So, white people seem to get really, really angry when I write about gentrification, as evidenced through the many irate comments I’ve gotten, in which I’m called ignorant, racist, and “mean bitch,” amongst other things. I’ve left lots of those comments lingering in moderation for a while, because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to give these people a space for their inane and often offensive rants, especially when I don’t have the time, energy, or desire to engage with them. But in the end, I’ve decided, what the hell, I’ll approve them. Especially because I have more readers nowadays who will maybe, hopefully help me respond to the bullshit every once in a while? (If interested, you can find the most recent mindblowingly-asinine rant on the “postmodern hipster colonists suck” post, courtesy of Lilly.)
However, sometimes these posts still generate really good comments. I wanted to highlight a recent one here, not just because I appreciate the insight, but also because I think it’s important to foreground the experiences of people who are more directly impacted by gentrification (I’m a NYC transplant from Jersey, and, I’ll be honest, am more of a contributor to gentrification than a victim of it.) Here’s part of what Ebony wrote:
I am from New York City. My mother was born and raised in Harlem in Drew Hamliton Projects. If you are from New York you know where Drew Hamilton is. I am disgusted with the invasion of white people in Harlem. I am not racist but I am proud of Harlem. I like the idea of segregation in Harlem. It’s not Harlem without black people, the same goes for New Orleans. White people have every neighborhood from A street to 96th street as well as Inwood. Why do they need Spanish Harlem, Harlem, and Washington Heights. These people can live anywhere in the 5 boroughs but choose to move to Harlem. They treat this area as if it was nothing before they got there, as if people didn’t reside in this area prior to them moving in. They don’t understand the value of this area.
Read the rest of the comment here.
The part that I’ve emphasized is an excellent description of what seems to be a very prevalent attitude amongst gentrification’s beneficiaries: the notion that these neighborhoods were relatively worthless, uninhabited wastelands until the gentrifying classes moved in.
I was treated to some great examples of this attitude a couple of weeks ago on The Leonard Lopate Show, a radio program on WNYC (a local NPR station.) The segment, “How To Be a Good Tourist,” was a conversation between Lopate, two NYC journalists, and callers about NYC neighborhoods, cultural institutions, restaurants and other locations that are often missed or overlooked by tourists and residents alike. They got to talking about certain neighborhoods that have historically been overlooked and have “changed” (what a euphemism!) in recent years, as well as neighborhoods that are about to “change.” Here’s some of the conversation, with emphasis and commentary added:
Rosemary Black: I think [the city] is constantly changing… Just a few years ago, the Meatpacking District was quite desolate and nobody would ever go over there unless they were trying to get to the West Side Highway or something…
Leonard Lopate: And it smelled bad, because of all of the blood that was on the street, the sidewalk…
RB: Exactly. And now it’s just filled with trendy restaurants and clubs and bars and you walk over there at night and it’s just teeming with people, and these places are hard to get into, there’s some really nice places over there… it’s completely different from what it used to be. And the same really with the Lower East Side; if you think about what the Lower East Side was like fifteen years ago and you walk over there now, it’s like being in a whole different city.
A whole different city, indeed. A much whiter, richer, less-immigrant-populated city, as the East Village continues to encroach on Loisaida (see the linked Wikipedia entry for a good description of the changes she’s referencing.)
LL: Now, why do you think a neighborhood suddenly takes off like that?
Melena Ryzik: Well, it starts with the low rents. That’s the key thing –
LL: Big spaces and low rents.
MR: Exactly, exactly. And of course I think there’s also the idea for New Yorkers that you want to be the first person to discover something, so there’s a certain cache in having been maybe the first person or the first set of people living over on the Meatpacking district side of things.
Again with this colonialist, pioneer mentality. Because it’s not as if people haven’t been living in these areas for decades now; maybe just not the people that count for much of anything except a novelty and a provider of “exotic” foods to these folks.
LL: Do you think that the South Bronx is likely to change when the new Yankee Stadium opens in a few years?
RB: I think there’s a good chance, everything changes! Places that we wouldn’t have thought a few years ago would be completely different are totally changed around, and safe, and getting to be desirable places to live, so I think there’s a good chance of it.
Who’s the “we” in this entire conversation? Can we assume that it’s white folks with money? Because there’s been a whole lot of folks living in the South Bronx for a long time now – and some of them have thought it a “desirable” place to live all along, despite obvious problems like economic depression and neglect.
Of course, they eventually get to talking about Williamsburg and Bushwick:
LL: And Melena, you say it’s all about rent, because rents are so high in certain areas that people have to constantly go and make new areas popular?
MR: That’s right. You mentioned Williamsburg; you know, that was one of the areas that artists first started moving into when they started moving out of Manhattan, and now that place is full, that neighborhood is full of, you know, million dollar condos, so those kind of people are getting pushed further and further out into Bushwick, which means that there are now great restaurants and bars and places to go to in Bushwick, although not as easy to get to.
Yup. It doesn’t mean that the entire face of the neighborhood is changing; it doesn’t mean that low-income Latinos are getting priced-out, evicted and displaced. No, the important thing here is one of the most economically-depressed and neglected areas of the city is getting some nice restaurants and bars and places to go, not for the long-time residents, but for the sake of the moneyed newcomers who are being “pushed out” of Williamsburg, the last area that they “discovered” and made their own. What about the people who those artists helped to push out of Williamsburg, and who they’ll now help push out of Bushwick, too? Apparently, those displaced people aren’t even worth a mention.