When we first viewed our new apartment, I loved the exposed brick, the cute little porch, and all of the natural light. Just outside, I noticed mom-and-pop shops and locally-owned restaurants on every corner, matching the strong sense of community among our neighbors. Living with my partner’s family, we were eager to move out as soon as possible. But with a little more research, we discovered that the company who owned our building owned nearly every unit on our block, and several others in New York and New Jersey. My understanding was confirmed that this neighborhood, less than a mile from gentrified-Historic Downtown, was changing fast. I felt guilty, but I knew that this apartment was just on the cusp of what we could afford, and we moved in.
Within a few weeks, we felt comfortable, having established a rapport with the owner of the Latin American restaurant next door and a few wonderful neighbors, making ourselves at home both in our neighborhood and in the more youthful downtown. One of my favorite shops instantly became Another Man’s Treasure, a beautifully curated vintage shop in Historic Downtown. But a few days after my first visit, I read an article from Racked, “Are Vintage Stores Harbingers of Gentrification?” implying that vintage shops are counted among the yoga studios, art galleries, coffeeshops, and luxury apartment complexes stereotyped as the earliest marks of gentrification. I considered my new obsession with this high-end vintage store as the wave of guilt set in. I couldn’t tell if it was my love for vintage denim and self-expression, or my understanding of the implications and historical context around gentrification – but I couldn’t let that article go.
For a moment, I believed I was reckoning with my own most recent role in gentrification – renting property from a massive real estate company that practically specializes in flipping apartments in working class neighborhoods. But I also know that, contrary to popular belief, the renters – the “hipsters”, the artists, the baristas, and the fashionistas – don’t create the conditions that cultivate sterile, empty luxury housing complexes. I read everything I could find about gentrification. Maybe it started as a means to absolve myself, but what I found was confirmation that when we think and talk about gentrification on a mass scale, we’re often only addressing the effects of gentrification, not the causes. And without that crucial differentiation, we can’t understand who to blame – or how to stop it.
When we talk about blame and gentrification, the cultural newbies receive the criticism. Yoga, art, food, and coffee bring in elements that should make a culturally diverse city even more vibrant. But these “invaders” are often targeted as the sole culprits of gentrification, when that’s simply inaccurate. Studying the root causes of gentrification, instead of just the effects, clarifies that capital, not culture, drives gentrification. According to journalist Peter Moskowitz, (PublicAffairs; How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight For The Neighborhood) gentrification doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and there’s no individual directly responsible for the changes it brings. Realistically, gentrification takes place across decades, sometimes centuries. As Moskowitz explained in a recent podcast, the plotting begins behind closed doors, in boardrooms and corner offices where government officials and developers make deals to “clean-up” the city – basically a decision to remove undesirable sights (and people) from view. While “hipsters,” artists, and coffee connoisseurs aren’t making the conscious decisions to affect comprehensive change in a neighborhood, governments and developers make those very deliberate decisions.
As Moskowitz breaks down, cities were once (and are often still) thought of as places of burgeoning opportunity. Thought of as a haven where poor and working class folk could achieve stable careers and upward mobility, cities once held the keys to a better life complete with affordable housing. But we’re a product of our past, and when the federal government divested from cities following World War II and invested in the suburbs, that left cities with limited funds. Using New York City as an example, Moskowitz explains that cities started using gentrification as a major source of revenue. In New York, documentation stretching back nearly 100 years reveals the plan to gradually eliminate manufacturing and factories (and thus, the poor and working class) from cities in favor of luxury apartment complexes that would attract wealthier residents and their bank accounts. But the revenue argument can’t explain the pervasive and ceaseless nature of today’s gentrification.
Their initial plans worked, attracting the young and the wealthy. Now, many cities aren’t facing the same revenue troubles that first sparked gentrification efforts. Many cities are seeing budget surpluses thanks to the migration of tech companies. As the recent race for Amazon HQ 2 illustrates, cities are spending more resources trying to court tech companies than they are on affordable housing – even as those companies continue displacing people. As Moskowitz says, the contemporary city, “looks like a funhouse version of its former self.” For example, The West Village in New York still markets itself as an artsy, creative neighborhood while no artists can actually afford to live there. Meanwhile, mega-mansions and fortessed townhouses surrounded by high-end stores that change tenants regularly are becoming the new-norm, one that inevitably ends in entire blocks of ostentatious desert. That reality has already come to fruition in Manhattan’s “Billionaire’s Row” on West 57th street, where most of the housing is owned by the ultra-rich, who leave approximately 50 percent of those homes vacant for most of the year. According to Moskowitz, “Billionaire’s Row” is the perfect example of gentrification realized: the neighborhood acts as a bank – it’s no longer meant for living, but for storing capital.
