Changing landscapes. Changing neighborhoods. Changing cultures. New York City and the five boroughs is an expansive area that is brimming with diversity and opportunity, but an inevitable constant is change. New York City is constantly evolving as a result of economic, political, cultural, and social progression. The question that stands, however, is whether this change is necessarily a positive change. Gentrification is one of the prime factors facilitating change in the Big Apple. The word gentrification originates from the word gentry, meaning those of noble birth, which in the English language refers to those of the social upper class. The term was introduced by the English sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, when she discussed the changes in urban areas through her book London: Aspects of Change. Today, the formal definition for gentrification is “the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, correlating to a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture” (“PBS”). Gentrification, more informally, is thought of as being the kicking out of a neighborhood’s poor in favor of the rich. The effects of gentrification in NYC are multifold. In addition to causing astronomical increases in rent, it also results in the expulsion of residents, decline in neighborhood diversity, and decrease in small businesses. Although there may be some who aver gentrification to be a phenomenon causing positive change, upon further scrutiny it becomes evident that gentrification in New York City is a negative effect of urbanization and should be thwarted as it marginalizes and ostracizes people of the lower income strata.
To begin, it is important to understand the relationship that exists between urbanization and gentrification. In regard to urbanization, there are two facets to the concept. The first is concerned with the movement of people from rural and suburban areas to urban areas. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than fifty percent of the world’s population lives in urban cities and towns (“UNFPA”). This number is projected to increase to five billion people within the next fifteen to twenty years. Although urbanization can cause positive economic and environmental changes, urban areas have some of the highest densities of poverty and inequality. This leads to the second facet of urbanization which is concerned with the ways in which society deals with the movement and change. Many residents in urban areas struggle with poverty, marginalization, and ostracization. Given that most urban areas are developing faster than there is urban population, most point their fingers at the concept of “urban sprawl” as being the culprit behind these social and economic inhibitors. This is where the concept of gentrification becomes a concern. Increased investment and the development of land into urban neighborhoods are the real factors that are aggravating the divide that exists between more-economically advanced individuals and less-economically advanced individuals. And unfortunately, it is the people living on the peripheral of cities that experience these exaggerated effects. Ultimately, gentrification results from urbanization because of the heightened need for cities and urban areas that offer greater perceived opportunity.
There are a number of effects that result from the process of gentrification. It is important to note that while the negatives do outweigh the opposing argument, there are a number of undeniable positive effects. One positive aspect is the increase in investment within neighborhoods. From this investment results the improvement of housing, infrastructure, public areas, and education systems. Once neighborhoods begin gentrifying, housing is one of the first aspects of a neighborhood to change. Outdated buildings are demolished, only to be replaced by swanky high rises, lofts, and apartments. For example, SoHo, the district of New York City located south of Houston Street, is where the housing conversion became greatly pronounced. Many of the dilapidated industrial facilities were converted into high end apartments through a process known as “loft conversion.” Today, the majority of the buildings within the Soho area are either newly constructed or newly renovated, as a direct result of the gentrification occurring within the past two decades. Another neighborhood change is the investment into better infrastructure and public spaces. Given that many of the new residents will demand proper services, local governments will revitalize an area to have better roads, greater street lighting, and cleaner public parks. Aesthetically, gentrification pushes districts to be up to code in design guidelines and cleanliness, which alters much of the physical appearance of certain neighborhoods. Public education systems also improve as a result of gentrification. Greater allocation of funding to education in gentrifying neighborhoods allows for schools to offer more qualified teachers, greater academic programming, and overall a higher quality education. Gentrifying neighborhoods exhibit increases in investment, which enhance the living conditions and attractive factors of these neighborhoods.
Another positive effect of gentrification is the increased presence of businesses. As a result of the new, commonly wealthier, demographic moving into the area, the proliferation of higher-end retail businesses and restaurants becomes a natural occurrence. The authors of Global Cities, Local Streets states that “globalization, immigration and gentrification are the major forces that are reshaping local shopping streets in New York City” (Zukin et al. 31). Many of these new businesses include coffee shops and cafés, chain restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques, as well as national brands such as Target, Costco, and Ikea. Increases in business have a positive economic effect by encouraging individuals and households to spend more, which overall stimulates the local economy. Orchard Street in Manhattan is one road that has seen the positive effects of commercial gentrification — transitioning from an old tenement section of New York to a trendy, sought-after area that offers a number of bars, restaurants, and shops.
