The word "gentrification" holds a lot of negative connotations. In New York, it conjures images of trendy coffee shops replacing decades-old eateries, long-time residents getting pushed out as wealthy yuppies move-in, and luxury rentals rising in place of affordable housing. But is this how we should be thinking of gentrification? In his latest piece, New York Magazine's architecture critic Justin Davidson suggests that perhaps it's not. "As the cost of basic city life keeps rising," writes Davidson, "it's more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right."
Davidson looks mostly at two neighborhoods: Inwood in northern Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant in central Brooklyn. In both neighborhoods, many business owners and community groups understand that embracing the changes brought by gentrification can lead to a better environment for everyone. Davidson introduces us to the owner of Dichter Pharmacy in Inwood, Manny Ramirez, who caters to the lower income families by under-selling the chain stores, but he also stocks organic lotions and high-end products because there's now a population with the disposable income to buy those things. Ramirez was born in Inwood in 1968, a time when the area was mostly Irish immigrants, and he watched the area morph into a predominantly Dominican neighborhood. Now, as the changes keep coming, Ramirez has turned into "a one-man neighborhood-improvement center," according to Davidson, encouraging changes while remaining loyal to the neighborhood's past.
In Bed-Stuy, where many renovated brownstones now sell for well over $1 million, income disparity is very present. "Nearly a third of its residents—47 percent of its children—live below the poverty line," writes Davidson. "The neighborhood remains a bastion of unemployment, public assistance, and crime, moated by great ramparts of public housing." And yet he argues that
"those Dickensian juxtapositions are actually a sign of a city that is doing something right. Subsidized housing helps preserve neighborhoods from a uniform wash of affluence. Chelsea and the Upper West Side—two of the wealthiest districts in the nation—still make room for low-income residents in nycha projects. 'Those are neighborhoods where gentrification has been meaningfully tempered,' says Brooklyn city councilman Brad Lander, a staunchly progressive ally of Bill de Blasio's.But that's not to say that members of those communities don't want more gentrification. "Businesses don't bring affluence; they follow affluence," says Colvin Grannum, the president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, who, according to Davidson, "is unapologetic about trying to bring a better life to Bed-Stuy's poor by attracting the very outsiders who are supposedly making things worse." Many fear that by bringing in "outsiders," longtime residents will be displaced, but it's hard to prove that gentrification causes displacement. In 2005, Columbia professor Lance Freeman looked at national housing statistics to determine whether or not gentrification caused low income residents moved more, and he found that there was no correlation. "Mobility, he suggested, is a fact of American life, and he could find no evidence to suggest that gentrification intensifies it."
Davidson ends his piece by stating (somewhat obviously) that there's a "sweet spot" somewhere along the slippery slope of gentrification and development where everything can peacefully and prosperously co-exist, but the trick of it all is to make that sweet spot last. Does this equilibrium already exist in any New York neighborhoods? Or is the city just slipping further into "a tale of two cities"? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
· Is Gentrification All Bad? [NYMag]
· Gentrification Watch archives [Curbed]
Photo via Housing Works/newyorknatives.com