I asked CUNY Professor Neil Smith for a quick lesson in his area of expertise: gentrification in New York City. Here's my question and Professor Smith's answer.
Q: I am really gripped by the following quote of yours from the NY Times: “The big perspective is that gentrification has changed tremendously since the ’70s and ’80s. It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods ...it’s about creating entire environments.”
So many people say that the massive changes of the past decade in New York are "just gentrification" and "the city has always changed." How does the gentrification of today compare to that of the 70s and 80s? Is "gentrification" really the right word for what's been happening in New York City today?
A: Cities are indeed always changing and gentrification has now been with us for half a century. But that doesn't mean that gentrification is an old or even necessarily familiar story. Gentrification in the 1960s into the 1980s was quite exceptional. It represented an exception to a large scale disinvestment in the city center, the withdrawal of capital from the city in favour of the suburbs, the movement of many in the white middle classes out toward the suburbs. Buildings and entire neighborhoods were abandoned, peaking in the late 1970s--"the Bronx is Burning!" In this context, gentrification happened in one house here, a street there, perhaps a whole neighborhood, but it was the exception to the larger forces shaping urban change.
That all changed in the 1980s. Gentrification became a systematic attempt to remake the central city, to take it back from the working class, from minorities, from homeless people, from immigrants who, in the minds of those who decamped to the suburbs, had stolen the city from its rightful white middle-class owners. What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban "frontier" became in the 1990s broad-based market driven policy.
If the rehabilitation of a brownstone in the West Village or Park Slope typified gentrification in the 1970s, by the 1990s and 2000s it was the disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill-in of the previously low-rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan--Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, etc., and now the superfunded Gowanus.
So yes, gentrification is a more appropriate term for the process today than it was even 50 years ago--quite literally, the take-back of the city by a privileged middle class or gentry. The class remake of the city was minor, small scale and symbolic in the beginning but today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city. Almost without exception, the new housing, new restaurants, new artistic venues, new entertainment locales--not to mention the new jobs on Wall Street--are all aimed at a social class quite different from those who populated the Lower East Side or the West Side, Harlem, or neighborhood Brooklyn in the 1960s.
Bloomberg's rezoning of, at latest count, 104 neighborhoods has been the central weapon in this assault, but it was built on Giuliani's explicit revanchism--his revenge against the street--the public, cultural lever that wedged the systematic class retake into place.
You can find Neil Smith's books at the St. Mark's Bookshop.
The Bloomberg Way
Bobos on Bergen