by Jeremiah Moss
March 3, 2014
Jeremiah's Vanishing New York
In order to even begin exploring the city’s other options, New Yorkers first have to stop deluding themselves into believing that today’s hyper-gentrification is the same old thing. We all have to stop saying, “New York always changes, so this is normal.” This is not normal. This is state sponsored, corporate driven, turbo charged, far flung, and impossible to stop in its current form.
Last week, filmmaker Spike Lee spoke to an audience of students at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. During the Q&A, one student asked if he thought gentrification had its good sides. Spike launched into a powerful defense of his home neighborhood, Fort Greene, against the incursion of affluent white people. He recalled his childhood, when the garbage wasn’t picked up every day and the police weren’t out making the streets safe. He asked, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?” An excellent and important question.
As the audience member tried to argue with him, interrupting to say, “Can I talk about something?” Spike turned up the heat, railing against what he called “the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome,” in which newcomers, usually whites, believe they’ve “discovered” a new neighborhood, as if nothing and no one had been there before them, a common occurrence in the city today. Part of the syndrome includes complaining about the traditions of the people who preceded you. For example, as Lee pointed out, a group of African-American drummers have played in a circle in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park every weekend since 1969. Their presence helped to keep the park safe. Then a luxury condo opened nearby. In 2008, the newcomers—“most of them young white professionals,” according to the New York Times--started complaining about the drums. They called the police and circulated racist e-mails “advocating violence against the musicians.” The drummers agreed to move away from their traditional spot, and Marcus Garvey Park, named after the black nationalist in 1973, was rechristened by realtors and newcomers with its original nineteenth-century name, Mount Morris Park. No one is quite sure who Mr. Morris was, but you can bet he was a white man.
Said Spike, “I’m for democracy and letting everybody live, but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations, and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!” He went on to cite the problems of sky-high rents, increased competition to get into good schools, and the real-estate industry’s questionable habit of changing the names of neighborhoods to make them more marketable.
What Spike said is true, facts and observations that have been pointed out and discussed for years in major newspapers and in blogs like mine. In the 2000s, Brooklyn changed rapidly and dramatically. The Bloomberg administration rezoned the borough from top to bottom, giving taxpayer subsidies to developers so they could fill it with luxury towers and turn tenements into condominiums. Rents skyrocketed, pushing out long-time residents. Many white people moved in to neighborhoods that had been predominantly black for decades and more. Fort Greene boasted a thriving African-American community as early as the 1840s, and by 1870 the neighborhood was home to more than half of Brooklyn’s black population. By 2000, 93% of Fort Greene was made up of people of color. That soon changed—and fast. A researcher from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute showed a huge influx of whites flooding into zip codes 11205 and 11206, which cover sections of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, and Williamsburg. Between the years 2000 and 2010, the white share of those areas increased by nearly 30%, qualifying them as some of the “fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States.”
Many of those incoming whites, members of the middle and affluent classes, often celebrated their “discovery” of a “new” neighborhood in blogs and newspapers. Once moved in, some immediately started complaining about the people who had been there before them, regardless of race, but not regardless of class. In another example of the widespread trend, in Carroll Gardens the newcomers complained to the city about the smell of roasting coffee at D’Amico’s, an Italian-American café that had been fragrantly roasting beans since 1948. Thanks to the complaints, the D’Amico family came under investigation by the city’s DEP and, with the threat of closure, were forced to spend money on upgrades to their antique machinery. Said one local to Gothamist about the changing neighborhood demographic, "Saturday afternoon on Court Street now looks like a J. Crew runway. With strollers,” a statement that conjures up an image of white privilege, affluence, and leisure, similar to Spike Lee’s description of Fort Greene Park, “It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show.”
