There is no “Sweet Spot” for displacement:
A response to “Is Gentrification all Bad?” (NYMag 2/2/14)
Recently my film El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem was featured in NYMag by reporter Justin Davidson, as part of a larger piece entitled: “Is Gentrification all Bad?”
The article, after a tour of some of NYC’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods (including my own) concluded:
“Gentrification can nudge a neighborhood up the slope; decline can roll it off a cliff. Somewhere along that trajectory of change is a sweet spot, a mixed and humming street that is not quite settled or sanitized, where Old Guard and new arrivals coexist in equilibrium. The game is to make it last.”
It made me think… where in East Harlem is that sweet spot? Was it the Jorge Botanica owner being pushed from the storefront he’d occupied for 58 years along with 5 other small businesses? Claudio the barber moved after 60 years at his storefront?
Or maybe its the 1,400 tenants at risk after their affordable housing complex was put on the market for 500 million dollars just last week?
Gentrification = Development = Progress > Decline
Throughout the piece, “gentrification,” “development,” “progress” and ‘change” are used interchangeably. The opposite of these are viewed as decline.
Davidson’s argument: Sure, sometimes progress can happen too fast, but its better than the blight our city saw in the 70’s & 80’s. No one wants to go back to the Dark Days right? We should find some happy medium….
The “Dark Days”
For decades, politics in NYC have fed into the ever constant fear of returning to the “Dark Days.” Given the dope epidemic, crime, union manufacturing jobs headed south, redlining ending private investment in communities with more than 5% people of color, public disinvestment in the form of planned shrinkage, incentives like the GI Bill to move to the suburbs, highways to get you there there, and millions of black and Puerto Rican immigrants moving to NYC, those who could leave the city did. This process known as “White Flight,” took much of the cities tax base with it.
No Me Dejes!
City Hall has done much over the years to bring back the wealthy and ensure they never again flee NYC.
Through the 421A Tax abatement alone, NYC subsidizes luxury development to the tune of over 1 billion dollars a year.
Davidson presents an egalitarian view of the cities tax break for developers:
“all over the city, developers reap tax benefits by erecting luxury buildings and earmarking 20 percent of the apartments for renters who pay far less than their neighbors. A group of visiting developers from Mumbai was thunderstruck by that custom: They couldn’t imagine why well-off New Yorkers would voluntarily share their enclaves with the poor.”
However, the 80/20 policy was never intended to be a progressive affordable housing plan. It was a tax break given to luxury developers without precondition until 2007. When such a break was no longer politically tenable, the 20% of affordable units became a compromise to maintain the tax break.
Developers don’t even have to build the affordable units on site. The wealthiest luxury condo in NYC recently purchased credits to move their affordable 20% to the outskirts of the city. Do these breaks continue because white flight is still occurring? Do these breaks continue because developers and city government value income diversity? Or is it because the real estate industry is one of the biggest donors to NYC political campaigns?
Oddly enough, “income diversity” has been one of the most common arguments for gentrification from academia and the media.
Davidson extols Chelsea and the Upper West Side (UWS) as “sweet spots:”
“Chelsea and the Upper West Side—two of the wealthiest districts in the nation—still make room for low-income residents in NYCHA projects. “Those are neighborhoods where gentrification has been meaningfully tempered,” says Brooklyn city councilman Brad Lander, a staunchly progressive ally of Bill de Blasio’s.”
But this is revisionist history. The Upper West Side and Chelsea didn’t build projects because it fostered income diversity. Projects replaced the tenement slums of the mid 20th century and were built on some of the least desirable tracts of land the city had. You may see public housing behind Lincoln Center, but decades ago that neighborhood was Old San Juan Hill. Over 20,000 Latino families living there were displaced to build Lincoln Center (Full Video Here) Public Housing on 62nd and Amsterdam isn’t a treasured testament to income diversity, but all that remains after development went into hyperdrive.
It’s true that NYCHA is one of NYC’s last buffers against the complete gentrification. However, considering the closure of UWS community staple Big Nicks and average 1br apartments averaging over 3k a month, over 4k in Chelsea, if this gentrification is “tempered” where does that leave the 80% of New Yorkers making less than 70k a year? Or the 40% making less than 21k a year? What “Sweet Spot” is this even remotely close to?
And quite honestly, given the Upper West Side’s recent uproar over proposed homeless shelter on 95th street it does not sound like residents are jockeying for any more income “diversity.”
And that’s the shit that makes me mad.
Income “diversity” is a virtue in poor communities, not in wealthy ones. It was a virtue to bring in more diversity of income to my El Barrio when Bloomberg wanted to demolish community centers for luxury skyscrapers. But it’s never considered a virtue to bring in lower income residents into wealthy neighborhoods.
Why? Because in our city:
↑ Property Values = Progress
People sometimes ask why I’m still working on the issue of gentrification. When are you going to move on to doing something else? Each time I tell them this: to care about gentrification is to care about almost each socioeconomic and political problem that faces our city today.
Because whether it’s stop and frisk, education, sanitation, jobs etc: they all affect property value.
Better schools, police presence, cleaner streets= raises property values.
Public Housing, Section 8 housing= lowers property values.
Gentrification’s displacement comes from the rising value of land.
Of course, our communities want nice things, but we want them. The problem is, nice things raise land value. When land values rises, the only ones that benefit are the ones that own the land.
70% of New Yorkers Rent
93.6% of East Harlem residents Rent
So during gentrification, while the district “develops” so does the rent. Unless our paychecks also “progress,” 70% of NYC, or 93.6% of East Harlem, is eventually on its way out. In a city like NYC where there is no such thing as commercial rent regulation, small businesses are just as if not more susceptible to this “progress” in rent.
“Is development all bad?”
Of course, development isn’t all bad. Our communities have fought tooth and nail for nice things. Our communities rebuilt the South Bronx, East Harlem & Brooklyn after the city let them burn to the ground in the 70’s. Our communities are still littered with shuttered firehouses, closed, while our communities burned to the ground.
So do we want to return to the “Dark Days?” Of course not. But just as there was nothing natural about planned shrinkage, there is nothing natural about warehoused walkups that still litter miles of city blocks as we live through the worst homeless crisis in our city since the Great Depression. There is nothing natural about the city sponsored gentrification we are seeing today.
Make it Plain
Development doesn’t have to cause displacement. But gentrification, by definition does. Using “gentrification” & “development” interchangeably frames opposition to gentrification as opposition to progress.
Opponents of gentrification are not against progress: we’re against “progress” defined by the removal of the poor and working class. There is no “sweet spot” for displacement.
Solving the Problem
Solving gentrification isn’t seeing what can we get from someone else’s plan, and how many tax breaks we have to give away to keep it from disappearing. Solving gentrification requires taking control of our resources, of our land, making a plan and then, developing.
As Maria Poblet says, “Gentrification is not natural. Displacement is not inevitable. Everyday people, when we come together, can change the course of history.”
There are many alternatives to gentrification, here are just a few:
Community Land Trusts
Subsidies for Neighborhood Small Business instead of outside multinational developers
Increasing our Supply of Public Housing
Keeping the Public in Public Housing
For more on what you can do:
5 things you can do to stop gentrification in NYC
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If you have any ideas for future screenings, big or small, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. The goal is to ensure what is happening to East Harlem/NYC is clearly stated and debated, through all corners of the city. This can only happen with your support.
Thank you for your support, for the film, the cause, and our community.
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