Monday, June 22, 2015

A Conversation on Gentrification

I chatted via email with DW Gibson, author of the recently published book The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century. Filled with the real voices of New Yorkers, from both sides of the gentrification fence, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in what’s happening to our city in this era of rapid displacement, runaway development, and socioeconomic injustice. Just before our virtual chat, Gibson had come from moderating a conversation on art and gentrification out on Governor’s Island. That got us started on our own conversation.

JM: I was out in Bushwick this weekend for the Open Studios event. It gets bigger every year, and the demographic is shifting--more Greenwich housewife types and financiers in alligator shirts. Near the center of this event, on Grattan Street, a local family had set up a barbecue. Right nearby were all these kids doing performance art. I wondered: What is the relationship between these two groups? Do they communicate and in what way? Which brings me to the question: Is there such a thing as a "good" gentrifier vs. a "bad" gentrifier?

DWG: I think the word “gentrifier” is so loaded that it’s hard to get back to its provenance and make it a useful term. But I certainly don’t want to get bogged down in semantics.

I think what separates a “good” gentrifier from a “bad” gentrifier is his/her willingness to *listen* to the people who have lived or worked in the neighborhood for a long time. A gentrifier who wants to have a positive impact on the neighborhood first needs to learn what that neighborhood is all about — both historically and for the current residents. And then look for ways to get involved. It’s not necessarily about arriving in a neighborhood to bring your ideas there. It should be more about finding out how your ideas and energy can fit into the ideas and energy that are already in place.

That applies perhaps more specifically to artists but also all gentrifiers in general. And backing up a bit, the best starting point for a gentrifier is to look up at the world they inhabit, notice buildings, say hi to the people you see. It’s the best way to start and it’s so simple and achievable for everyone.

JM: Looking up is so important. Reminds me of an anecdote in your book, where one woman says that the new people in her neighborhood are all plugged into headphones, not paying attention, not looking at anyone. What message do you think that sends? And what impact does it have on the people of a community?

DWG: That’s one of the most important points made by an interviewee in the book. It was Shatia Strother, a long-time resident of Bed Stuy. She has the personal campaign of running up to people who have their headphones in, and she jumps in front of them and yells, “Look up!” Which only Shatia can get away with — without getting killed — because of how she comports herself and that big smile.

The “connectivity” that our wireless devices allow comes at a cost to our relationship with the physical world. The physical world — the streets we walk down, the places where we live and work — matter less because we’re always talking to someone half a world away. This is not about fearing technology, it’s about giving thought to how much we value connecting with the people who share the room or the bar or the office or the subway car with us. Historically, a defining characteristic of New York, particularly in terms of other American cities, has been that, for better and for worse, we are in each other’s faces. We encounter all kinds of people in our daily lives, in all of the small and big interactions we have. And this characteristic of New York is diminished by modern technology that de-emphasizes the physical world.

I feel like we’re less and less open to connect with the physical world, and that is not good for the overall health of any given neighborhood or community.

JM: Shatia is my hero, just for that maneuver. I wish I could get away with it, but I’d probably get punched.

It’s interesting to me, the cultural element of this looking down at phones and being “connected.” I visited East Harlem a few years ago—and maybe it’s changed already—but I went up there to check out the development that was going on, and I noticed that no one was on their phone. I was on 116th Street and it felt like the old New York sidewalk, by which I mean pre-2000s. People were paying attention. We all regarded each other.

Is this a class thing? A race/culture thing? I realize, of course, those intersect and are difficult to impossible to disentangle, especially when we’re talking about gentrification. This comes up quite a bit in your book.

DWG: That’s interesting to hear about East Harlem. I was spending a lot of time up there last year and I don’t think it’s so much the case anymore that there aren’t many phones. I think your observations 15+ years ago are more about the passage of time and cell phones becoming increasingly affordable.

It is a relentless march on the part of humanity toward more wireless connectivity! And I think this is a dangerous thing for cities. It’s hard to have this conversation, though, because it quickly sounds like a conversation about not wanting to embrace the power and potential of the modern age, which is not what it’s about at all. It’s about taking a look at the inverse of the digital “connectivity.” It’s about taking seriously the consequences of this “connectivity” and how it diminishes our ability and/or will to connect with our neighbors, both residential and commercial.

JM: These observations in East Harlem were more like 5 years ago, but that's how fast this stuff is changing.

Your book ends up being very much about racism. Was that something you expected going into it? In general, what did you expect to find when you began the book, and where did you get surprised--or not surprised?

DWG: I moved to New York in 1995 and have learned a lot about the city in my time here, so I certainly expected that race would come up as an issue. I think when I started this book I really wanted to stick to the fact that, at its heart, gentrification is a class issue. But that fact alone ignores this country’s, and this city’s, history with a host of discriminatory practices in housing and business. So in the US, and in New York, we cannot extract the race issue from the class issue. They are, in effect, one in the same.