Spike was right on his main points, but many people didn’t like it. His speech had been recorded and disseminated on the Internet, where the backlash was immediate. People didn’t like that he was angry and had used the word “fuck” several times in what was now being called his “rant.” They called him “arrogant,” a word that has “uppity” as one of its synonyms. They didn’t like that he, like television’s George and Louise Jefferson before him, had “moved on up” to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky, as the song goes. He was a wealthy hypocrite, people argued. He had too many multi-million-dollar properties. He had abandoned Brooklyn, and didn’t deserve to defend it. In an op-ed for the Daily News, Errol Louis made some good points about Spike's own role in the gentrification of Fort Greene, including his flipping of several properties and the marketing of a rather tacky "Absolut Brooklyn" vodka. There were definitely some conflicts there that Spike did not address, and should have; however, that omission does not fully explain the violent backlash he received, and the fierce pro-gentrification cries that swirled around him. After all, plenty of other financially successful New York artists have railed against gentrification—David Byrne of Talking Heads, whose net worth is $45 million, even used the word “fuck” in his rant against the rich--and they didn’t get such backlash. But they weren’t black people expressing anger about white people.
As the online comment threads about Spike Lee lengthened, growing more contentious, the conversation began to crack. The neoliberal façade that hides the true face of today’s brand of gentrification fell away like a veil. Several people began to make statements like (I’m paraphrasing here): "I'm white and I helped make the neighborhood nicer," and "White people were here first," and “Black people pushed out the white people and now the whites are just coming back,” as well as, "I'm white and I'll live wherever I want." Said another (not paraphrasing), “Making a neighborhood that was once nice, nice again is not gentrification. It's restoration.”
These statements, and so many others like them, reveal the hidden heart of what urban studies scholar and gentrification expert Neil Smith called the revanchist city. Revanche is French for revenge.
The Revanchist City
In an interview I did with Smith in 2011, just before his untimely death, he explained what he called the “third wave” of gentrification, or “gentrification generalized,” which is nothing like gentrification of the past. Starting in the 1990s, he said, “Gentrification became a systematic attempt to remake the central city, to take it back from the working class, from minorities, from homeless people, from immigrants who, in the minds of those who decamped to the suburbs, had stolen the city from its rightful white middle-class owners. What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban ‘frontier’ became in the 1990s broad-based market driven policy.”
This policy is undeniably infused with racism and classism. A revanchist policy, bent on revenge, this “take back” of the city is an act of aggression, colonizing and terraforming as it goes, fabricating entire new environments on the bulldozed rubble of the old. And these new environments are not meant for everyone. They are expressly created for the city’s newest and most deep-pocketed residents—the children and grandchildren of the white-flight suburbanites who have come back to reclaim and restore what they’ve been told is their birthright. After all, these neighborhoods once belonged to moneyed whites.
Smith continued, “Almost without exception, the new housing, new restaurants, new artistic venues, new entertainment locales--not to mention the new jobs on Wall Street--are all aimed at a social class quite different from those who populated the Lower East Side or the West Side, Harlem, or neighborhood Brooklyn in the 1960s. Bloomberg's rezoning of, at latest count, 104 neighborhoods has been the central weapon in this assault, but it was built on Giuliani's explicit revanchism--his revenge against the street--the public, cultural lever that wedged the systematic class retake into place.”
Since the plutocrat Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013, and Bill de Blasio took over with promises to heal the vast economic gap in New York’s “tale of two cities,” something has shifted in the city’s ongoing conversation about gentrification. More and more, journalists are offering up defensive essays in support of a process long considered a destroyer of social fabric. Likely born from post-Bloombergian anxiety, these increasing pro-gentrification arguments feel a lot like an indirect backlash against the new mayor’s progressive rhetoric and his administration’s harsh criticism of a system that favors the wealthy.
In the February 2, 2014, issue of New York magazine, Justin Davidson published a controversial and much debated piece entitled “Is Gentrification All Bad?” His answer was emphatically no, as he went on to list gentrification’s virtues. A few weeks later, in response to the Spike Lee brouhaha (which was itself initiated by the New York piece), Josh Greenman in the Daily News published an op-ed called “Gentrifiers, Hold your Heads High.” In that piece, he described himself as a white, college-educated, Brooklyn gentrifier, and called Spike’s speech “ignorant” and “offensive.” Greenman cited the history of changing New York neighborhoods, how one immigrant or ethnic group replaces another, describing the current-day shift as just another phase in the normal, ongoing rhythm of the city. “Everyone replaces someone,” he wrote, explaining that “the phenomenon [Lee] decries is mostly innocuous, inevitable and, in a diverse and economically dynamic city, healthy.”
