more thoughts on gentrification

Yesterday, I visited a friend who lives uptown. Walking from her apartment back to the 125th street stop on the A, I was struck by the fact that almost every single person I passed was white. I thought this was Harlem. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, Harlem proper doesn’t really start on the west side until 125th street itself, and I was a bit south of there; but, as the Wikipedia article also states, “Harlem’s boundaries are elastic and have changed over the years, as Ralph Ellison observed: ‘Wherever Negroes live uptown is considered Harlem.'”

As I walked, I got to thinking about the stuff I’ve been writing about gentrification and all the thoughts I hadn’t written out yet. Lots of my thoughts have arisen in response to questions and statements like these, gleaned from the comments on this blog:

  • “You and I are both concerned about being “priced out” of our homes, being unable to afford to live where we want. But you want to tell me where I’m allowed to live? How would you feel if all the boricuas were forced to live in a certain neighborhood? “They are” will be your inevitable reply, but that’s the point.”
  • “It’s not the presence of individual white people that hurts communities like the one you are describing–it’s institutional racism, including the examples you have described of landlords charging higher rent to white renters and real estate agents considering white people as evidence of a safe neighborhood. Why is it his fault if other people react to his presence that way despite his good intentions?”
  • “Isn’t saying white people shouldn’t move into minority neghborhoods just another way of advocating segregation? The danger of gentrification is very real, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should live only among people of their own race, or that a white person who moves into a minority community is automatically a negative presence–especially if he respects the culture and the people, and wants to get to know them rather than surrounding himself with other white people.”

So, with these and other responses to what I’ve written and said thusfar in mind, I wrote this on my long subway ride back to Brooklyn.

Let’s say I was living or just walking in a neighborhood that had, until recently, been almost completely a people of color neighborhood, and now I was seeing many more, new white faces in the area. If I also knew that the people of color who had moved away had gone on of their own choice, desire and volition, to neighborhoods just as nice or even nicer, and were able to preserve or reestablish their own ethnically and culturally-based communities, then I would not be angered by the sight of those white people.

Nor would I be angry if I knew that the presence of those white folks didn’t mean that people of color were leaving at all; that the people of color who had lived there for so long still lived there without fear of being priced out, and that their businesses, restaurants, cultural institutions and traditions stayed as well and were not threatened or pushed down to make room for mainstream, dominant, white culture.

However, that is not the case here, in New York City, at this time. This is not some natural, voluntary progression of the city that’s going on here, where people are choosing to move elsewhere and where neighborhoods are changing as a result. Here, I know, from clear, documented evidence, that white faces in low-income communities of color often mean the onset of gentrification, displacement, forced evictions, people pushed out farther from Manhattan and into poorer, more neglected neighborhoods. I know that this also often signals the breakdown of communities that people of color, especially immigrants, have worked so hard to establish in order to feel more safe and whole in this city; that ethnic cultures are being subjugated so that the dominant white culture might move in.

See, people of color don’t hate, dislike, distrust, or otherwise feel negatively about white folks just because white people are a different shade of skin, or look or act differently. No, it’s because, far too often, white people mean bad news for people of color. And that’s the case here, with the gentrification of POC communities. People of color aren’t just upset when they see white people moving into their ‘hoods because they want segregation for segregation’s sake – it’s because white people have so infrequently done anything good for our communities.

People ask why I’d advocate segregation by hoping that less white folks move into neighborhoods of color. In this sense, segregation is simply defined as the geographical separation of one race of people from another, and is de facto considered to be a bad thing. The thing is, though, that the push for desegregation, starting from the Civil Rights movement onwards, wasn’t motivated because Black folks and other people of color thought it would be nice to have more white people around. Integration wasn’t about creating some happy melting pot. No, segregation was so damaging and needed to be ended because it was explicitly used to discriminate against and oppress people of color. It wasn’t as if white folks and people of color were kept separate and were then given the same exact amount of privilege, services, and care by our government and other institutions; no, white people and people of color were separated out so that the vast majority of the resources, privilege and power in our society could be funneled directly to white people, while people of color were left with, in a word, shit. The point of school desegregation wasn’t so that little Black children could play with little white children; it was so that Black children could stop being relegated to abysmal schools and could start attending institutions that were actually well tended and cared for: namely, white schools.

