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Illuminating New York City's Gentrification, One Story at a Time

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Curbed was founded a decade ago as a site that would chronicle real estate and neighborhood changes, two subjects that are inextricably intertwined. And boy, have we ever, tracking the topic with self-proclaimed obsessiveness and attention to minute detail. It's easy to capture the drastic evolution in areas like the Lower East Side, the East Village, the Meatpacking District, and Tribeca in photos; comparing historic images and modern-day shots truly does lay bare what's gone and what's replaced it. But as the term "gentrification" turns 50, we figured it was time to sit back and take stock on a more microscopic, anecdotal level. We asked neighborhood bloggers and long-time locals to share with us one moment in which they knew their home had irrevocably changed. A shop opens; a dive bar closes. An industrial tank gets torn down; a pile of glassy condos launch. Their 19 tales are but little nuggets, down to the level of a street corner or a storefront, but taken together, they shine a light onto the large-scale transformation of New York City over the last few decades.

Do you have a tale to share? Leave it in the comments or drop us a line at tips@curbed.com. Please leave the rants in your head, and opt instead to share memories with a documentarian's eye.

↑ Is there anything that epitomizes the seismic shift of today's hyper-gentrification like the transformation of CBGB's into a John Varvatos boutique?

After over 30 years of birthing punk rock, CBGB's closed in 2006. The rent had skyrocketed—to $40,000 a month. Varvatos quickly announced his takeover with the press release: "Varvatos Rocks the East Village." He cleaned up the joint, preserving curated portions behind Plexiglas, and fashioned himself as a savior of gritty downtown culture. Remarkably, punks agreed. At the luxury boutique's opening—where security wore t-shirts that read: "Varvatos 315 Bowery: Birthplace of Punk"—old-school rockers fought against anti-gentrification protesters. The protesters chanted "Down with $800 pants!" The punks spat on them and shouted, "John's a great guy!" It was a confusing night.

Varvatos soon transformed the Bowery into a luxury brand, offering $698 "Bowery Boots," $375 "Bowery Sunglasses," and $250 Ramones-inspired sneakers. This is not your grandfather's gentrification.
—Jeremiah Moss, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York

↑ I moved to Bushwick in 2010 because Williamsburg was too pricey for me at that point already. Somebody told me that Bushwick was the go-to neighborhood for artists, and I knew that gentrification of the neighborhood has been in progress for a couple of years already. But probably the greatest moment of Bushwick-gentrification-realization for me was when an organic grocery store Hana Natural opened on Wyckoff Avenue in 2011. As if stunned, I walked between the aisles, admiring beautiful fancy groceries as if it were a museum, not a grocery store. The experience felt surreal.
—Katarina Hybenova, Bushwick Daily

↑ To me, it was on November 19, 2013 when 5Pointz was whitewashed. I became used to this wonderful institution of culture and art that I could see from 7 train each time I left and returned to Queens, and suddenly, the train ride became this grim reminder of the causalities of gentrification. I remember going there to take photos for the blog and seeing how devastated the artists were. Court Square lost a piece of its soul that day."
—Wesley Cheng, The Court Square Blog

Tribeca has undergone a near-total overhaul in two decades, from the artists taking over commercial spaces to the affluent families buying them out, and examples of gentrification can be found on every block. For me, the most symbolic moment was when J. Crew opened a men's store in what had been the Liquor Store, a neighborhood bar in the best possible sense. J. Crew did a respectful job—I've shopped there—but anyone who remembers a New York City where independent businesses outnumbered chains can't help but wince every time he passes by. The shell is preserved; the soul is another story.
—Erik Torkells, Tribeca Citizen

↑ The one that really floored me was the conversion of the Pennsylvania Railroad Powerhouse in Long Island City. There it was, a huge iconic industrial building, built by McKim, Mead & White, a local landmark for decades. Then they removed the smokestacks, plopped a bunch of orange floors on top, glassed it up and turned it into something that became a mockery of itself. And then the LIC gentrification floodgates really seemed to open and McReilly's closed. Now it's come full circle, with Communitea, one of the early gentrifiers, itself being gentrified out.
—Queens Crap