Missed in arguments like these is the indisputable fact that today’s gentrification is not the same as yesterday’s. Many New Yorkers today, across racial and class lines, do wish for old-fashioned gentrification, that slow, sporadic process with both positive and negative effects--making depressed and dangerous neighborhoods safer and more liveable, while displacing a portion of the working-class and poor residents. At its best, gentrification blended neighborhoods, creating a cultural mix. It put fresh fruits and vegetables in the corner grocer’s crates. It gave people jobs and exposed them to different cultures. At its worst, gentrification destroyed networks of communities, tore families apart, and uprooted lives. Still, that was nothing compared to what we have today.
I want to make one thing clear: Gentrification is over. It’s gone. And it’s been gone since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Gentrification itself has been gentrified, pushed out of the city and vanished. I don’t even like to call it gentrification, a word that obscures the truth of our current reality. I call it hyper-gentrification.
The History of "Gentrification"
The term “gentrification” was first coined, somewhat tongue in cheek, by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist who wrote about the phenomenon in the early 1960s. “One by one,” she explained, “many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle class—upper and lower.” The invaders busily took over modest houses and turned them into “elegant, expensive residences,” while refurbishing larger Victorians that had fallen into disrepair. “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district,” said Glass, “it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” In this very first definition of gentrification we find all the salient elements: Members of an upper class invade a lower class neighborhood (note the aggression in the word invade, an act motivated by hostile intent), they purchase and upscale the houses, displace the people, and completely change the neighborhood’s character in a short period of time.
Gentrification, as a noted concept and a term, came to New York City in the early 1970s, but it was all about elsewhere. The New York Times first mentioned the phenomenon in a 1972 story about London, defining it as “the expulsion of the working class from their traditional territory.” In 1977, the Times called it an “Incursion by the Gentry,” and included the still unfamiliar word in their Weekly News Quiz, wedged between questions about Jackie Onassis and Chinese military leader Wang Tung-hsing. The question: “Working-class people in London are resisting a process they refer to as ‘gentrification.’ What is gentrification?” The answer: “Gentrification is a term applied by working-class people in London to characterize the movement of relatively well-to-do persons into areas where they live.” Still, it remained a mostly foreign word to New Yorkers, though there was nothing foreign about the process, certainly not for those afflicted by the “Brownstone Fever” that swept South Brooklyn at the time—a fever so viral it became the subject of an entire conference called “Back to the City.” Organized by the Brooklyn Revival Committee and held at the Waldorf-Astoria, the conference offered workshops and panels that provided proven techniques for “unslumming” a neighborhood. In media reports, however, gentrification continued to be an offshore peculiarity that happened over there, first in London and then spreading across Europe, to cities like Amsterdam and Paris, where Ada-Louise Huxtable described the upscaling of the Parisian slums, including La Marais, “reclaimed as fashionable historic districts, with that curious side effect, ‘gentrification,’ or the driving out of the poor and working class for an influx of chic residents, restaurants and boutiques.” By 1978, local public radio station WNYC broadcast a discussion entitled “What Can Be Done to Stop Gentrification?”
When the New York Times magazine published a 1979 story called “The New Elite and an Urban Renaissance,” they gave gentrification its big debut, celebrating its arrival with splashy photographs showing boutiques and bistros--with expensive sports cars on (gasp!) Columbus Avenue, and tins of paté at Zabar’s. Who were the new urban settlers enjoying all these luxuries? With an average age of 35 and annual incomes over $20,000, “The young gentry,” said the Times, were those who had fled the suburbs to “gladly endure the urban indignities their parents ran away from. This new breed of professionals is willing to put up with smaller apartments, dirty streets, and crime in order to live in chic neighborhoods.” The only noted downside to this process was that the poor and working class were being pushed out, making the city less colorful for the gentrifiers. “Ironically,” said the Times, “the ethnic diversity that is drawing the gentry back to the city, the cultural heterogeneity that has always been the source of so much of New York’s character and energy, may become lost in a forest of homogenized high-rises and rows of renovated brownstones.” On the Upper West Side, one young lawyer complained, “This neighborhood is becoming as sterile as the East Side.”
