In the Shadow of Gentrification

A discussion of gentrification is raw. It strikes an intimate chord, slicing into long-term community ties and financial pressures around where to live. It also has a slippery quality. Scholars disagree on a definition. Without a clear focus, fatalistic anger and nostalgia obscure essential questions like: What is gentrification, exactly? Are there different forms of it? And can anything be done about it? Yet with accelerating gentrification affecting many aspects of New York City life from the availability of affordable housing to neighborhood diversity—and, according to some, even jury composition,1—we need a practical discussion uniting personal and local perspectives.

 

1. Where I’m from

The edge of Fort Greene Park in the 1970s. © Chester Higgins Jr./chesterhiggins.com.

Issues of gentrification grip me given the radical change my neighborhood, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has undergone since I was born in 1976 and raised there. For some time, one of the only restaurants in the area was on DeKalb Avenue. I’d slide into a booth at Cino’s for spaghetti or lasagna. But the nerve center of our street was the corner store. Ralph Jawad still runs the store that his father bought after arriving from Palestine. I was told growing up to go there if anyone bothered me. A knot of men sat on milk crates flush against the store’s wall and baseball bats were tucked behind the counter to scare off break-ins and muggings (some by boys as young as 13). “We used to tell them, ‘don’t come back, give them a chance in life,’” Ralph mused recently.

I see our friends and neighbors clearly; some have stayed. John and Amy Cameron used police blotters to weave mystery stories for a magazine that soon folded. Amy went to work in off-track-betting and John published a novel. Another couple, John and Justina Dietze made their life in Fort Greene in 1970 after returning from Justina’s native Liberia, where John was in the Peace Corps. During their house renovations, Justina carried planks of sheet rock on her head, while John struggled with a few at his side. When she sees me, she still shouts “daughter” from across the street, holding up her arms for a hug.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Fort Greene, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, attracted a diverse group of people, both racially and economically. New, dynamic small businesses, many black-owned, opened in the area. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I noticed significant changes. And this was before I’d heard the term “gentrification.” Crime went down. Neighbors moved and more businesses came and left. Some were priced out, though fortunately not the corner store, protected by ownership of the property.

Today the process has multiplied and mushroomed with rising rents and brownstones selling in the millions’ accompanied by a constant flow of unsolicited letters to homeowners from speculators with pitches like “My phone continues to ring and my email is still blowing up from people who wish they could buy a home just like yours.”2 Most long-time residents could not move back if, for whatever reason, they had to leave.

 

2. What is gentrification, exactly?

The unclear meaning of the word “gentrification” seems to dog discussion. Conspicuously absent from the debate in New York is any exploration of the term. As a result, the concept gets muddled. While a New York Times article portrays a Lower East Side artist lamenting the loss of his community as a victim of the “irreversible tide of gentrification,”3 he himself benefited from the dilapidated state of the neighborhood in the 1980s, buying a building there. I understood the confusion as I plunged further into academic literature, studies, and opinion pieces. “Gentrification” was coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass, who posited that, “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the social character of the district is changed.”4 For me, this definition raised several questions. Is the process ever so clear-cut? And is this class-focused concept relevant for the United States, where social and economic factors are so often intertwined with race?

Since Glass’s initial use of the term, scholars, journalists, and public policy experts have put forward various definitions, without general agreement. Some view gentrification in the context of capitalism as a process of disinvestment and investment, which creates the conditions for high-income buyers to profit from low-income neighborhoods. In contrast, others view gentrification as purely positive, likening it to regeneration. Still others see it as a socio-economic process, highlighting displacement and racial issues.

Amidst this confusion, there are those who advocate dropping the term altogether. In response, the authors of a 2007 book, Gentrification,5 argue that in contrast to softer words like regeneration or renewal, the term gentrification highlights social issues linked to change, like displacement. Splitting hairs on the definition will get us nowhere. Therefore, they argue, the debate should focus on the social and economic consequences of gentrification, and then on how to address problems with relevant policy. I see their point, but it seems self-serving. How can solutions to issues resulting from gentrification be developed without defining gentrification itself? And even if solutions are proposed is it possible to build the consensus needed to implement them when there appears to be as many definitions of the process as actors involved in it?