Likewise, the urge for separatism that has at one time or another arisen in many oppressed groups – people of color, Native peoples, queers, lesbians, women – is not created in a vacuum. Separatism is a direct response to oppression; it is fostered by a desire to protect one’s community, to be self-sufficient and thereby not rely on a population of privileged oppressors that has done you nothing but ill for time immemorial.

Back to the gentrification that’s going on in NYC: Maybe those individual white people are not the ones who deserve the brunt of the blame for gentrification. As many have been quick to point out, there is an entire system of institutionalized racism which drives gentrification. Perhaps many those individual white folks do respect people of color and their cultures, and don’t mean any harm. Maybe they, too, are short on cash and are just trying to find an affordable place in the city.

Thing is, though – those white folks moving into el Barrio, Harlem, Chinatown, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and elsewhere – they represent, participate in, are complicit with, and benefit from those larger systems of racism and classism that drive gentrification. It goes beyond mere symbolism – those white faces are the physical manifestation of gentrification in neighborhoods of color. They are the living, breathing, walking, talking proof that your neighborhood is about to change in a huge way, that you and your neighbors might be priced and pushed out to make room.

Every white person who moves into a gentrifying neighborhood of color bears the burden of that responsibility. It doesn’t matter who well meaning or liberal you are, how much you respect your neighbors and their cultures, or how hard up you are, too. It doesn’t even really matter if you are fully conscious of and own your own participation in gentrification, though that recognition and personal responsibility is a really good and and necessary thing. Despite all of that, it is still your presence that will make those other, maybe richer white folks feel “safe” enough to move into the ‘hood; it is your ability and willingness to pay a couple of hundred extra in rent that will let that landlord pick you over that poorer, browner family; it is your faces that the real estate agents will point out when they’re trying to tout SoHa or East Williamsburg as “up and coming”; it is you who make up the target audience for the new, culturally white establishments that are replacing those of the people who lived there before you. All those “good intentions” you carry around inside of you aren’t worth a damn if you don’t really understand and cop to your responsibility for the situation and then – and this is really important – do something about it. Do what, you ask? Well, I can’t really answer that question for anyone, nor is it my job to figure out how white people can stop hurting my people. What I can begin to suggest is this: do your best to not move into gentrifying neighborhoods of color, for one; and, if you absolutely must do so, which I am frankly skeptical about since I’ve managed to avoid it myself, then it is your responsibility to do all you can to work against the tide of gentrification, perhaps by doing things like supporting local businesses and volunteering with and donating to community organizations working against gentrification and displacement or working more generally for racial and economic justice.

Yes, racism is completely institutionalized and embedded in nearly all of the power structures in our society. That, however, does not absolve anyone of their personal responsibility, culpability, benefit and privilege in those racist systems. And the larger powers at work behind things like gentrification don’t make an individual person’s participation any less harmful or threatening. When you dismiss the negative effets of gentrification, blame it on someone else, or refuse your own responsibility because that’s “just the way things are” and there’s “nothing you can do about it,” you’re only sealing the deal on your own complicity.

13 Responses to “more thoughts on gentrification”

  1. 1 Doyle Saylor

    Interesting Essay ABB,
    you write;
    Separatism is a direct response to oppression; it is fostered by a desire to protect one’s community, to be self-sufficient and thereby not rely on a population of privileged oppressors that has done you nothing but ill for time immemorial.

    I don’t agree that segregation is the answer to this. Your basic frame of reference is class privelege (wealth) rather than race. The crude oppression based upon wealth is not resolved by coming together as a community. That is more a feature of British colonial practices that the U.S. copied as well which works well enough as divide and conquer.

    The argument really is what is the best course for solidarity? What’s the root of racism in practice, and the most powerful ways to crush it out of existence. The dispersal of urban poor out of the cities is helter skelter about the needs of the economy. The churning is a force for the good because it engenders class unity in many ways. Keep in mind gentrification is a result of the Real Estate boom that is about to go bust. Anyone forced to move realizes the futility of ghetto communities.

    There are current examples of how class is being fought in these ways; Nepal, Venezuela, Eritria, et al, in which ethnic groupings are pawns in fights between larger forces.

    While I don’t advocate class warfare here, I think racism is a juicy subject for new approaches to the issue of solidarity. I surmise the color lines can be crossed readily enough given the right coming together of events.

