Big Smoke

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

Diversity and Gentrification

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You can’t swing a dead cat around without hitting an article about the ills of Gentrification, but they seem to lack a state of understanding as to what is desirable in its stead; once done, explaining why it is hurtful would be much easier. The real question of Gentrification is what a neighborhood should look like, for which the easy answer is that a neighborhood should be diverse. That, however, is split into “what do you mean by diversity,” and “why is diversity important?” The latter should explain the former:

I’ve sported throughout my life what would probably ungraciously be termed a jewfro. When I was a nerdy child growing up in the “hood,” far up in upper Manhattan, despite being in what was, at first glance, a hyper-macho conservative Catholic neighborhood, I was “shorty with a Jheri curl,” by older hoods who hung out on my block. I was simply a “faggot” out in semi-suburban, ostensibly multi-ethnic northern Queens, by crew-cut white kids tooling around in their mother’s sedan. In the suburbs beyond the city, I was beaten up regularly. The message was the same: “You’re different,” but the conclusion was different: “You’re different, but that’s entertaining,” “you’re different, and that makes you a target,” “you’re different, and we’re going to do something about that right now.”

I started studying City Planning because I noticed that the most tolerant and inviting places tended to be the places where different peoples were situated cheek to jowl with one another; where they were forced to interact on a daily basis. In this environment, I observed, it was difficult to broad-stroke characterize otherness because it would not only be proven verifiably false fairly regularly, but it would also incur the direct ire of those characterized. From the city to the ‘burbs, it seemed that the more people could be segregated – willingly or unwillingly – from one another, the more bigoted their purview.

The general gist of what I wanted to accomplish under City Planning was to figure out how the most accommodating of such circumstances could be writ large; turned into a stamp and stamped all across the nation and beyond. It’s no surprise that cities tend to be far more liberal than their suburban and rural surroundings, nor is it a coincidence. But what it means is fostering, through policy and economic guidelines, an environment that maximizes exposure to otherness.

That otherness may be ethnic, economic or philosophical, and generally speaking it should be all three, but the more exposure to it the more rounded each individual becomes and the more tolerant the society becomes as a whole. As all politics are local, it matters a great deal that on the street level this mixing does occur. When it doesn’t through the choices of its citizens, it becomes a gated community, which hurts everybody: Those within the community lose their purview of the world, those without the community lose insight into that community. In their stead comes resentment. One can see this with both Riverdale bluebloods and Borough Park Hasidim. When it doesn’t despite the choices of its citizens, it becomes a ghetto, which hurts everybody: Those within the community are left with a legitimate grievance to fester, and those without the community are left with a distorted view of events.

It’s in the latter of these communities that what we refer to as Gentrification is occurring, and it’s turning them into the former of these communities. But to describe the issue requires describing how Gentrification is not like other urban changes. To do so we can look at Bed-Stuy, originally a middle-class bedroom community of German, Italian and Irish small homeowners benefiting from new subway lines and cheap construction until the Great Depression, when aging housing stock and real estate steering brought in an influx of upwardly mobile southern Black families as well as those from Harlem into the neighborhood. A racially segregationist policy of redlining, a disinvestment in city services due to a fiscal crisis as well as unequal subsidies for homeowning in newly-built suburbs in Long Island contributed to a general White Flight, turning the neighborhood not only into the single largest Black community in the United States but also a massive ghetto.

It’s that neighborhood that is currently undergoing Gentrification, which is itself a confluence of economic circumstances: As the outlying suburbs of New York City have essentially been in a building freeze commensurate to the population for decades, and due to the housing crisis the city has been in since the Second World War, neighborhoods of decent housing stock and ready infrastructure access have been sought after again, despite decades of neglect. The only problem is that the people who have been living in those neighborhoods have two claims to them: One, they’re already there and have built a community in spite of everything, and two, they’re there for the same reason they’ve always been there – they have nowhere else to go. While racial segregation is de jure gone, it de facto remains due to economic segregation, which said Gentrification stands to turn into a crisis.