I turned to cultural references. In Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, made 27 years ago and set in Brooklyn’s predominantly African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the character nicknamed Buggin’ Out uses the term. He yells in frustration “Man, mother fuck gentrification!” when a white guy inadvertently rolls his bike over his new sneakers, leaving a mark. More recently Zadie Smith used the term in Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets, a fictional story told from the exasperated point-of-view of Miss Adele: “At the curb she stepped over a frigid pool of yellow fluid, three paper plates frozen within it. What a dump! [...] Don’t half gentrify—follow through.”

The term is part of our landscape. In 2011, urban geographer Tom Slater counted six special issues since 2003 of journals on gentrification. The word has an inexorable quality. When I reach for a replacement, I am struck by the lack of neutral expressions: “regeneration,” “renaissance,” and “renovation” all seem to prejudge the debate at the outset. Like “gentrification,” they pigeonhole neighborhood change, classifying it as either negative or positive. However, only gentrification, with the word “gentry” embedded within it, highlights class or socio-economic issues, which in the U.S. are often intertwined with race. Therefore, it has the potential to coax us into seeing the fullness and complexity of a process occurring in fits and starts over decades. In contrast, terms like renovation or renaissance suggest a sudden or organic change and focus on a neighborhood’s improvement (reduction in crime levels or an increase in local businesses). This ignores the socio-economic and in some cases institutional factors, which lead to an area’s degeneration. And in a sense, it is the decline of an area that makes its renovation possible. So I return to “gentrification,” since it has the potential to evoke this larger context.

 

3. Are there different forms
of gentrification?

In 2001, a duo of scholars, Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith, developed a stage model6 for describing New York’s gentrification—one which resonated with some of my own experiences in Brooklyn—where “new” arrivals are upset by the behavior of “newer” arrivals. Whatever is unfolding doesn’t seem uniform, but spans several decades. People who moved to the neighborhood only a few years ago tell me that they are already priced out. Are gentrifiers being gentrified?

Hackworth and Smith describe three waves. The first spanned the 1950s to 1973 and involved sporadic efforts, ending with an economic recession. The second runs through the 1980s and ’90s. The pace of gentrification increased, as did resistance, epitomized by the 1988 Tompkins Square riot, which, fueled by tensions related to homelessness, led to violent confrontations between police and protesters. Following a recession, the third wave began in the 1990s, with corporate developers as well as federal and local governments playing a more active role in support of the process.

What Hackworth and Smith ignore is race. In 2001, the Brookings Institute developed a primer on the issue as it relates to gentrification. The authors observe that, “often, though not always, gentrification has a very clear racial component, as higher income white households replace lower income minority households.”7

Yet Fort Greene offers its own twist, as observed by Francis Morrone in a neighborhood guide published in 2010 by the Brooklyn Historical Society. Hewrites, “gentrification in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill has drawn a lot of attention among sociologists because, unlike in many other places, it has not dramatically altered the racial profile of the community. As many of Fort Greene’s gentrifiers are black as are white.”

Nonetheless, over the past few years, the process feels as if it has accelerated at the expense of the neighborhood’s diversity and community ties. One long-time resident, though white himself, lamented, “white people are coming out of the ground like ants!” He was referring to the subway, and drew his hands up in an animated gesture to show the magnitude of the invasion. In fact, census data backs up his impression with a decrease in the black population of Fort Greene and neighboring Clinton Hill between 2000 and 2010.8 But it’s not just the numbers that illustrate the change; there is a perceived loss of community in neighborhood interactions. When I asked a former resident when she felt the neighborhood changing, she pointed to an incident at the corner store when a man ordered a latte. He was upset to discover only regular coffee on hand. “Where the fuck does he think he is?” she asked herself.

Despite the appearance of many forms of gentrification, I believe the term should be defined simply as social and economic neighborhood change. Enlarging the field of view of the definition would lend perspective to the debate on gentrification by including all phases of neighborhood change from degeneration to regeneration. Too often only the most obvious aspects of the process are addressed. For example in New York, even though gentrification started as early as the 1970s, the term only gained traction in mainstream media over the past decade with accelerated city-wide changes.

