July 7, 2008

A New York $tate of Mind

There's a certain word that causes more upheaval, debate, and class/race warfare here in New York than almost any other. It's not the N-word, or any of George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," or any other "bad" word that's usually associated with FCC-inflated hullaballoo.

The word is "gentrification."

Put in the simplest and most popular terms, gentrification occurs when the architectural hearts of whole deteriorated/old neighborhoods -- houses, stores, warehouses, etc. -- are purchased and then renovated by individuals and/or groups of people of upper- and middle-class incomes, and then resold at much higher values. This, in turn, usually results in the existing residents of said neighborhood -- who have lower-class incomes -- being displaced because they've been priced out. This also results in the crop of buyers who usually grab up properties in that area changing from the usual, lower-income individuals to those of better means, looking for something a bit more affordable than the cream of the real estate crop.

In New York, gentrification has been occurring at epidemic levels for years, starting first in the neighborhoods of Manhattan, and spreading to the outer boroughs -- Brooklyn and Queens, most notably. Depending on what side of this price war you fall on, this is either A) the inevitable result of urban renewal, the spread of wealth, and natural growth of a populace, a metro-area-wide improvement that can only bring lower crime levels, better shopping and attractions, and more pleasing aesthetics, or B) the slow, forced oppression of a long-entrenched group of residents who, by no fault of their own other than living a life they and their families have lived for generations, are being made to leave the comfort and familiarity of their homes because a wave of real-estate moguls, yuppies, and the dreaded "hipsters" took a gander at their block and decided to stake a claim.

Although it goes against what I'm told are supposed to be my liberal ideals, I have to say that I fall pretty firmly in the pro-gentrification camp. Obviously, being a white, middle-class college graduate who's never had to endure anything less than modest means, I'm afforded the right to actually sit back and actually decide whether or not I agree with this practice; had I grown up in a poor family and had an actual connection to the "oppressed" side of this debate, I might change my stance, but probably not. More on that in a bit.

What set me to thinking a bit more deeply about this issue was this recent piece in New York Magazine about a certain black real estate developer's (Willie Katherine Suggs) strong-arm tactics in gentrifying Harlem, and how she's been vilified by large swatches of the black community there for "selling out" her people and Harlem in general. Although she certainly does seem to be over-aggressive, greedy (she labels herself as such), and puts her foot in her mouth at least half a dozen times in the article, it's hard to come out and say that what she's doing is inherently an evil, or just bad/wrong, thing, as she's been accused of doing by Harlem residents.

Suggs makes a bold (albeit true) claim in the piece that Harlem doesn't belong to the black community; it just happens that it eventually became that way. She points out that blacks didn't take part in the construction of Harlem, and didn't live there when it was first constructed as a haven for middle- to upper-class whites. What she says is true, technically, although it'll never go over in Harlem, especially in the abrasive way in which she puts it. History tends to be pretty short-sighted, and the fact that Harlem has been a cultural center for the African-American community for the past century has seemed to cement its place as "the black part of Manhattan." But in conceding to that argument, you have to consider the benefits of the other side.

When someone utters the word "Harlem," it immediately conjures up images of a dangerous, ghetto-ized place that no non-black dare tread. It's established a reputation, fair or not, that reaches well beyond the boundaries of the New York metro area. I'd lived in Ohio for my entire life until moving to NYC three months ago, and even I knew that you didn't venture north of 95th Street if you were looking for a safe neighborhood to call home. (A visit to a couple of apartments in that area confirmed this, so it's not just hearsay for me anymore.) During the crack epidemic, its crime rates sky-rocketed, and abandoned buildings were condemned and left vacant. With no foreseeable change on the horizon, there was little reason for the general population to ever change its mind about Harlem. If that's the case, does it really do a group of people a lot of good to just hunker down and accept their current, depraved living conditions as an unchangeable way of life?

This brings me back to my earlier point about whether or not gentrification actually harms existing residents. Yes, the idea of being "forced" out of your home is wrong, and it disrupts what had been the normal course of events of selling/passing on the home to someone within the family, but it's not as if people are being picked up and dropped out of their houses, left homeless and with no place to turn. What never seems to get mentioned in the gentrification debate is that the current homeowners are making money hand-over-fist when they accept offers from real estate developers. True, the developers themselves make a fat profit when they renovate the buildings and flip them, but that's the nature of a capitalist society. The "displaced" residents still wind up collecting many times more than what the house is worth, and, more importantly, are given the chance to start over in a safer neighborhood. Pride in where you came from is one thing; being forced to grow up next to a crack house is another.

If people are inherently good, and if the current residents of Harlem aren't the direct cause of crime and depravity as they claim, then the problems that eventually crippled Harlem won't follow them to wherever they move. What's left, then, is an area that is able to get a second chance, and most likely sees a reduction in crime and urban decay that's made so many areas suffer in the past. Again, my current state allows me to form this opinion from the outside looking in, but I'm aware enough to know that this wave of rising real estate prices isn't something that's ever going to change in New York.

The high cost of living is just something you have to live with in this city. (I pay almost three times as much for our current apartment in Astoria for less space than what we had in Columbus, but I also don't have to suffer the costs of car payments and insurance, and the ever-rising price of gas, so for me it balances out.) You'll have a better chance of finding a happy Knicks fan on the day of the NBA Draft than you will of finding a bottle of beer for less than $5 in any NYC bar. Promo items that you see in commercials for chain restaurants are never that cheap here. (Those $5 foot-longs from Subway? Non-existent in NY; try $6.15 foot-longs.) The cost of housing is no different, and gentrification is just a result of it.

Some of it isn't even the fault of native New Yorkers, or more specifically, Manhattanites looking to take control of the rest of the island. This piece about Europeans flooding NY and buying up real estate because of the weakness of the dollar is from last year but is no less relevant today.

It's sad to think of people not getting the chance to settle in a neighborhood they've either always known as home or hoped to do so since moving there, but change in this manner is inevitable. If we wanted to get into a "I was here first" argument and actually give weight to that bickering, I think there'd be a whole hell of a lot of Native Americans who might want to say a word or two.

In this case, at least Harlem residents aren't being plundered, sold a false bill of goods, and made to walk a trail of tears. Many are collecting fat checks for homes on blocks that haven't seen the slightest ray of hope for improvement in decades. There are 8 million people in this city, and 20 million in the greater metro area; it's naive to think that you wouldn't eventually feel the nudges of overcrowding in the most coveted 13-mile stretch of island in that area.

Like hundreds of other two-sided arguments happening every day in this country, there are no clear-cut, black-and-white heroes and villains here, just shades of interpretive gray. The beauty of America is, it's all home. Just with a new address.

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