The fact that stood out to me is that the real problem is the institutional racism — much more so than interpersonal racism. Very few people I talked to expressed racism or bigotry. The problem to solve is the historical, institutionalized systems that have disenfranchised New Yorkers over generations. (Redlining, etc.) Those practices still matter because they still affect individuals and families today — and in some cases those practices are still out there! Which is completely true and terrifying.

JM: One piece that doesn't come up so much in your book is the impact of gentrification on small businesses.

DWG: In terms of small business, two interviewees were important for me--Tarek Ismail and Barbara Schaum.

Barbara has been a leather worker on the Lower East Side/East Village for nearly 40 years, and I think she speaks to a lot of change from the point of view of a small business owner entrenched in her community.

I was really excited to include Tarek because here is a thoughtful young man thinking of opening a business in Harlem, but he is worried about doing so in a way that is not positive for the community. He is of Palestinian descent and, because of that family history, he’s very sensitive to the idea of adding to a neighborhood with a very rich and very certain — African American — history. I think if more business owners had Tarek’s sensitivity and conscientiousness the city would be much better off.

On the whole, I do think the commercial discussion gets lost sometimes in the residential discussion. (That’s one of the things you are doing so well — if I may compliment the interviewer.) And while the residential side of the discussion is of primary importance — we all need a place to lay our heads at night — we can’t forget the changes in New York on the commercial side.

The one caveat to the commercial conversation is that we can’t let it become about nostalgia. Land use is always evolving, I think, so it’s okay if one place closes and another comes in, in broad terms. The problem isn’t new shops. It’s the nature of those shops and the question: Who are they serving?

The sad reality is that so many small businesses are being replaced by big box stores. These types of places: 1. Lead to a further homogenization of what the city has to offer and 2. Are far less likely to be involved in the neighborhood, far less likely to be a part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Also, the commercial rents have gotten so out of control in so many neighborhoods, the only companies that can move in to these spaces are big corporations who can take a loss at that particular location but still make it work financially because they view those high-rent locations as advertisements, more so than actual retail outlets. So they basically become three-dimensional advertisements instead of actual stores.

JM: (I need to get in a plug here for #SaveNYC, where we're trying to protect small business and the local streetscape of the city.) I could ask so much more, but in all the interviews you've done, is there a question you wish you'd been asked but haven't yet?

DWG: There are two nuggets of info in the book that I’m surprised haven’t generated more questions:

1. The fact that the Bowery Mission made a market rate offer to the Salvation Army for their building on the Bowery, so they could expand their services to the homeless population. (Never reported before this book.) Of course, the Salvation Army did not take that offer and sold, instead, to the Ace Hotel chain.

2. The EB5 visa program that Alan Fishman talks about. This is a visa program that allows foreign nationals to buy a green card by making a $500,000 investment in a distressed neighborhood. The fact that we are allowing the world’s wealthy to buy residency in the U.S., and this is not part of our immigration discussion, is nuts!

JM: I’m glad I asked that question. And I do have one more. In the book, Celia says there are "ways to have less crime and more economic justice without displacement." In all the discussions you had, did you discover the secret formula for that ideal situation?

DWG: I agree with Celia that these are achievable things, but they require heavy lifting.

With regards to less crime without displacement, we would need to radically rethink how we approach policing altogether. Law enforcement would need to be ingrained in the community and understand it is in place to *serve* the community.

More economic justice without displacement can be achieved on a policy level using several tools. Two things that would immediately help: raising wages across the board, and making developers hire local. But even beyond that we can rethink giving tax breaks to developers. Why do we need to incentivize building in New York in 2015? And we can create taxes targeted at those with the most resources (expansion of the mansion tax, taxing those who do not occupy the multiple homes they buy, etc.).

No secret formula to solve all. But certainly clear steps we can take now to get moving in the right direction.

Find your copy of DW's book at your local independent bookshop.


Anonymous said...

Great interview ! I am very curious as to why the salvation army did not take the full price offer from the bowery mission. Did you inquire any further ?

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the Salvation Army went to the hotel people and squeezed them for more money. The Salvation Army is in bed with the real estate developers. The Bowery Mission operates in a building that is a national landmark. They cant do major construction and expand their building. The NYC Rescue Mission got a major gift in a will and used the money to double the size of their building at 90 Lafayette. They now have- for the first time- beds for women as well as more beds for men. The Bowery Mission doesn't have those options. They have to buy property to expand. Nobody in the real estate community wants to sell to the Bowery Mission so they can expand in Manhattan. There is a push from real estate types to see if they can get them to REDUCE their services and not have homeless on the Bowery. If they bought some property in a remote section of Queens for example- someplace with limited subway service- these folks would be fine with that. This is the 'word on the street'. Maybe JM can get an 'official' statement from the parties involved. Id love to hear the Salvation Army's response.

Anonymous said...