With a longer lens on the process, it becomes clear that context is critical to understanding gentrification. Government policies starting in the depression era regarding housing led to de facto segregation not only in New York, but in cities across the United States. Without access to adequate lending, the housing stock in inner cities degraded. Yet context is not uniform even within the same city. Issues of race and class have played out differently across New York with variations from one neighborhood to another.

 

4. How does it happen?

South Portland Avenue turned into a film set this year. © Chester Higgins Jr.
chesterhiggins.com.

People tend to situate themselves as the initial dot on the thread of time. I do it. It’s easily done, especially if you have grown up in an area. It’s your lifetime and that feels like “always,” as in “this neighborhood was always.” But insular perspectives frustrate exchange. So I thought to go back to the origins of Fort Greene.

The initial growth of the area in the 1800s mirrors some of the tensions of modern-day gentrification. Before the 1847 establishment of Washington Park, later renamed Fort Greene Park, new immigrants, mainly Irish, settled on the area’s unoccupied farmland. The earliest population growth happened north of Myrtle Avenue in proximity with the waterfront activity of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the same time, with the expansion of ferry crossings from Manhattan to Brooklyn, developers eyed the area as Brooklyn’s population fanned out to the south and to the east. In the 1840s, Fort Greene’s farmland began to be divided up for residential development.

Tensions rose as middle class residents moved in. A new resident of neighboring Clinton Hill, in a letter to the Brooklyn Eagle from the 1840s, complained that “On every side filthy shanties are permitted to be erected. […] It is indeed a fact that many […] keep swine, cattle, etc.”9 Yet in 1867, when Fort Greene Park was redesigned, the area to the south and east of the park had become fashionable.

Since its beginnings, Fort Greene included a significant African-American community. By 1840, blacks involved in shipbuilding lived in the area, and Colored School Number 1 opened in 1847. In 1870, one half of Brooklyn’s African-Americans lived in Fort Greene, mostly north of Myrtle Avenue, but some lived in the elite area. The third African-American woman to earn a medical degree, Dr. Susan Smith McKinney, established her practice in the neighborhood’s fashionable section, and in the 1890s served both white and black patients. There were pockets of neighborhood resistance, however. When a prominent black restaurateur purchased a house in the area, the New York Times ran the 1894 headline “They Want No Colored Neighbor.”

As early as the 1930s, the neighborhood encountered difficulties. With the coming of the depression, many of the homes began operating as rooming houses to make ends meet. The housing crunch continued in the 1940s during the war, exacerbated by the proximity of the waterfront, which brought service men and dockworkers, mainly transitory, into the neighborhood. The Fort Greene public housing projects, completed in 1944, first met the emergency wartime housing needs of workers and military personnel, before fulfilling its intended purpose of serving low-income tenants at the war’s end.

In the mid-20th century, black people continued to migrate from the South to the North. Following a first wave settlement in Harlem, many came to Brooklyn. Fleeing racism and official segregation, African-Americans faced housing discrimination in New York, including redlining, which pushed blacks into marginalized and declining neighborhoods. The policy of redlining may also have encouraged “white flight” to the suburbs since, in addition to black neighborhoods it targeted mixed areas, where white residents “found their home values decreasing as the government refused to insure mortgages for new buyers.”10

In the 1960s manufacturing hubs left New York, which became a focus of the service industry. Some speculate that this created the conditions for gentrification. Moving to Fort Greene in 1971, my parents were part of a wave of young professionals, artists, and writers, among them numerous gay men and women. Both groups wanted to break from the suburbs of their childhood.

Throughout the 1970s, the influx into the neighborhood was sporadic and didn’t pick up until the next decade, when an African-American creative class concentrated in the area, including the director Spike Lee, the singer Erykah Badu, and musician Branford Marsalis. The 1980s also saw the crack cocaine epidemic. One resident recently reminisced to me about crack vials in the snow. When she encountered a blank look, she responded, “Your mother probably didn’t explain those to you.” Yet crime did not temper the area’s continued regeneration.