All of the afore-mentioned are results of proactive policy decision manifesting into economic realities: White families moved into this neighborhood because of a city investment in infrastructure and pro-development policy through multiple political consolidations. Black families moved in to this neighborhood because they were barred from most others. This neighborhood was affordable to them due to an economic downturn making it difficult for the existing families to maintain their housing stock coupled with a federal subsidy for them to move elsewhere. The ghettoification was due to a city that explicitly disinvested in the neighborhood in order to save more “desirable” neighborhoods closer to the urban core, as well as the institutionalized policies of racism. Gentrification is occurring due to the general region-wide disinvestment in infrastructure turning the remaining areas that still have such – even in a depreciated state – more economically desirable. However, the poor don’t just disappear.

The defense for Gentrification usually hinges on the fact that, for all the problems of Gentrification, the neighborhoods currently being Gentrified were already problematic. Indeed, Bed-Stuy was known for being a high-crime area on top of being a ghetto, and ghettos are pretty much the opposite of diverse neighborhoods. Having been a teacher for a few years in a public school in Brooklyn, I can see that it weighed on children when they saw zero role models that looked like them or came from their hood; stuck as they were in veritable deserts surrounded by the land of opportunity, mere blocks away from everything but worlds apart. But that Gentrification is not helping them: In this case, a rising tide does not life all boats.

The reasons are multifarious: Most working-class people in a neighborhood pay rent, and as such are quickly displaced when rents go up. Business that would cater to the needs of working-class residents would either change their stock to accommodate the new, richer clientele or die, leading to an exacerbated dearth of goods for the poor. Likewise, the new transplants, utilizing greater political power (due to more money, more free time, and a greater knowledge of bureaucratic protocol) often do not share the same desires for city services, and as such tend to defund or cut services they find “undesirable,” including social services, shelters, halfway homes, SROs, clinics or, indeed, anything else they don’t themselves use, in favor of services they use but may otherwise have an entry cost too dear for working-class residents. Instead of living side by side, one group supplants the other. The pendulum just swings between extremes.

This is distressing because in those brief moments between the extremes, we have had the greatest social vitality this city, country and world has ever seen. If this country’s claim to be a true melting pot, a grant social experiment, an exception amidst the world’s craven tribalism, is to have ever had any meaning, it is here and it is real. This city has led the nation in the purest form of civic- and public-minded pluralism yet seen and it is because we are all here together, working it out street by street. But this is a delicate balance, a sweet spot, and it cannot abide by extremes.

It all comes down to a zero-sum game: There’s only so much housing available, and so it’s going to go to those with the most means. The current policies in effect or discussed are mere patches on this reality: Rent regulation, which saves affordability for 45% of New Yorkers, is not a solution but a means to stave off mass-eviction until a solution may be found, and the current tax abatements for those who build a mere 20% of “affordable” housing among their market-rate apartments – in which “affordable” includes households making close to double the national average, leaving many working-class families out in the lurch – granting a mere trickle of housing units while losing billions in potential tax revenue, leading to laughably horrifying situations where 100,000 applicants vie for 100 units of new construction.

Gentrification is occurring because building is what we have not been doing, and as such it cannot be killed except through building or through eliminating the economic conditions that our lack of building has created. As such, the city has two basic options when it comes to policy decisions for our immediate future: Stay at the current population and impose price controls on everything, thereby preserving what diversity yet remains but killing the natural growth the city, or prompt an infrastructure and housing boom so large that the physical environment of the city is greatly transformed from its current state as to be almost unrecognizable, thereby preserving the human diversity by reinstating an economic equilibrium.

But ghettos and gated communities are the current obstacles to the latter option: The people of the gated communities cry that such building would disrupt the amenable lives they have created for themselves. The people of the ghettos cry that such would hasten their displacement for which they still have nowhere to go. The city can, through strong leadership, override these concerns for the greater good, for if it doesn’t, then the decision for the former option will be made for it by default, resulting in the eventual death of everything this city has stood for, diversity and all its benefits foremost among them.

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