↑ When did the thought of gentrification of the South Bronx hit me? Was it when Bronx Bricks in Mott Haven, the first market-rate condos, opened up in 2007 across from a NYCHA development with 11 units selling from $388,000 to $789,000—sold them all within a few thousand dollars of asking? Or was it when the borough's first boutique hotel, The Opera House Hotel, opened up in Melrose—or that a year later another one, The Umbrella Hotel, is getting ready to open just four blocks away? Maybe it was when Beverly Boutique on 3rd Avenue in The Hub in Melrose was priced out after many years, and Orva Shoes from the Upper East Side moved in, making their first foray outside of Manhattan? Probably, though, it was when Banksy tagged up a building on my street and thousands of hipsters descended upon my neighborhood to gawk at his (somewhat ironically named) "Ghetto for Life" piece.
—Ed García Conde, founder and editor, Welcome2TheBronx

↑ Gentrification took on new meaning for me a few years back when I agreed to a mutual friend's request to meet some aspiring new media creatives up north. They asked me about my neighborhood, Sheepshead Bay. I told them that it was gentrifying: new residents (Eastern Europeans), who were more affluent, were pushing out old residents (blue-collar, usually white). I told them that businesses were changing to suit the newcomers, landmarks were being torn down to make way for condominiums and office buildings, and rents were rising. In short, the new demographics were wealthier, the property values higher, the cost of living greater.

A week later I received an e-mail from one of these guys. He had visited and wrote, in earnest, "How could you say Sheepshead Bay is gentrifying? I couldn't find a single art gallery, the cafe didn't have Wi-Fi, and all the bars were, like, Russian or something. Dude, Sheepshead Bay sucks." That's when I realized that gentrification no longer means what the dictionary says it means. Instead, it means arrogant know-nothings move into your neighborhood and throw temper tantrums when things don't fit into their perfect cul-de-sac-ian worldview.

Happy birthday, gentrification.
—Ned Berke, founding editor of Sheepshead Bites

↑ The most dramatic recent evidence of gentrification on the Upper West Side came when a new bakery called Mille-Feuille opened in June on Broadway between 76th and 77th streets in the former home of greasy spoon Big Nick's Burger & Pizza Joint. Big Nick's, an all-night diner that had been serving hungry—and sometimes drunk—Upper West Siders for 51 years, was forced out in 2013 by escalating rents. A war erupted in the comments section as longtime residents and newcomers fought over the neighborhood's soul, and whether it mattered that the new bakery was selling cronut knockoffs.
—Editor, West Side Rag

↑ Being a native New Yorker, many of the changes some would call "gentrification" could be classified as improvements. Anyone familiar with the opening credits of "Welcome Back Kotter" and its graffiti-riddled subway cars would probably agree that things are better today. However, walking past 160 Court Street in Cobble Hill and seeing Rag and Bone where the friendly Downtown Bar & Grill once stood just doesn't feel like an improvement. Nor does knowing that the Pacific Green Gourmet Food across the street is in danger of becoming a J.Crew.
—John "Homer Fink" Loscalzo, Brooklyn Heights Blog/Cobble Hill Blog

↑ The Pathfinder Warehouse used to sit at Charles and West Street in the West Village. It had housed a socialist printing press, and had a mural depicting revolutionary leaders on the south side of the building. In 2003 the building was demolished to make way for the third Richard Meier tower, 16 stories of luxury condos and the first building in New York to break the million dollar mark for sale of a studio apartment. To me, that—along with the destruction just a few blocks to the north of Superior Inks, the last operating factory on the formerly industrial Greenwich Village waterfront, to make way for the multi-million dollar Superior Ink condos and townhouses—exemplifies the process of super-rapid gentrification.
—Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

The recent loss of Bereket personifies gentrification. Here was a great 20-year-old restaurant that succumbed to speculation when Ben "Sledgehammer" Shaoul bought the block to dump more luxury living on the Lower East Side. Residents were essentially robbed of their riches which were then redistributed to the upper echelon. Robin Hood in reverse.

