Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bronx Gentrification

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.


dcr said...

Maybe if it's (gentrification) done according to the people, by the people, for the people, it won't be a negative experience anymore. Maybe even good for the neighborhood.

Lefty said...

First of all, nice poster art.

The part I could not get over was "national chains that best serve everyone in the community". Is Target really the only was to improve a neighborhood?

Caleo said...

I sympathize with these folks, but I'm not sure how you stop a new demographic from moving in.
Generally, cheap rents initiate a first substantial wave of gentrification. People who can't afford to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn look further afield.
Nothing is going to be done by the people, for the people because the people in the Bronx are already a diverse group with very different opinions on what should happen and how. This is an example of diversity hurting the effort to fight gentrification before the fight gets off the ground. No one is on the same page, or even reading from the same book, so to speak. There is no unity on the issue, and as with the the LES, white activists tend to be completely out of touch with the interests or desires of the Latin/Black/Asian communities,who themselves can't agree on anything.
Many of these people actually want national retail.
No one wants to be priced out of a neighborhood they have lived in all their lives, but they do want access to better services.
I've worked/socialized with many Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, many from the South Bronx, and seeing 7/11 and Kmart, etc. doesn't bother them in the least, and they shop at those places without a second thought. This attitude leaves many non ethnic white activists flummoxed.
Different communities and social classes have different ideas about what gentrification means, and many white activists don't even know how to communicate with people in these communities.
It's hard to fight gentrification when most of the folks in the community want and will gladly shop at national chains.
They actually want

Anonymous said...

What were the races of the audience and the people you quoted?

Anonymous said...

As I posted on another site...

The problem is that there is little that can be done. The most local government can do is slow down the larger developments, and not zone as rampantly as was done elsewhere. But, gentrification sort of occurs on its own. The developers "decide" an area is ripe for development because the people already have.

Young, economically flexible people from other places move into a neighborhood because they like its character and the cheap rents. Their presence brings in more people like them. Some stores open to cater to them. Which makes the neighborhood even more attractive, and attracts the tier above them, economically mobile young professionals. They also want cheaper rents and more character, but they can pay higher rents than the last wave, and they don't want TOO MUCH character. Their presence leads to an increase in local police enforcement, which drives down crime, and dramatically increases property values. Higher-end businesses move in. More professionals move in, including those with families. Police enforcement increases, the neighborhood becomes squeaky clean, a handful of very high-end businesses move in, and a handful of genuinely rich people move in.

This is where it would be lovely to stop. It's where West Harlem is right now. The neighborhood is now safe, pretty, and full of BOTH old local stores and higher-end businesses. There's a mix of poor, middle and rich residents of nearly every background. ...Unfortunately all of this success has now drawn the attention of developers, and here come the condo towers, which begin a full hyper-gentrification process, with tower after tower going up, and rents increasing by 100% in a decade.

The bottom line is that the process is a self-feeding machine that is driven by the nature of the national economy and gestalt, not what Community Boards do. Right now, young people continue to move back into cities in droves, shunning the suburbs. As long as that continues to happen, and the real estate market stays healthy, these cycles will continue no matter what anyone does.

Ed said...

I'm also convinced that much of the problem with gentrification and hypergentrification in New York is driven by the increased concentration of wealth globally. If the elites decide they want to take over a place, there is nothing to stop them.

The city government could have slowed the process, but stopping it would have meant somehow disconnecting from the global economy, which is hard to see this town doing. It sucks for New Yorkers, because the only places that will be able to resist this process are hyper-local, isolated places where outsiders (and hence refugees from hyper-gentrification) are not welcome.

Brendan said...

One significant step would be for the city to enforce the rent laws proactively, instead of placing the burden on tenants who often don't fully understand the rules and can't afford lawyers. Sounds like a minor thing but I've come to believe it would make a big difference.

laura r said...

bronx is where the creative action is. its far away but happening. basically its the blks & latinos who have the art scene. as for chain stores, that doesnt mean gentrify, but it does mean ugly, again small businesses are pushed out.

aeolius said...

To read some of the comments one could believe that blacks and latinos were the original settlers of the Bronx.In fact the Bronx was mostly white well into the 1950's. Of course blob-busting the rise in crime, arson and "Fort Apache" were nothing compared to chain-stores coming in.This is merely a white return.
Life continues to change and you have to go with the flow.

Space Pope said...

As a past resident born in The Bronx, I can say to the poster above that The Bronx may as well have been originally settled by 'Da Bruthas' and Latinos, since it had been abandoned by the caucasian populace in favor of the suburbs due to urban blight from economic implosion.

Blacks and latinos basically took it from there and, eventually, managed to make it somewhat liveable, even though it was fraught with hazards of a wide variety. This lent it an energy and sense of excitement and a unique style many other cities just didn't have.

Later generations of caucasian kids, who would have forgotten why their ancestors left The Bronx in the first place, see the dramatizations on TV of living in The Bronx and, deciding they were tired of suburban existence, decided they wanted to have a slice of that exciting pie. This was relayed to me by the first white guy I ever saw at ten years old in The Bronx. "Westchester is just so stale, so I came here." Then he left when his hubcaps and car radio kept getting stolen.

But others came, and kept on coming. That attracted the attention, eventually, of people looking to meet the demands of the caucasian populace, and so here we are today. Abracadabra.

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is that unless you own something you don't really have a choice. It's not politically correct... but it's true. It's the nature of renting. Areas with high percentages of renters get gentrified in the new "re-urbanized" U.S.

Jonas Bronkus said...

The war on poverty was a war on the middle class with the sole intention of destroying the enclaves of fine upstanding Americans. The Bronx was the worst casualty. Simply put the migrants from the Southern US and Caribbean went about torching the place and scaring out the nice people who lived there by robbing them and pushing them down the stairs or knocking them in front of a moving train. Now people want to come back to the Bronx, nice people with education, training, and jobs. They (we) want our buildings back in good condition, not the slums they have become. Buildings are still burning down, go take a walk up Jerome Avenue, Morris Avenue, the Grand Concourse. This must stop, this must change. We cannot live like savages, we have inherited a beautiful borough with amazing architecture. It is time to let it shine again.

Anonymous said...

the former residents are to blame for allowing bronx to go down the toillet.

they should have hired all the retuning vets to be hired guards with authoridty to take out all the trash, ha ha, haaaa..
cant run from these problems they must be faced head on with force and willingness to kill each and every family member who allowed or knew of the perpetration of these events.