By the 1980s, gentrification in New York had a cheerleader in one Everett Ortner, noted brownstoner and president of Back to the City, Inc. Credited with the “revival” of Park Slope, Ortner told the Times, “I think the growing hue and cry about gentrification is exaggerated.” He explained that the city needed to attract “new, young people who are educated and have the money” to preserve neighborhoods and provide a tax base for services. “I call it good,” he declared. He was right about one thing—the cry of citywide gentrification was exaggerated.
A 1983 Quarterly Review by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York entitled “Are the Gentry Returning?” found little evidence to support the notion that the back-to-the-city movement had begun in earnest. Crunching the numbers, they concluded, “The overall attractiveness of New York City to the ‘gentry’…did not grow between 1970 and 1980.” In fact, the city’s share of high-income households, college graduates, and other high-status groups dropped, including the number of whites, as they continued to flee to the homogeneous suburbs. However, while far from a citywide incursion, the first spores of gentrification had touched down in a handful of neighborhoods, on a handful of streets, setting in motion a long process that would continue and grow in the decades to come. In neighborhoods like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, and in parts of Lower Manhattan, the increase in college-educated residents spiked, but not their incomes—yet. All those freshly educated and underpaid young professionals had come to the city armed with the potential for future earnings, and where they gathered together in crappy apartments below 14th Street, the rents slowly increased with them.
Throughout the 1980s, as they grew wealthier, many of those young people would come to be known as yuppies, and in 1988, during the anti-gentrification riots in the East Village, the slogan “Die Yuppie Scum” was born. With the 1990s came the beginning of a new era for New York. To some, it would be a Gilded Age. For others, it would mean the death of a once wildly creative, chaotic, and welcoming city.
The Flowering of Hyper-Gentrification
It’s difficult to remember exactly when it was that I first understood, when it really hit me, that the city I knew was vanishing at an alarming rate. I want to say 2005, but can’t be sure. That year, my favorite East Village dive bar suddenly closed after 80 years in business. I was heartbroken. The delightfully sleazy Times Square Howard Johnson’s shuttered, too, with plans for its demolition and replacement by a suburban-style shopping mall clothing store. More heartbreak. The following year, the Cedar Tavern, Gotham Book Mart, McHale's Bar, the Second Avenue Deli, and CBGBs—all legendary, long-lived spots--all vanished. It seemed impossible that so many fixtures of the city weren’t actually permanent, and that so many could fall at once.
At the same time, the population of my neighborhood was palpably shifting. The streets were getting louder, more crowded with young people who didn’t look or feel like the young East Villagers of the past several decades—they weren’t punk, queer, creative, or crazy. They were “normals,” young, white, traditional heterosexuals in button-down shirts and pleated pants, the boys high-fiving in wolf packs, the girls tottering down the sidewalks in designer high heels. They were the sort of people that an East Villager could always avoid simply by never venturing north of 14th Street. No more. A transformation was underway. I could not stop complaining about it. But no one listened. They kept telling me, “New York always changes. This is nothing.” Some of these deniers were native New Yorkers. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” they said, “and this is just what happens. Get used to it.” The denials increased both my doubt and my conviction. Was I imagining things? I felt like a Cassandra, doomed to be disbelieved yet gripped in the compulsion to proclaim. Maybe I suffer from a sort of Cassandra Complex. Whatever the case, I put my preoccupation into a blog. Suddenly, people were listening—more than I had imagined—and they all had noticed the big changes, too.
What I and many New Yorkers had become aware of was not the birth of a new process, but its full flowering. A new form of gentrification had been at work for years by that time--planted in the 1980s, tended and protected through the 1990s, it was now blossoming into a terrible, unstoppable garden of choking vines. Its presence, previously felt, was now unmistakably apparent. To mix metaphors, it was like we were witnessing the sudden, dramatic collapse of an ancient glacier after years of quiet, steady melting. All around us, the great city crumbled.
