Recently, the Daily News reported on the existence of a city-sponsored ethnographic study entitled "The Effects of Neighborhood Change on NYCHA Residents." Published back in May, the study looked at three housing projects across the city and concluded what we all know: Gentrification is not good for the poor.
new park at Hudson Yards
This may seem obvious and not worth the time and expense of a study, but it's actually not obvious at all to many people. Journalists today are asking, "Is gentrification all bad?" They're urging, "Gentrifiers, hold your heads high." They go so far as to call gentrification "healthy for cities," decrying it as a "myth" that's "not as bad for the poor as you think." They even holler about how "Gentrification is good for the poor."
In conversations about gentrification, we're constantly hearing about how it brings in wonderful things for all to enjoy, like fresh produce to the corner grocers. (Always with the fresh produce!) And when it comes to the mass influx of corporate chains, we hear about how they might be a good thing for a neighborhood because they offer cheap food and jobs to lower income people of color. Well, that's what our small local businesses always provided. Until they were all evicted.
I understand. People of means don't want to feel guilty and ashamed about enjoying nice apartments, convenient pre-packaged salads, and $5 lattes. I sometimes enjoy those salads myself. But we all need to face reality, even if it hurts. Gentrification is bad for poor people. While crime in gentrified neighborhoods goes down (so it's not "all bad"), pretty much everything else sucks for the poor.
You know what else sucks? Bloomberg's plan, which de Blasio is continuing, to shove luxury towers onto NYCHA land. The Daily News says de Blasio hasn't even read the study. He should read it. And then think a little harder about whether or not this plan is really going to heal the "tale of two cities."
The study looked at three projects, but I'm focusing here on the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, located in Chelsea, one of the most hyper-gentrified neighborhoods in the entire city. I've written often about the High Line's negative impact and the mass evictions of small businesses here, including a cluster of little shops on 9th Avenue directly across from NYCHA housing.
The study is long, so I've pulled out some key quotes:
"there is an undercurrent of fear of being displaced. Even if their rents remain affordable, rising costs of everything around them can feel like pressure to leave the neighborhood."
"there are no mechanisms to help mom-and-pop establishments where NYCHA residents used to shop and services they use (like laundromats) stay in business, and few jobs at the new retail establishments seem to materialize for NYCHA residents."
"the closure of mom-and-pop establishments that catered to NYCHA residents—such as laundromats, Chinese restaurants, and delis—due to rising commercial rents and their replacement with art galleries was a major theme in how residents experienced the turnover in the neighborhood’s character. As one eight-year Fulton resident put it, 'with them removing a lot of the familiar businesses…and putting in these new high-end stores…and these useless art galleries, a lot of people in our community feel like there’s less options around them as far as being able to go out,' and 'interact with other people in the community that are outside our development.'"
Said one resident: “There’s a gallery on every block of Chelsea...they’re everywhere... It’s nice art and we get it but why like 25... Let’s put things in that the community needs. We don’t need galleries. There used to be a deli... The people who used to make it affordable for us.”
"Long-term residents (both NYCHA and non-NYCHA) perceive that Chelsea is losing its historic character of economic diversity, its local identity, and its political activism. Their perception is that it is becoming more of a global neighborhood and less of a local one. This means that new developments cater to tourists and new wealthy residents; residents acutely feel the loss of mom-and-pop shops that had been touchstones of the neighborhood for years and sometimes decades. These dynamics create a sense for NYCHA residents of being in their neighborhood but also being separated from it."
"NYCHA residents were excited about the cultural and recreational opportunities in the neighborhood but frustrated with the crowds of tourists and that many are inaccessible because they are too expensive."
Said one resident, “Chelsea Market, they [are] taking over the world so they got people come from all over the world and when they come, they get off these big buses that emit all kinds of just ugliness up in our windows... And they just stumble off the bus and bump right into you. They don't see you especially if you're black. They really don't see you and they just walking along into you and they'll stop dead in front of you and they start back. Oh, my goodness, I'm like, ‘let me in my house, please.'"
Many of us love the art galleries of Chelsea, but they do nothing for the poor. When Bloomberg rezoned the "Special West Chelsea District," he and Amanda Burden protected the galleries, while offering no protection for existing small businesses--almost all of which have since been evicted to make room for High Line and Hudson Yards luxury development.
The developers say that luxury housing on or close to NYCHA land will raise the pride and spirits of the poor, who should feel fortunate to be in such close proximity to upscale properties and their residents, as if riches could rub off. The new buildings, say the pro-development crowd, will attract new amenities to the nearby streets, including upscale boutiques, specialty coffee shops, and high-end restaurants. Won’t the poor appreciate that? The answer, clearly, is no.
The poor and working class can’t afford to shop in those places. They’ll be looking in from the outside at tantalizing goodies they can never have. How that is supposed to raise anyone’s sense of pride I can’t figure. Furthermore, as the study abundantly illustrates, an influx of wealthy new tenants has a negative impact on useful amenities in a neighborhood, like Laundromats, bodegas, and affordable grocery stores.
Luxury condos often come with their own private washer-dryers, so the new tenants’ money doesn’t go to the local Laundromat. Rents go sky-high and Laundromats close. So do the scrappy little bodegas and supermarkets, replaced by big-box Whole Foods markets and gourmet shops, loaded with overpriced items. Often, residents of the new buildings don’t even need to venture outside. “The kinds of upscale towers that are going up in once-blighted areas,” reported the Times, “can function as gated communities in the sky.” This is death to an existing community.
Now imagine glistening towers for the rich squashing the only open spaces available in the otherwise overcrowded housing projects of the city’s most disenfranchised residents, blotting out children’s playgrounds, baseball fields, and yards used for family picnics. The luxury buildings have been planned to face away from the projects, their backs turned to their neighbors.
What will that be like, to be a single mother living on food stamps and SSD, losing your favorite park bench, the one spot where you could breathe the air and socialize, to a luxury tower, a shiny glass box that blocks your window views, plunging your little apartment into darkness? What will it be like to watch the rich people, arms full of designer shopping bags, sipping Whole Foods “asparagus water,” as they go traipsing through the former garden where your tulips once grew? How is that going to feel in your gut?
Said one public housing resident to the Daily News in 2013, “Now they have this influx of yuppies who can afford these big rents. The people who already live in public housing are going to be resentful that you built this housing and left them in shambles.” Resentful, I am sure, won’t be the half of it should this ugly plan come to fruition.
Barber shop on 9th Avenue, across from NYCHA housing, evicted. The shop was part of the community, posting information about funerals, offering deals to senior citizens. In its place today is a bank.