Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Ethnic Succession is not the same thing as Gentrification

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There’s a debate over the character and future of New York, especially considering the tenure of Hizzoner Bloomberg the billionaire and his “race-baiting” likely successor De Blasio. The debate turns fairly quickly to two dichotomous narratives:

“Bohemian New York” – ie: Philip Glass, the New York Dolls, Willie Colon, Kool Herc, etc – versus “Corporate New York:”  A non-embarrassing Times Square and a Duane Reade’s on every corner. It’s true, we have no Kokie’s but we also have no CBGB’s either.

“Chaotic New York” – ‘The Bronx is Burning,’ Ford To City: Drop Dead – versus “Clean New York:” With the lowest crime rate of any major city in America but also the highest living costs. I’m not sure the improvement is of any consolation: Getting mugged on the corner twice a year beats getting mugged in your mailbox every month, and while getting frisked is better than getting shot, it doesn’t exactly engender a sense of belonging.

Each is referred with the other in the same breath: The cultural output implicated with the rough nature and edge living, the stability said to be the result of Uptown care and investment. These are false dichotomies, however. You don’t necessarily have to take the grit along with the vibrancy, and you don’t have to take the sterility with the safety. A progressive city is an engine that provides the right place in which to succeed but right now it seems to cater only to the already-successful.

What I’m concerned about most of all of the ability for New York to continue to be the host of urban strivers, for that’s where New York gets its true spirit. What I’m seeing, however, is a bit of a push-back against the resentment of gentrification – especially in the New York Times, where gentrification tends to be characterized as a form of trickle-down uplift (“You should be happy rich white people are moving in: Now we have a reason to give your neighborhood city services”) – where the resistance is all but labelled a nativist Know-Nothing movement against progress. The narrative to them becomes that these low-achievers are standing in the way of a long-standing tradition of New York reinventing itself.

They’re right in that New York is constantly changing. Here’s the thing, though: This isn’t how it’s been done.

New York, to me, is a city of economic bootstrapping largely perpetrated by each generation of immigrant to come in. People come from all over, huddle in cheap housing, make it or don’t make it, and overall seek better living situations for themselves. This, of course, requires cheap housing – “un-hip” neighborhoods – and in that stead nobody’s really crying over the Quakers and Italians of Flushing being displaced by Taiwanese and Koreans because if you’re the former, you can still afford to live there. We’re not lamenting the Colombians and Bangladeshi and Filipinos moving into Irish Woodside or the Moroccans moving into Greek Astoria, because they’re still neighborhoods of working people looking to make it. The color changes, but the character remains the same. In fact, the color doesn’t really change all that much: Those who are still striving still live in the neighborhood, no matter their origin.

What does breed strong resentment is the change to the character of the neighborhood, and by that I mean the economics. A working-class neighborhood can become depressed – and indeed in the 80s and early 90s many places were certainly sketchy places – but the solution is not to transmute it from a working class neighborhood to a rich one. Urban renewal has never really worked. On paper, yeah, the neighborhood is uplifted. On paper, yeah, we’re seeing more economic activity, but it’s the difference between finding a job and being replaced by somebody who has a job. The locals should be working themselves into richer digs. Instead, the digs seem to be working towards richer locals.

What’s the difference? When the Dominicans came to Washington Heights and Inwood, it’s because the Irish and Jewish residents were moving to middle-class neighborhoods in Yonkers, but for those who stayed, the establishments simply moved to accommodate all clientele. For joints in Woodside, the new Latino and Asian influx and the Irish outflux to Long Island just meant changes to the decor. When the Chinese moved into Little Italy and Sunset Park, they were taking over neighborhoods vacated by Italians heading out to larger homes in Bay Ridge and Staten Island. However, when the yuppies moved to Polish and Puerto Rican Williamsburg and Greenpoint, those locals weren’t moving out. When Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy became “hip” neighborhoods for ‘homesteaders,’ it’s not like the Black population had anywhere else to go.

Simply put, ethnic succession is not the same thing as gentrification, and where the former builds melting pots – for nobody truly leaves – the latter washes them away. It’s in that lens that I watch the New York Times “discover” Brooklyn and relish in a “reclaimed” space, where City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden boasts that she’s “making so many more areas of the city livable,” as if nobody lived there before. It’s in that lens that I see guys like this who resent being called “hipster” but whose sense of being a striver stopped before any work was actually done: He couldn’t find the job he wanted, so he went straight to playing with a typewriter in the park. I was a bike messenger and a mail clerk. Philip Glass fixed pipes and hacked fares while writing works that made him famous. I don’t think that hipster ever considered that hauling trash or busing trays were ever professions worthy of consideration.

These gentrifiers are “above” that: Heading straight towards a faux-bohemianism while insisting on living in one of the most overpriced areas in the city. The hipness becomes the enemy of the cultural crucible it claims to be. They’re the bourgeois and they’re slumming it with the proles until they get a real career: That’s not bohemianism; that’s just a gap year.

I remarked how the demographics of the Occupy Wall Street movement were not terribly reflective of the New York milieu, and to me the reason was because there’s a class line that was drawn: Hipster Williamsburg is not union-member Williamsburg, even if they vote the same. This is a class battle being touted as a cultural awakening or an urban reinvigoration, and the people who make the very soul of the city – whether they were born here or not, whatever color they are – are losing.

Would that we’d call attention to it now, before working-class New York disappears altogether. Our city constantly reinvents itself, but it can’t if it becomes solely the playground of the rich.

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