Within a month of starting “Vanishing New York,” I was interviewed in New York Metro, a little free paper handed out to commuters at subway entrances. Paul Berger, who later interviewed me again for The New York Times, asked my take on how the city was changing. I answered, “What’s happening now is unnatural change. It’s like the way people argue about climate change and say, ‘Well, the climate’s always changed throughout time.’ Yes, it has, but climate change is dramatic, it’s overpowering, it’s overwhelming, and it’s certainly sped up. I think in New York we are seeing change on an unnatural scale.” I didn’t have a word for it then, but soon started using “hyper-gentrification” to refer to this new phenomenon, which I thought of then as gentrification accelerated—bigger, faster, and much more destructive. Hyper-gentrification had not yet made it into the mainstream consciousness, but urban scholars had been observing its effects for some time.
In 2003, in the journal Urban Studies, British geographer Loretta Lees introduced the term “super-gentrification,” defining it as the “Transformation of already gentrified, prosperous and solidly upper-middle-class neighbourhoods into much more exclusive and expensive enclaves.” She saw this “intensified regentrification” happening in certain parts of cities like London and New York that had “become the focus of intense investment and conspicuous consumption.” Lees focused her paper on the brownstone neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, site of New York City’s first wave of gentrification. This time, in super-gentrification, it was the middle class being invaded by “a new generation of super-rich ‘financifiers’ fed by fortunes from the global finance and corporate service industries.”
The phenomenon was parodied by The Onion in a 2008 article entitled “Nation's Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened By Aristocratization.” The accompanying photo showed a multibillion-dollar medieval castle jammed between two well-appointed Brooklyn brownstones, with a horse-drawn carriage parked on the street alongside SUVs and mini-vans. Said the report, “the enormous treasure-based wealth of the aristocracy makes it impossible for those living on modest trust funds to hold onto their co-ops and converted factory loft spaces.”
While I see Lees’ super-gentrification as an aspect of hyper-gentrification, the two are not the same. Hyper-gentrification is much more widespread. Unlike first-generation gentrification, it doesn’t target only faded neighborhoods with architecture that inspires rehabilitation, it infects the city as a whole, invading previously gentrified neighborhoods as well as poor, working class, industrial, and already bustling commercial districts. Utterly unflinching, it eagerly spreads into the most repellent parts of town, diving into toxic waste dumps, snuggling up to slaughter houses, planting luxury condo towers in sections that border on noisy highways, traffic tunnels, and train tracks. No part of the city is safe from the multi-pronged, ever-spreading reach of hyper-gentrification. It’s big and it’s fast. It moves at hyper-speed, packed with the power to completely and dramatically transform an entire neighborhood in no time. What might have taken ten to twenty years under gentrification, now takes only three to five. And everything in its way is expelled, by one method or another.
The Third Wave of Gentrification
Neil Smith spent much of his career researching and writing about gentrification. As noted earlier, what I call hyper-gentrification he termed “gentrification generalized,” or “third-wave gentrification,” and his explanation of the phenomenon and its history—first published in 2002--is essential to understanding exactly how today’s gentrification differs from the past and has evolved into, in my opinion, a very different beast. I will attempt to distill Smith’s central ideas here, simplifying them in the process.
Gentrification generalized, according to Smith, is a product of globalization and neoliberal urban policies, a return to the 18th-century brand of laissez-faire liberalism that assumed “the free and democratic exercise of individual self-interest led to the optimal collective social good” and that “the market knows best.”