Bereket was a hole-in-the-wall joint—in the best sense of the phrase—always there at the corner serving lentil soup and falafel until four in the morning. Deep down, every city denizen knows that their favorite hangout will eventually bite the dust, but we hold out hope that ours won't be affected. That our routines and friends won't be pushed aside in the crushing wave of change.
—Elie Z. Perler, co-founder, Bowery Boogie

↑ I have been asked to recount an event which exemplifies gentrification. "The more concrete the better." This leaves me no other alternative than the must-see event of last summer. I write of none other than the demolition of Greenpoint's very own sludge tank. For decades this humble structure had performed its grim task without complaint. Now it was time to make way for progress: a ten-tower community within a community: Greenpoint Landing. It is touching to note its passing did not go unnoticed. A great many people saw fit to pay their last respects. I was one of them. This was our way of having "closure." The solemnity of this procession was made a bit lighter by the presence of a sport utility vehicle on cinder blocks. So help me, but I think this was its way of saying "goodbye," not to be so sad and remember the good times we had together. So long, old friend. You may not have been easy on the eyes (or nose, for that matter)—but you were loved. And will be missed.
—Heather Letzkus, New York Shitty

One particularly memorable moment when I realized Astoria was really on the path to gentrification was in 2009, the day I spotted the poster announcing the arrival of the first—the original—Bareburger on 31st Avenue. At first, I had no idea why they chose this illustration of a bear riding a penny-farthing (imagery that is pretty hipster), but after interviewing the owners and confirming that not only was it about organic burgers but about game meats and fancy shakes, I knew a big change was coming. Little did I know how huge Bareburger would become—in fact, I just ate there the other night. Welcome to the delicious side of gentrification.
—Meg Cotner, editor in chief of We Heart Astoria

↑ I moved to the Archive building at 666 Greenwich Street in May 1989. At that time, the far West Village was known as "the wild west." My windows faced Christopher Street. Especially in summer, I looked out on a steady parade of prostitutes, drug dealers, and men seeking action on the piers. Across the street (next to St. Veronica's church) were a rowdy bar that closed at 4 a.m. and a shop that sold X-rated videotapes. I had a two-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom apartment for which I paid $2,050 a month. Some neighboring apartments were rented to a succession of stewardesses (as they were known at the time) and students. My landlord, Rockrose, was happy to rent to anyone. After living at the Archive for 14 years with modest rent increases, Rockrose decided to raise my rent by more than $1,000 a month. I had to move out. Now an apartment like mine is renting for four times what I paid for it. I hear that the piers are tamer now. A four-star Italian restaurant has replaced the rowdy bar.
—Terese Loeb Kreuzer, editor, Downtown Post NYC

↑ When the graffiti starts mocking the gentrifiers, it's probably safe to say the neighborhood has jumped the gentrification shark. See: kale chips; raw almonds.
—Mary Bakija, managing editor of Park Slope Stoop/South Slope News

When I moved to Brooklyn Heights from Greenwich Village in 1983, I would return to my favorite Village haunt, the Lion's Head, on weekend nights, sometimes staying until the wee hours. On my way home from the Clark Street station, I'd often stop at the Promenade Restaurant, an inexpensive Greek coffee shop at the corner of Hicks and Montague, for a grilled cheese and ham to quiet my late night cravings. Some time around the cusp of the 80s-90s, the Promenade gave way to the upscale Heights Cafe, featuring (at present prices) $15.95 mussel pots and $18.95 Texas meatloaf. Fortunately, by the time Promenade died, marriage had put an end to my late night carousing and my 4 a.m. grilled cheese and ham.
—Claude Scales, Brooklyn Heights Blog/Cobble Hill Blog

