I knew I would confront gentrification in New York City, but I didn’t think it would be this swift or this persistent. The fact that I can stand next to an H&M while simultaneously staring up at a thirty-story housing project is a juxtaposition I’m still wrapping my head around. My afternoon jogs take me past taquerias, corner stores, laundromats, then—suddenly—trendy coffee shops.
And I’m still trying to figure out how I fit into it. As a middle class white woman who moved in a month ago, I know I’m checking lots of gentrification boxes. I sometimes placate myself with the knowledge that I haven’t driven up the cost of living by moving here since my housing situation mostly exists outside the market. (I live in a church for a very discounted rate.) Nonetheless, my white face in a Dominican neighborhood shifts the topography. I stand out. On a weekday morning, I’m one of the only people wearing business clothes as I walk to the subway. And I don’t speak Spanish (though I badly wish I did).
I am also an outsider to the personal experience of gentrification: For generations, my family moved around the country and the world, so we have no roots—no neighborhood filled with history to be kicked out of. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and has been for as long as I can remember. I attended college in a town that was built by the most vicious kind of gentrifier: a pair of missionaries who wiped out the Cayuse Indian tribe that had been living there for centuries. I have never faced foreclosure or eviction. I have never lost my apartment to an upscale developer.
I have, however, witnessed a movement of white young people into neighborhoods that they might never have set foot in before the recession and I wonder about the effects of their migration. As the recession presses on and young people of all races fail to secure well-paying, full-time work, I know they will continue to turn to more affordable neighborhoods for housing—particularly if those neighborhoods are close to employment options in a downtown. It makes sense for these young people, but it becomes problematic if their presence encourages landlords to raise prices, eventually bumping out long-time residents, or if they begin to build new businesses that take away profit from existing stores. That’s Gentrification 101.
I’ve been struggling with this tension between housing demand and neighborhood history ever since I talked to Anna and learned about the in-your-face gentrification taking place in certain neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s also happening in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, and every other city you can think of. For example, long-time residents of my current neighborhood tell me that although it is broadly Latin@ now, fifty years ago the people who lived in these apartments were African American and farther north, they were Jewish immigrants. Time and again, one community gains economic ground and more freedom to live where it chooses, while another must make do with what’s left.
So what is the role of someone like me in these places? Is my presence so harmful that I should relocate to a white, middle class neighborhood where I “belong,” or can I be an informed, respectful resident? This is the answer I’ve come to so far: If gentrification is the act of pushing out existing residents, then the key to socially-just living choices is making your home in such a way that you do not exclude the people who already live there.
I’m not completely convinced that it’s possible, given the economic and racial hierarchies already entrenched in our culture and the top-down, all-encompassing manner in which gentrification pollutes a neighborhood. However, the best I can say for individuals who live in neighborhoods with the potential for gentrification is to be intentional about your attitude and your actions towards the place. Get to know all your neighbors. Learn the history of the area. Familiarize yourself with the systems, services, and leaders that govern there. Frequent diverse businesses to strengthen the existing economy. Dismantle your sense of entitlement, fear or superiority. Educate yourself about warehousing and land speculation. Join grassroots movements that combat the effects of gentrification. Most of all, recognize your role in the process and resist the allure of complacency at every turn.