    The United States is clearly out to build a great global empire. The U.S. therefore can ill afford segregation in the sense you are writing. Further socialist methods don’t allow it either. So while now is the deepest part of the reactionary times, it’s also the end of the line for segregation as a means of social force being used.
    Doyle Saylor

  2. 2 Jack Alouet

    If the “poorer, browner” family that can’t afford prices that some white people pay in Harlem, find some level of success and eventually ARE able to afford those rents, I guess they should stay living in a less-desirable apartment then? And not do as the upper middle class blacks in my building are doing – PAYING MORE rent for a nicer place?

    No system is perfect – it is a market economy, and there’s only so much you can consider race as part of it.

  3. 3 Sami

    I thought this was interesting.

    I live in southern Arizona (forty miles from the Mexican border) and ever since we’ve moved here we’ve lived in hispanic neighborhoods. My mom for a long time was the only white woman workinf the floor at the local nursing home. We got our apartments and houses to rent because my mom’s co-workers told her about the places. I have five siblings and for years we only scraped by.

    Of course our situation is different because NYC isn’t AZ but where would you suggest poor white people to live?

  4. 4 Tenda

    I think gentrification harms poor whites just as much as poor minorities. It’s about class as much as it is race.

  5. 5 Justin

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post – I found it via Technorati after blogging on the same topic (my name above will link to the post).

    Renters will always experience inherent instability in housing. If prices go up, you can get priced out. If prices were to go down, you could find a bigger, cheaper place. Unfortunately, rent hardly ever goes down in cities. Sucks, I know. But that’s only one way in which our society distributes heavy rewards to those who own the property they live on. In other words, these people are targeted not because they are poor or black, but because they do not own their homes.

    For homeowners who struggle to pay rising property taxes, I have a simple solution: allow people to defer their property taxes until they sell their home. If a retiree bought their home for $50,000 decades ago, and it’s now worth $750,000, they’d be paying some wicked property taxes each year. However, when the home is sold (when they die or move away), they stand to pocket several hundred thousand dollars, so they’d be able to pay the taxes easily. There’s no reason the government couldn’t wait a few years to get its tax money.

    I understand the racial tensions around gentrification, but I wonder if the “we need our own neighborhood” mentality is outdated. For some un-gentrified neighborhoods, the lack of white people means the city can get away with allowing conditions to be awful. It also means people grow up knowing only the ghetto, and don’t get a clear sense of what it means to live in the larger society. Consequently, they don’t have a vision for any kind of life other than poverty and violence. This is certainly not the case for everyone in these neighborhoods, but it is a large-scale phenomenon, and gentrification can reduce it.

    The current trend is toward mixed-income, or economically integrated, land use. For example, there is a huge housing development going up near me, consisting of market-priced homes, purchase-assistance homes, and public housing. They’re all the same; the only difference is who gets to live there. It’s replacing an enormous public housing project, which had become dilapidated and crime-ridden. I’m sure most of the market-priced homes will be purchased by white people, and this will lead to gentrification, but I think most people would be better off in an economically mixed neighborhood than an all-poor neighborhood.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, either here or on my post.

  6. 6 Doyle Saylor

    Well I’m not sure the trend is for mixed income neighborhoods. There is an article today in the San Francisco Chronicle here:

    What is going on is an intensified divide between the rich and poor. It’s racist in two ways. The bulk of wealth is in ‘white’ hands. The racism in the poor is still virulent, and the key element is white racism. In the long long run as people mix it more or less unity occurs as long as the state doesn’t stoke racist divisions. No one can take that for granted because the U.S. is not above making anyone the demon.

    Over all step by step a very deep class divide is being constructed in the U.S. The chief way to maintain it is racism. It is in the interest of those with bottom to unite with higher layers if some sort of principled structure can be built upon those rotten racist or sexist ideologies.
    Doyle Saylor

