The gentrification of New York City: a local perspective

Published March 2017
The cheese shop: calling card of the gentrifier

US100 track 11 artists Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one positive symptom of the gentrification of many of New York’s neighbourhoods. But as per most cities, this represents a double edged sword. Not feeling qualified to comment on the NYC example from a suburban house in Surrey, I instead asked for the thoughts of Lauren Bowden, a teacher who currently resides in Brooklyn – the borough perhaps most associated with hipsterism and its affects.

JZ: How has New York City changed over your lifetime?
LB: Well as an example I remember going to Williamsburg, Brooklyn [pictured, right] in 2006 and being really sketched out by parts of it. It was even difficult to get a cab out there! Fast forward a decade and it has become one of the chicest neighborhoods in the whole city.

I moved here in 2005 for my undergraduate degree and simply stayed, so my perspective is not that of a life-long New Yorker (claiming to be one when you are not is strongly frowned upon – and by frown I mean the NY scowl). But I have read about NYC in the 1970s and 80s – the danger and grime that encompassed the city, but also the community and energy that welcomed all, in part due to the affordability of most neighborhoods.

While NYC is certainly one of the most liberal cities in the world, with every type of group and community imaginable, the absurd increase in cost has made it less accessible for so many. In the last few years, I’ve had so many friends move to the likes of Nashville or Portland or Austin – cities that, while much less diverse, offer an urban environment in which it is feasible to invest in property without being part of the 1%.

I certainly think this change is for the worse. High costs are discouraging people from coming, or staying, here. Part of what makes this city so amazing is its diversity of all kinds – I fear we will continue to lose so much of that, in the face of rising costs which simultaneously push people out and segregate groups.

The Blue Condominium strikes something of a contrast to its Lower East Side surroundings

JZ: Brookyln is regularly cited as having many ‘gentrified’ neighbourhoods. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
LB: I couldn’t possibly have a simple answer to that question. Gentrification, as I understand it, means that a neighborhood has an influx of development that encourages (mostly white) people from higher economic strata to move there. My issue with this is that prices go up for everybody already in the neighbourhood – both residential and commercial rentals can skyrocket. This pushes people out, forcing them to move from their homes because they can no longer afford to remain. How could that be a good thing?

At the same time, being a ‘new’ New Yorker, and a white middle class female, I have been a gentrifier – during my senior year of college I lived in Harlem with some friends for example. It was just the closest neighborhood to school that we could afford, and I didn’t really understand then what it meant to gentrify – I just went to the most convenient, affordable spot. So I understand how gentrifying can seem inevitable – all New Yorkers are looking for the most convenient, affordable spot in a supply and demand economy.

JZ: And you see this happening in front of your eyes?
LB: I work in a low income predominantly Latino neighbourhood. I see white families who have come in and bought brownstones [generally expensive property, named for the material they are clad in] all huddling together in the morning waiting for the schoolbuses that take their children to ‘better’ schools, further separating them from the community in which they live. It makes me angry.

In my view there are ways to be a ‘better’ gentrifier. First off, get to know your neighbours, and secondly, support local businesses. These steps do not address the larger economic realities of housing or commercial development, but I think becoming a part of a community is far better than pushing one out as if it isn’t worthy.

My response is, of course, a snippet. One can hardly think of gentrification without thinking of race, a construct that has led to economic deprivation and denial of access to opportunity for millions of people. I think gentrification is painful because it reflects this history – and often continues it.

JZ: What do you make of the Blue Condominium? [A luxury apartment block in the Lower East Side, seen by some as a symbol of the area’s gentrification]
LB: I just know that as ugly. But luxury buildings in working class neighbourhoods are so rapidly built – they keep popping up everywhere.

JZ: Many thanks Lauren. The US100 may well come back for more of your wisdom.
LB: Please do! I’m very glad to offer any input.

US100 Track 11: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll