class laborers who necessarily rely upon the resources of the city to survive (i know, surprise surprise). instead, they are socially-mobile single people working in elite industries who are able to afford or able to sacrifice more to afford to live in nyc. (sound familiar?) meanwhile, there are families being crammed into homeless shelters, waiting lists for public housing are at least five years long, and apartments are crammed with five or six immigrant families who work the low-wage jobs that keep nyc running. let’s also not forget the history of white flight and racist redlining that limited immigrants, people of color, and working-classes to the cities in the worst of nyc’s economic depressions.
in marxist theory, commodities are fetishized when they are symbolically detached from the human laborers and the natural resources that go into producing them. thus, when we purchase commodities, we do not see the labor and the struggle that go into it and we detach the object of that human-to-human meaning. in this same line of analysis, cities are commodified and fetishized when we detach them from the labor and the struggle that sustain them. nyc is very much a struggle city. nyc neighborhoods are places that people produce meaning and live their lives in. gentrification fetishizes these neighborhoods when they become labeled as “up and coming” neighborhoods and we erase and displace the people who have lived there for a long time and called those places home.
so to answer your question (lol i kind of hijacked it), gentrification is not this necessary complicated process that makes our cities livable. in nyc, it’s not community development, it’s displacement. is the city really safer and cleaner with the homeless being shoved into shelters and minorities being policed more than ever? have culture and creativity really eroded when art galleries are taking over valuable storefront space and the creative classes are still pouring in?