Just as decline was not simply a matter of market forces, Fort Greene’s revitalization didn’t just happen. Beyond homeowners refurbishing brownstones, residents, community organizations, and small businesses actively contributed to the area’s improvement, and, importantly, to the preservation of its diversity. The Pratt Area Community Council (P.A.C.C.), established in 1964, focuses on “keeping people in their homes, developing and preserving affordable housing, protecting tenant rights, and helping community residents become first-time homeowners.” Another group, the Fort Greene Landmarks Preservation Committee, now the Fort Greene Association, lobbied successfully to obtain the designation of parts of Fort Greene as a historic district in 1978. Finally, small business owners, many of whom are African-American, “helped to stabilize and revitalize Fort Greene during the 1980s and 1990s.”11 Selma Jackson, co-owner of the 4W Circle of Art and Enterprise, a business incubator on Fulton Street which ran for 17 years starting in 1991, said of the business “people felt that it was a community space” and “it made them feel good about their neighborhood.”

Ironically, the recession of the late 1990s brought some respite from the rapid pace of gentrification. But momentum picked up after 2006, when the neighborhood was spotlighted in TimeOut magazine. The same street—South Portland Avenue—described in a 1937 New York Times article as mostly rooming houses was chosen as having the best block in all of New York City. Yet the early neighborhood grass-roots efforts that stabilized and revitalized the neighborhood went unrecognized. In a 2006 letter to then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, the South Portland Block Association was quick to point out that the TimeOut designation was the result of “decades of work on our homes, trees, and businesses by individuals and civic associations.”12

Since then, I’ve spotted numerous tourists, holding guidebooks in a host of languages, stumbling up our block. While pride wells at such attention paid to “my” neighborhood, there is also a sense of losing what I’ve loved. In 2009, Nelson George, a writer who moved to Fort Greene in the 1980s, encapsulated this feeling when he wrote in the New York Times: “I’ve stayed anchored to the area, still inspired by the creative energy I felt when I moved here as a young man. […] Yet I fear that this new Fort Greene of high-rises, planned sports arenas, and traffic jams won’t be a very congenial place for a middle-aged black author. Thing is, I’m not sure who I’d be somewhere else.”

 

5. Can we do anything about it?

Gentrification is linked to larger economic and social issues. But can we address income disparity and the urban legacy of racial discrimination solely through a discussion of gentrification? No. However, we can recognize that certain processes affect certain groups and individuals more than others, and try to mitigate negative consequences, such as displacement, the loss of neighborhood diversity and community ties. Public policy efforts should aim at equitable development, preserving and fostering diverse communities.

But just having that conversation can be difficult, whether it is between newcomers to an area and long-time residents, renters, home- and business-owners, or government agencies and community groups. Deeply personal and economic interests are at stake. The value of one’s home or rent may fluctuate with gentrification. Business owners may face the tough decision of moving or adapting to the new tastes of a changing neighborhood. The issues swirling around the process are hard to untangle. To either spur or slow down change, government agencies have powerful tools at their disposal, such as rezoning. Moreover, even individuals or groups ostensibly in support of affordable housing may not want it in “their” neighborhood or building, as evidenced by separate entrances for market-rate and affordable units in certain New York City buildings.

At the same time, people defy stereotypes. Take for example former Fort Greene resident Nichole Thompson-Adams, who has written about the “push-pull of class, race and gentrification” in her one-woman show entitled Black Girl, You’ve Been Gentrified. Though a real-estate agent, she found herself gentrified and had to leave Fort Greene. Using her experience to explore both sides of the issue with humor, she highlights the tension between liking some of the changes (a cheese or coffee shop) but not the attitudes of some of the people moving in. Gentrification is a “derogatory” term when said, she observed, but “much grayer” when lived.

Despite the complexity, discussion in the mainstream media tends to gravitate to clearly labeled targets like yuppies and hipsters. However, we get a more nuanced view from a study of those living in gentrifying neighborhoods done by Lance Freeman, who conducted a series of qualitative interviews detailed in his 2006 book, There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. While his work on displacement from neighborhoods is often used to demonstrate that gentrification has positive effects, Freeman’s research shows that gentrification, whatever improvements brings, produces changes regarded by long-term residents with a healthy dose of cynicism. I, myself, have seen notable city service improvements in my neighborhood over the past 10 years after years of neglect. For example, mail delivery, once spotty, is now regular. For another, Fort Greene Park, once littered with broken glass, is now the site of a dispute between dog owners and other park users.