  7. 7 Frowner

    What frustrates me about white people’s discourse around gentrification is that it’s always this frustrating mixture of too-abstract and too-concrete…on the one hand, this discourse treats race as “immaterial”–that is, if we all just decide not to be racist why then everything will be great, which is why “segregation isn’t the answer”. What we should all be working for is that magical moment of either liberal epiphany or class/Marxist epiphany: “all people are one” or “all workers are one”, and THAT’S how we’ll win. (“We” in this case is generally middle class college-educated white folks who don’t have much money because they’re in grad school or just starting their careers…they may have a tender conscience, but time and money will take care of that) Or too concrete in the “I just love my neighbor POC X and she just loves me to and we’ve really bonded over X “authentic” cultural thing and therefore I belong here”. Now, it seems reasonable to me that IF white people really did stop being racist AND they banded together with POC to make material changes to how society works, then that would probably be the best of all possible worlds. But speaking as a white person who’s observed a lot of white people in my short life, I’m not holding my breath. Therefore, I think the principle of “first do no harm” ought to prevail amongst white people who have choices–that may mean not moving into gentrifying neighborhoods, and it virtually certainly means not patronizing those stupid bars and restaurants that get brought in as soon as white people move in. Given really-existing conditions, I think it’s pretty reasonable to want the white people to stay out.

    As far as mixed-income developments go, I don’t know how things are in fair New York City, but here in Minneapolis the way it works is this: find one of the few remaining public housing projects, especially if it’s a really nice one that isn’t just a couple of towers. Evict as many people as possible under false pretences. Declare that you will be replacing the project with a “mixed income development” that will contain a large proportion of low-income housing. Evict everyone else. Bulldoze everything. Have lots of construction delays and kickbacks and corruption charges, so that everyone who was evicted has left town, found somewhere else, or become homeless. Build a “mixed income development” with maybe 5% low-income housing.

    Minneapolis has lost lots and lots of low income housing through repeats of this process. It’s crap. “Mixed development” means nothing unless it’s really designed to house as many people as need to be housed.

    One of the reasons this society rewards home ownership as it does is because homeownership is skewed towards white and middle class people. Things are different in Europe–hell, things are different in Singapore! And honestly, this country wouldn’t have so much of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude if there were more white people on the bottom of the heap (to mix a metaphor). It’s not enough to say that class trumps race, any more than it trumps gender. Class, race, and gender intersect/co-mingle/reinforce.

  8. 8 Tenda

    Isn’t it worse in Paris? The ghettos are in the suburbs, and they got absolutely no way of getting out, and moving up, and moving into the city. And of course, the poor ain’t white.

  9. 9 greg mi

    Ok, well, as a white person who sees more black people in my neighborhood than white people, i now realize that i am a monster and will now go kill myself because i don’t want to live around white people.

  10. 10 Ebony

    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. Not to mention Harlem is not like areas such as Detroit and cities in Chicago. We do not need white people to make Harlem prosperous. Businesses choose not to put anything in Harlem because they feel that because Harlem is largely black, no one has any money. Which is false. I am saddened by the population of white people moving in. My mom deals with these people because she works in a place where she sells rich white people expensive bath products for their home. They don’t understand why black people within the community are upset. They are oblivious and most of them don’t care or they thought that large groups of black would enjoy their company. I don’t. Harlem will become predominantly white especially since manhattan is turning into a buy only zone. Renters will be pushed out and unfortunately there are those black who people don’t have the means to purchase their own homes. I am away at college and my mom live on the upper east side but I am now trying to save money so that I can move to Harlem with my mom. I want to do my part as much as possible.

  11. 11 Gina

    I am from Arizona and this is happenign all over the state here. People form California (equity refugees) are moving every where in this state and the natives of Arizona can’t compete with there wealth or equity from their homes. they have driven home prices up to rediculous levels. California developers build trct homes and the same stores and restuarants. PHX has no where left to grow so they began building in Sout Phoenix and downtown, which was grossly ignored before the housing boom. They are destroying my home with no regrad to the people that live here or the environment. Arizona is a desert. Now they buy their vacation homes int he smaller communities and have completly outpriced the locals. Greed and Extravegance are great.

  12. 12 Nicole

    I’m white, and I live in Harlem. I’ve also lived in East Harlem, and loved both. I’m from out of state, so no, I can’t go “back” down town. Could someone please provide directions to the neighborhood that I can afford & call home? Of course I don’t want to be the cause of people being pushed out of their homes, but the current housing market is what it is and I refuse to take responsibility for it because of the color of my skin. I acknowledge the facts, but the anti-white message that I’m hearing too often implies that my 2 black roommates have a right to live in our apt., but I don’t. And if we’re placing blame, then we should remember that there are people of color making a pretty penny selling their real estate in gentrifying neighborhoods and never looking back.

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