↑ Starting in 1993, the nonprofit Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation provided health care for low-income elderly residents in the East Village. However, in the East Village of today, property such as this on Avenue B and East Fifth Street is far too valuable to serve as an end-of-life facility. Which is why, when the situation presented itself in late 2011, active developer Ben Shaoul bought the building, booted the patients and staff, and converted Cabrini into luxury apartments where rents reach $7,600. Today, Bloom 62 is known for its rooftop ragers with industrial-grade fireworks. It's the most over-the-top example of gentrification in the neighborhood. Lost in all this were the stories of the loved ones who had to relocate their mothers or fathers to far-flung locations of Brooklyn, far away from the neighborhood that was their home. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Post reported that Shaoul was shopping Bloom 62 to investors for roughly $70 million.
—EV Grieve

Starbucks and luxury condos are not the only visible signs of gentrification—so too is increased policing. The more new residents, developers, and businesses that enter East Harlem, the more watchtowers the NYPD deploys. For years, this watchtower has stood at 110th and Lexington Avenue. Equipped with cameras and microphones, the product brochure for the NYPD's SkyWatch Frontier states it was "developed with the intention of being deployed with our military forces." Below it, posters line the street, denouncing developer Forest City Ratner's plans to build three 50-story luxury towers in East Harlem. Somehow, New York City has "no money" to maintain the public housing adjacent to the watchtower, or build new public housing, but the NYPD is spending $150 million for 6,000 tablets and 41,000 smartphones.
—Andrew Padilla, life-long East Harlem resident and filmmaker, El Barrio Tours: Gentrification USA

When I moved to Williamsburg in 1996, there was little to do on Bedford Avenue other than eat really good massaman curry at a hole-in-the-wall called Plan-Eat Thai, or dodge the cracked-out prostitutes who haunted the streets south of Metropolitan Avenue. (They'd chase you if you walked too slowly.) My shared, two-bedroom apartment, steps from the subway, was $900 a month, but still felt overpriced on a minimum wage salary from The Strand. Bored, I often found myself venturing into the city at night and quickly became a local at the aptly named Meatpacking District dive, The Village Idiot. The place was filthy. The bottles behind the bar were buried in bras. The music was of the rowdy, George Jones variety. If you got bored watching the Tonya Harding sex tape that looped on the monitors, you could buy a goldfish for a buck to feed to the snapping turtles in the aquarium up front. But best of all, it was cheap. In fact, on slow nights the bartenders would feed me drinks, free of charge, so they wouldn't have to drink alone.

By the early aughts, the Meatpacking District was morphing into a playground for the nouveau riche on the hunt for overpriced steak frites. On a summer night in 2004, as she stood behind the bar in a tube top pouring me a Stella, one of The Village Idiot's bartenders told me they were closing. The owner Tommy—he looked like an obese Willie Nelson—couldn't afford the increase in rent. I was bummed. Of course, The Village Idiot had been priced out before—it spent 10 years in the Village and was the inspiration for Coyote Ugly in that bar's pre-frat boy days. But this grimy tavern on 14th was the only version I'd known and, for better or worse, it was filled with rowdy memories of being twenty-something and new to New York.

Admittedly, lamenting the loss of a bar (this year Milady's, Subway Inn, 285 Kent, Rodeo Bar) seems trite when compared to greater indignities associated with gentrification. But for me, when The Village Idiot shuttered, a city I was just getting to know lost a bit of its jagged charm. A city that shifts whenever I get comfortable.
—Robert Lanham, author and editor of FREEwilliamsburg
[Photo via Flaming Pablum.]

· Tracing the History of an Idea as 'Gentrification' Turns 50 [Curbed National]
· Gentrification Watch archive [Curbed NY]