The generalization of gentrification began in the 1990s and was preceded by two previous waves of gentrification. In the first wave, as described in the 1960s by Ruth Glass, the agents of change were members of the middle- and upper-middle class; for example, men and women working as lawyers, editors, and small business owners, who purchased run-down brownstones in poor or working-class neighborhoods and fixed them up using their own “sweat equity.” Thanks to the powerful socioeconomic sway of their class (and race, usually white), they brought some real benefits to the existing community, like safer streets and improved schools. (Justin Davidson was right, old-fashioned gentrification was not “all bad.”) Many of the first brownstoners, as they were called, were socially liberal, even radical, and a bit utopian, wishing to live in harmony with other cultures. Unfortunately, their presence also caused the displacement of their less powerful neighbors. But the damage was limited. First-wave gentrification was sporadic and marginal, without the powerful government and corporate backing needed to change the city as a whole. In the second wave of gentrification, through the 1970s and 1980s, the process took root, becoming “increasingly entwined with wider processes of urban and economic restructuring,” says Smith. As it grew, opposition forces emerged to fight against it. This was the time when anti-gentrification protests flared and were quashed by a city government now deeply invested in “making the city safe for gentrification.” In late 1980s New York, for example, the Tompkins Square Park riots ignited when the city tried to push the homeless from the park, and protestors pushed back, getting their skulls bashed by the NYPD.
Aside from just being bigger, what makes hyper-gentrification different from the old-fashioned kind? Smith posits five characteristics that distinguish third-wave gentrification from its predecessors. (1.) Intensified partnerships between the city government and private capital, “resulting in larger, more expensive, and more symbolic” real-estate developments. (2.) A “new influx of global capital into large megadevelopments,” as well as smaller neighborhood developments like luxury condos on the Lower East Side, in which, for example, Israeli developers are sponsored by European banks. (3.) Authoritarian city politicians and police working to crush anti-gentrification opposition. (4.) Outward diffusion--as prices rise at the city’s center, generalized gentrification spreads out to more distant neighborhoods. (5.) Finally, this third wave is unregulated, free-market gentrification, independent of public financing and therefore unaccountable to larger social needs. It is the first brand of gentrification to enjoy “the full weight of private-market finance.” It’s gentrification that says (in my words), “I can live wherever I want and do whatever I want, because I have the money to do it.”
In my 2011 interview with Smith, he described exactly what the difference between gentrification to hyper-gentrification looks like, saying, “If the rehabilitation of a brownstone in the West Village or Park Slope typified gentrification in the 1970s, by the 1990s and 2000s it was the disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill-in of the previously low-rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan--Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, etc., and now the superfunded Gowanus.”
A Sociopathic Process
Hyper-gentrification is everything that Smith described, and much more. Constructed and driven by people, it has a personality--though it may be more accurate to say it has a personality disorder. Through the people who celebrate it, we can hear the voice of hyper-gentrification.
After the Spike Lee episode, the Daily News interviewed a few residents of Fort Greene under the headline “Brooklyn Residents Don't Appreciate Spike Lee's Rants on Gentrification.” They talked to one 25-year-old woman out walking her English springer spaniel, a dog she’d named Hudson, presumably after the river. A farm-to-table restaurant owner with a history in interior design and fashion, she had moved to Fort Greene from the Hamptons just a month earlier. She told the paper, “I don’t see a negative to cleaning up a neighborhood… I think it’s a creative bunch of people doing interesting things. It’s all good intentions.” Had she never heard about the road to Hell and its paving stones? Another young woman out walking her miniature poodle said, “people have the right to live wherever they want to live.” And a third young woman (none of the neighborhood people quoted were men, long-term residents, people over 34, or, apparently, African-American), a jewelry designer and dog walker from Toronto, agreed that the perks of gentrification far outweigh the drawbacks. “I benefit from it,” she said. “I can have a decent cup of coffee.”
To be fair, these are brief quotes from people out walking dogs, and newspaper quotes get edited, so we can’t take them as an infallible indication of the broader sentiment towards gentrification among young newcomers to Fort Greene, or gentrified Brooklyn as a whole. But it is striking that each of the three quotes come off as laced with self-centeredness, remorselessness, and what appears to be total disregard for the larger issue and how it negatively impacts the lives of their neighbors. I wonder if it’s defensiveness, borne from guilt, or if there’s no contrition there at all. Statements such as these are not limited to one newspaper article. Far from being outliers, they are voices in a larger chorus. As a blogger, I’ve been hearing them for years, in reader comments on my own blog, on other New York blogs, and in countless newspaper and magazine articles. “Bulldoze the housing projects and dump the poor in the river,” they say. Here’s another one: “If you want affordable housing, move to Bronx. Move to Staten Island, hell move to Kentucky. The sooner these poor bottom-barrel leeches are banished from Manhattan, the better.” And one more: “Ew, NYC was gross back then. The natives nearly destroyed the city. Now, thanks to the influx of cleaner people, the city is glamorous again!”