Currently, there’s a homeless shelter approved for “Billionaire’s Row” to accommodate the record high number of NYC homeless, met with massive backlash from the neighborhood – most of whom “aren’t rich,” according to the New York Times. The members of “Billionaire’s Row” outraged about a homeless shelter appearing on the bustling NYC street aren’t worried about safety, they’re worried about aesthetics – they’re worried about maintaining the very specific image promised by the developer who polished off each and every luxury high-rise on the block. Some opponents have expressed concern that the homeless men who’ll be occupying the shelter are being set-up for failure, as they can’t afford to live in a neighborhood where a burger costs $20, which proves that this isn’t about the care and well-being of the homeless population, it’s about removing the unsightly homeless population. Because no matter where they are, the homeless can’t afford to live anywhere – especially in a rapidly gentrifying city. So where do we suggest they go?
While everyone is technically a victim of this system – most of us will be priced out of our neighborhood eventually – there’s been a historic effort to distance people of color, specifically, from wealth – red-lining and broken windows policing being the most relevant examples. Redlining practices began in the post-war era, when city planners and banks would literally outline areas where people of color lived, consciously deciding to deny people in those areas loans and mortgages – actively denying those individuals housing wealth and preventing transformation in certain communities. Broken windows policing is still heavily influential in the development of police practices, where police “crack down” on petty offenses claiming it will stop more serious crime before it starts. In reality, such practices were first used by transportation officials to remove African American men and the homeless from areas of the city attracting wealthy white residents. Harsh policing in predominantly black and brown communities, the death of Eric Garner, and gentrification are all tied to broken windows practices. According to journalist Ben Holtzman:
From the start broken windows has been inseparable from policies to promote economic development and gentrification. The policy has not only accelerated the criminalization of people of color, but also worked hand in hand with pro-development schemes that make more and more New York City neighborhoods un-affordable.
At present, African Americans and people of color have lower levels of wealth than 50 years ago, due to decades of being denied access to housing assets. Meanwhile, diverse communities where everyone can afford to live are romanticized, as there’s very little activism being done to ensure their permanence. New Orleans has the highest number of residents who’ve lived there for generations than any other city in the United States with a history of community organizing, but when there’s an influx of developers and housing turnover, the memory of those communities gets erased, and it becomes harder to organize. While gentrifiers are partly to blame, cities have sewn these challenges by turning to private investors for work that should go to public works. New York prides itself on “inclusionary zoning” where a luxury 200-unit condo will go up with 20 dedicated to “middle and low income housing” – to the naked eye it looks like success – yet, at year’s end that’s created, according to Moskowitz, the abysmally low total of 4,000 low income housing units, while nearly 1.5 million people will apply for those spaces.
Gentrification might make cities appear more aesthetically pleasing, but its not solving underlying issues – poverty and its associated complications remain violently malignant. Instead of making strides toward eradicating poverty, we’re now living in cities where we can choose to simply not look at it anymore. Last week, I saw a man in a business suit get down on his knees to hear the story of a homeless man, and it brought me to tears. Not because it was moving – because it was shocking. As stated so eloquently by the editors of n+1:
So many early gentrifiers saw the city as place for emancipation … But public spaces were ruthlessly privatized; working-class people were evicted from their apartments and homes; the homeless were chased away from the parks and squares. In the absence of an egalitarian political program (e.g., renewed rent control, expanded public housing, living wage legislation, uniform funding of public schools, re-industrialization), the culture—modest, diverse, interactive—of our sacred “communities” tended relentlessly toward homogenization along the lines of price per square foot. Gentrifiers became guilty accomplices of inequality. They thanked the poor for their poverty—which allowed them to buy into the real estate market—and the rich for their riches—which later on ensured rising property values.
So many millennials – often the individuals solely blamed for the rising tides of gentrification – grew up consuming the lavish alternate reality of Carrie Bradshaw on the streets of a lovely, luxurious, sexually liberated New York, or the idea that drowning yourself in a $7.00 matcha latte helps to properly ignore the suffocating weight of student debt. Meanwhile, many of us are moving into neighborhoods where poor and working class individuals are shut out. While the cities and developers are to blame, there’s more that gentrifiers can do in defense of the neighborhood.
Shop in your neighborhood. Don’t order Seamless on Friday night – pick up a pizza or some new cuisine from the mom-and-pop shop on the corner. I wrote this post to defend my own passion for vintage shopping and to clarify that vintage stores aren’t causing gentrification – but when you shop exclusively at trendy thrift shops instead of the Goodwill down the street, you’re hurting the neighborhood. Not everyone can afford those curated boutiques, so take the time for a long hunt at the local Savers or Goodwill. Don’t get your groceries delivered from Blue Apron or Whole Foods – walk down to C-Mart or the local bodega for what you need. While none of these efforts will halt any landlord or developer or politician’s insatiable greed, they’ll contribute to the community, giving some of those small businesses the means to temporarily fend off those trying to sell them off to the highest bidder.
The editors of n+1 explained: “The gentrifiers now have the opportunity to recognize themselves as what they are — the dominated members of a dominant class — with the power to ally with the displaced.” Gentrifiers have the money to spend, a crucial force in deciding what’s profitable and what stays. You can defend the neighborhood, and create community where many heedlessly embrace luxury desert. And you can do it in those perfect vintage jeans, too.