Last week, we talked about hyper-gentrification, the brand of urban change we're living with today, a very different process from old-fashioned gentrification. In my long essay, I referenced "brownstone fever" and this 1969 feature in New York magazine.
(For an analysis of how New York magazine helped to market a new urban lifestyle, see Miriam Greenberg's Branding New York.)
The 1969 article is a fascinating historic artifact, an in-depth piece about the New Yorkers who were moving out of their "aseptic uptown apartments" and making new homes from fixer-upper brownstones in no-man's land neighborhoods like Chelsea, the East Village, the Upper West Side, "even Brooklyn." Says the article, "Strange but true: People from Scarsdale are now alive and well in Brooklyn; contented in places called Fort Greene and Boerum Hill and Park Slope." From the writing, it's clear that the magazine's readers might never have heard of these far-flung locales. For them, Brooklyn might as well have been Ultima Thule. Said one resident of Clinton Hill, "To people from Manhattan, this whole place is Siberia."
Who were these first-wave gentrifiers? Textbook editors, museum administrators, television writers, mostly (not all) white couples and gay men, middle-class people who braved lesbian whorehouses and gun fights. They showed up with $25,000 in cash--saved from years of working and supplemented by the deaths of relatives--and couldn't get mortgages because the neighborhoods they were moving into had been redlined by the banks. Houses were available for less than $20,000.
Many of New York City's first gentrifiers believed they were doing good--helping their neighbors and preserving the diversity of the city. They worried about the future, about what might happen if the neighborhoods got too fixed up.
Of course, it wasn't so much the fixing up that was the problem. In the late 1970s, the city government got on board, realizing that gentrification could be used as a tool to push the poor out of the central city, and to remake New York exclusively for the rich. The city started partnering with banks and later with corporations, making gentrification the core of contemporary urban strategy, a scheme that came to fruition under Bloomberg.
They got the problem started, but today we could be nostalgic for those old-school gentrifiers, those editors and writers with their quaint notions about diversity and preservation, their utopian dreams for mixed neighborhoods of poor and middle class people--an image that's a far cry from the increasingly homogenized and sterilized luxury city of the 2000s.