Worth noting that the Salvation Army has been trying to vacate elderly residents from its Williams Residence on the Upper West Side - to enable luxury development of course.
The timetable was slowed a bit after elected officials got involved - but still it will happen and where are the elderly residents going to go?

Pat said...

I was happy to see Barbara Shaum get recognition in the book. I bought some of her bags and they wear like iron, or, well, like leather. In addition to being a talented and tenacious East Village craftswoman she is also a very kind individual.

laura r. said...

unfortunatly this is everywhere, as well as outside the US. you can not stop the foreign investors. no mayor or governer can. everything is about the bottomline & we know what that is. its global. america & europe has been bought off & sold. welcome to oneworld. as for policing, thats another story. the fish rots from the head down as i say. there was a terrible incident that happend as we all know. im usually on the side of the PD but not this time. remember mayor deblasio pushed the PD to arrest the people selling loosies. there was a quota for arrests. they went overboard w/a person who was resisting, rather than asking him to move elsewhere. blame this untimatly on that tax for cigarettes. the mayor turning cops into tax collectors. when all was said & done the twofaced mayor did not see that the these police were indicted. bingo. we knew where that leading. massive riots backed by the mayor who made sure the PD got off. why not? the biggerfish w/bigger rotting heads from federal saw to that. its a well thought out system. stop&frisk needs to reinstated as the citizens in those untouched areas want it back. crime & murders are through the roof. most gangbangers dont have permits. NY is a santuary city & more refugees/immigrants are coming in. there are places that these people live (brooklyn queens parts of harlem), im sure there hasnt been any gentrifaction in those neighorhoods. seems the oneword corps get these people in by the 1000s to work cheap. then later they get displaced. go figure. as for people on w.117st not having electric devices? i find that strange. the poorest south of the border all have cells& text. they may live w/cement floors, no inside bathrooms, ride in old pickups, but they are texting. good read, but i need to read it again.

Anonymous said...

Of course racially discriminatory housing cuts both ways in this town: traditional "minorities" are vastly the majority in the ranks of those fortunate enough to be given government subsidized (ie taxpayer gifted) housing (including rent-controlled and rent-regulated units).

With over a million units on these units dole, this represent a massive handout at the expense of those who pay their taxes and do not have the benefit of such government charity.

DeBlasio wants affordable housing? Get rid of the government handouts and repeal rent regulations. There would be a wave of units on the market that, while raising rents for those who have been living on taxpayer charity for generations, would be cheap in comparison to market rents and would give market-based landlords some stiff compeition.

Ahh, but that's just it: the entitled recipients of said welfare sure don't wanna give it up; and the 1% landlords of market units sure don't wanna see those suddenly de-regulated and former "public" housing units coming on line and competing with them. So the middle class will continue to be screwed. It remains to be seen how much longer this can last...

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:15 you are clueless.

Anonymous said...

i support this website and #SaveNYC and empathize with the sentiments within each.

but i have a real issue with characterizations like "Greenwich housewife types and financiers in alligator shirts", or any stereotypes based on sartorial or aesthetic preferences. honestly, it harkens to the same type of knee-jerk reaction and close-mindedness that i moved here to escape from -- e.g., "he dresses like a fag".

if you saw me walking down the street, you'd probably think i was part of the problem, because of the way i dress. but i'd hate for that, because i actually devote as much of my time and energy as i reasonably can to engage with all types of new yorkers and support local small businesses.

we should be happy that people of all walks of life -- even the ones we might prefer not to associate with on face value -- are engaged with events like Open Studios. in a city where binge day drinking is the most common weekend cultural capital now, we should embrace with open arms instead of keep our distance with a withering stare.

Lisa MB said...

Letting people buy green cards for just $500K in a "distressed" area? IE, the people who are buying up every last brownstone in Brooklyn?

John K said...

Excellent interview, Jeremiah. I loved your question about questions that remain unasked, and D. W. Gibson's reply about the visa program that allows wealthy non-nationals to buy green cards. This, along with the grotesque abuse of the H-1B visa program, are topics the mainstream media appear to have decided never to mention.

Note that someone like Donald Trump will rant and rave in racist fashion about "Mexican" immigrants, etc., with a bit of mild disapproval or no real criticism at all, yet we have these other programs that are have a destructive effect on US cities and workers, and the media won't comment at all, except in really egregious cases (as happened recently at Disney).

I also like that you and Mr. Gibson broached racism. Again, the media will take about "race," but "race" and "racism," while related, are distinctive entities, and the latter is the problem. Structural and system racism, woven into the mechanisms of US and global capitalism, must be discussed and addressed. I'm looking forward to Mr. Gibson's book based on this interview, and thank you for posting about it.

Justin Samuels said...

There isn't no such thing as a good or a bad gentrifier. As more affluent people move into an area rents go up all the say, rent stabilized tenants get pushed out and commercial rents reduce the number of mom and pop stores big time.

It's really about the economic changes to the city and how the city collects tax revenue. Not about whether an individual person is good or bad.