As gentrification has changed, as the city has changed, so have the people doing the gentrifying. Thinking back to the first bunch in the 1960s, those early brownstoners, I wonder: Is this how they talked? Is this how they felt? New York magazine interviewed several of them in 1969. They were middle-class whites, mostly, and certainly had some sense of entitlement, but it wasn’t expressed with callousness. When asked about their feelings for their new neighborhood, whether in Brooklyn or Manhattan, they talked about how much they enjoyed the cultural mix. No one mentioned a wish for decent coffee. No one proclaimed a right to live there. One woman said she was proud to live on a block that was “half black-owned and half white-owned and hoping it stays that way.” They talked of melting pots and not wanting to live in a “white, middle-class ghetto.” One brownstoner in the decrepit old East Village said he didn’t want the neighborhood to get fixed up too much, or else it would become “a big whitewashed playpen of young people.” He explained, “People are still living side by side. For us, that’s what this brownstone thing is all about.”
Of course, in part thanks to people like this, the East Village did become a whitewashed playpen for young people, brownstone Brooklyn did get so fixed up it turned into a white middle-class ghetto, and people of different classes and ethnicities did not live side by side forever. I don’t think of the early brownstoners as heroes, and their sentiments are problematic in their own way, but they do seem more humane, more empathic, than their counterparts today.
Hyper-gentrification, born from gentrification, is bigger, faster, and meaner than its parent. It’s also sicker, a sociopathic system with no compassion. If hyper-gentrification were a person, it would be a malevolent psychopath--aggressive and remorseless, with a reckless disregard for others and an aptitude for deception. It exploits people, uses cruelty to gain power, and exhibits poor impulse control. It’s no big leap to imagine that the real human beings, the power players pulling the strings of hyper-gentrification might suffer from psychopathy and other failures of empathy. The politicians, developers, bankers, and corporate CEOs who have banded together to create the new New York are all in Machiavellian professions that generally score high on scales of narcissism and sociopathy. What kind of psychic environment have they created for the city?
Choose Your Monster: The False Dichotomy
Part of the hyper-gentrifiers' strategy has been to foster an environment of fear, frightening New Yorkers into accepting hyper-gentrification as a social good, a necessity if we want to stay safe and avoid the descent into 1970s-style urban decay. The bad old days, they tell us, are right around the corner. Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota didn’t even try to sugarcoat it when he aired a controversial television commercial in the fall of 2013 that threatened, “Bill de Blasio’s recklessly dangerous agenda on crime will take us back to this…” followed by images of 1970s and 80s New York: graffiti-covered subways, rioters throwing Molotov cocktails, XXX movie theaters, dead homeless people, police cars flipped upside-down like stranded turtles. Lhota’s scare tactic didn’t work to sway the voters, but many New Yorkers remain duped into believing the false dichotomy that we have only two choices: unfettered gentrification or rampant crime. We do have other options.
What if gentrification had been left alone, never adopted by the government and its corporate cronies, not shot up with steroids, allowed to develop at its own pace, in its own way? It’s hard to imagine that brand of gentrification—still regulated, not infused with global capital, not juiced on a revanchist rage to take back the city—and maybe it’s too idealistic to try. I suspect we would still have gentrification and the problems that come with it, but without government-corporate partnerships directing its growth, it would surely be a smaller, more manageable beast.
In order to even begin exploring the city’s other options, New Yorkers first have to stop deluding themselves into believing that today’s hyper-gentrification is the same old thing. We all have to stop saying, “New York always changes, so this is normal.” This is not normal. This is state sponsored, corporate driven, turbo charged, far flung, and impossible to stop in its current form. Hyper-gentrification is the Thing That Ate New York, the Blob, the choose your monster-movie metaphor, an ever-growing, ever-devouring beast that will not be satisfied until there’s nothing left.