Freeman notes that some of the long-time African-American residents of neighboring Clinton Hill see these improvements as an affirmation of white privilege reflected in the level of neighborhood services. Compounding this is the fact that new arrivals are likely to have different social preferences and ideas for the neighborhood. But more than this, displacement hangs like a cloud over long-time residents, especially those renting apartments without regulatory controls.

Concerns of displacement are often batted away by pointing to market forces at work. And it would be absurd to think that a group of people could stop the flow of individuals into a neighborhood, because it’s “their” neighborhood. At the same time, as Freeman points out, long-time residents have lived in and in some cases maintained marginal neighborhoods, therefore for them to have to move out just as the area improves is unjust. There should be access for low-income households to neighborhoods post-gentrification. I agree with Freeman that socioeconomic diversity should be more than just a passing phase. The impact of diversity, which I found so personally enriching growing up, is intangibly difficult to measure, but very real.

Public policy tools exist to help people stay in their communities—I would say especially older people. Washington State has tax deferral laws, which allow residents to defer taxes against the sale of their house. In New York, regulatory rent controls have helped some residents of Fort Greene remain in the area. But there remains a need for more affordable housing, despite the lack of political support for it. Mandatory inclusionary zoning could require new developments to include affordable housing units, which is currently optional in New York. With respect to small businesses, loans and funds could be put in place to assist them in taking advantage of the new markets which gentrifying areas often bring.

The change in New York’s leadership and other political positions, such as Public Advocate, may open up opportunities for discussion and action. In early May, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented a 10-year plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in New York. A key aspect of the plan is mandatory inclusionary zoning, though the parameters of the measure are still to be developed. Nonetheless, politicians generally do not lead on issues, particularly those challenges that are controversial. Community activism is likely to be the force that maintains focus on critical matters, such as affordable housing. Activism could take the form of building organizations around specific issues like Citizens Defending Libraries, establishing coalitions of shared interest bringing together new and long-time residents and importantly putting pressure on politicians to initiate innovative policy and back positions on issues (through phone calls and letter-writing) which are unpopular with developers, corporations, government agencies and others who may have a keen interest in gentrification.

Communities breathe, smile, and exist through the lives of their individual members. Community change affects people’s lives; radical change can disrupt it. Instead of losing ourselves in stereotypes or anchoring arguments in nostalgia for a disappearing New York, pertinent questions should be asked about the consequences of gentrification, both positive and negative, such as: how are changes in the area viewed by residents? If long-time residents or businesses are leaving, is this by choice or are they being forced out? And have neighborhood changes resulted in a loss of socio-economic diversity? Local community organizations and residents must have a say by organizing and advocating around specific recommendations on neighborhood issues like housing and public spaces. The debate should dig into what is practical and viable for people before its too late.



NOTES

  1. Nicole Akoukou Thompson. “The Williamsburg Effect: The Gentrification of Brooklyn is Being Reflected in the Court System,” The Latin Post, June 17, 2014.
  2. Halstead Property postcard.
  3. Alan Feuer. “Last Bohemian Turns Out the Lights,” New York Times, April 4, 2014.
  4. Ruth Glass. “Introduction: Aspects of change,” in London Aspects of Change, ed. Centre for Urban Studies (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1964).
  5. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, Gentrification (New York, London: Routledge), Kindle edition.
  6. Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith, “The Changing State of Gentrification,” Royal Dutch Geographical Society, 2001, 467.
  7. Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard, “Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices” (paper prepared for Brookings Institution, 2001).
  8. Tamy Cozier and Annesofie Brochstedt, “Census 2010: A Dramatic Decline in Black Residents,” The Local: Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, May 23, 2011.
  9. Carl Rux. “Rich Man, Poor Man: A History of Fort Greene,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 2005.
  10. Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law,” ProPublica, October 29, 2012.
  11. Stacey A. Sutton. Contested Spaces and Countervailing Practices, Dissertation, Rutgers, 2006.
  12. Letter provided by Joan Reutershan from her informal neighborhood archive, affectionately know as the “Joan Files.” December 2, 2006.

Contributor

Elizabeth Kissam

ELIZABETH KISSAM is a freelance writer working on a history of a city block in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

ADVERTISEMENTS