This past weekend, the Bronx Documentary Center organized and hosted the first annual Bronx Gentrification Conference. From past experiences at similar events, I expected a small crowd, but the place was packed to the rafters (turned away at the door, people stood outside in the cold to listen). From past experiences at similar events, I expected a docile group, but the people were angry, passionate, and desperate to be heard.
First, the panel made their opening remarks. It was, unfortunately, an all-white panel, made up mostly of people who worked in preservation and development. One man, an employee of HPD, talked about how his organization hasn't done much to bring in luxury development, but "we're pushing," because "we believe in economic diversity," and that the local community boards have been "demanding higher quality retail...national chains that best serve everyone in the community." The audience began to groan. But when he said, "If the definition of gentrification is about displacement, then, so far, gentrification hasn't happened in the South Bronx," one audience member shouted, "That's the stupidest statement I've ever heard!"
And we were off.
A mix of races and classes, the audience was a diverse group of concerned citizens from the Bronx and all over the city. People wanted to be included in the discussion, to organize, to get involved. One woman told the panel, "There's tons of us out here that you refuse to meet with because you don't like what we say and it makes you sweat." Young people asked what they can do to build community and provide political education to teens. A man from the East Village talked about the invasion of chains there, and asked why local community boards in the Bronx would want them. Audience members shouted answers: "Because they don't live here!" and "They don't know any better!"
Some people talked about wanting the benefits of gentrification without the displacement. One local woman who wanted to shop locally asked for ways to educate the mom-and-pops on how to do better business--for example, to sell fresh instead of rotten vegetables--and to "strengthen them so they can withstand a wave of gentrification." One working-class man bemoaned the loss of "a nice jazz cafe" that shuttered due to hiked rent and was replaced by, not an upscale business, but a pawn shop. "We want a nice cafe," he shouted. To which another man responded, "You put a nice cafe in my neighborhood, it's getting a brick through the window!"
photo: Bronx Documentary Center
People told stories about their decades in the South Bronx, growing up in public housing, rescuing abandoned buildings, surviving, going to college, coming back. They talked about their fear of being priced out--and their fear of "SoBro" becoming the next new East Harlem.
The demographics of East Harlem and the South Bronx, explained the moderator, were the same until just four or five years ago. Now they're completely different. If you go there today, he said, "you'll think you're in Paris."
While some believe the Bronx will be the last to gentrify, it's never too soon to get organized. As Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, told the Daily News, “the Bronx is in a unique position because there has not been widespread gentrification. It hasn’t really happened on a large scale, and we want to be ahead of the conversation.”