Proponents of gentrification also find it desirable since it is integral in reducing crime. A plethora of studies have been conducted to empirically analyze the relationship between gentrification and crime. Research conducted by Franklin Zimring (2011) found that between the period of 1990 and 2009, there was a significant decline in crime within New York City, with this decline being directly correlated to the recent gentrification initiatives occurring within many boroughs (Zimring 2). One study conducted by Michael S. Barton, tested for gentrification and its effect on the existence of violent crime in New York City. In this study, the dependent variables tested for were the rates of assaults, homicides, and robberies committed per 1,000 residents within 55 sub-boroughs of NYC (Barton 5). The results of the study indicated there to be an inverse relationship between crime and gentrification. Barton found that in all sub-boroughs with greater rates of gentrification, there were significantly less assaults, homicides, and robberies (Barton 1139). These conclusions were echoed in a study conducted by Papachristos et al. (2011), which also demonstrated crime to be less in areas where gentrification had occurred or where gentrification was currently occurring. The explanation for decreased crime in gentrified neighborhoods comes from the determination that an increase in middle-class culture is less likely to encourage violent behaviors in lower-class districts. This also illustrates why many states and local governments advocate for revitalization efforts within certain regions. Given that gentrification and urban renewal makes towns safer for its inhabitants, many would deem this to be a desirable quality.
Although there are many demonstrations of the benefits of gentrification, it is vital to note that there are a number of consequences that affect a number of individuals. One negative effect of gentrification is a hefty increase in property prices. Data analysis by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that in many gentrified areas of New York rent prices experienced dramatic increases between the period of 1990 to 2014. Some of these areas include, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Central Harlem, the Lower East Side/Chinatown, Bushwick, East Harlem, Bedford, Mott Haven, and Washington Heights. All of these areas saw rent prices increase by more than 27 percent, with the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint seeing the greatest increase at 78 percent (“CityLab”). These increases in property values cause a slew of repercussions for current residents, leading to more negative effects of gentrification.
As prices of properties and rent spike, original residents may be evicted or forced to move given that the price of their property is no longer affordable. The displacement of individuals and the decrease in neighborhood diversity are a given once gentrification takes hold of an area. To the dismay of former residents, many are forced to live in areas on the periphery, which are often much further removed, associated with higher crime and a lack of governmental services. One recent instance of displacement occurred in NYC’s Chinatown, where a family claimed that a development corporation applied for permits to construct a new apartment complex on a plot of land, which had an existing building comprised of rent-controlled housing. In the end, the family was unscrupulously evicted and the building demolished before the developer had even received the permits from the city. Cases like these occur because many landlords and developers are more concerned with attaining larger profits from their renewal projects than they are concerned about the wellbeing of their tenants.
From the displacement of incumbent residents stems the change in the racial makeup of gentrifying neighborhoods. A study conducted by CityLab found that in gentrifying neighborhoods of New York the number of white residents increased from 18.8 percent in 1990 to 20.6 percent in 2010, while the number of black residents decreased from 37.9 percent to 30.9 during the same time period. In gentrifying areas such as Washington Heights, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, the number of Hispanic residents also experienced a decline by more than 10,000 residents between the years of 2000 and 2015 (“CityLab”). Changing demographics is certainly a result of gentrification; however, it has become alarming that this change in demographic seems to exclusively displace people of low income and individuals of color. This ostracization is arguably the factor causing once vibrant, culturally rich areas to deteriorate into bland, homogenized regions.
Those opposed to gentrification aver that it is a force destroying local businesses in favor of larger chain stores and restaurants. This idea is echoed in the sentiment, “in gentrifying neighborhoods, traditional immigrant mom and pop stores began to be replaced by art galleries, boutiques and cafes […] From the East Village to Williamsburg, streets in working-class neighborhoods that had been dominated by low-price stores yielded to gentrification by students and hipsters” (Zukin et al. 31). Orchard Street is where many small businesses got the metaphorical boot. Originally, this street was a haven for immigrants and their corner stores; however, today commercial gentrification has resulted in a wide-scale disappearing act of these small-scale businesses. This lack of immigrant run shops leaves a gap in the cultural development and livelihood of neighborhoods.
There are number of areas in the New York City that have either undergone gentrification or are currently in the process of gentrifying. One specific area that has undergone a profound gentrification process is the New York sub-borough of Harlem. This area of New York began as a Dutch settlement in 1658 and remained as unsettled farmland for decades. It was not until the late 19th century and early 20th century that the development of Harlem into a residential area began. With the completion of the Lexington Avenue IRT subway line in 1904, residents from far and wide soon began to pour into Harlem. Many of these residents were Eastern European Jews, Germans, and Italians. Most of these new residents were attracted to the major entertainment center that Harlem had become, with its newly built musical theatres and moving picture cinemas. Around the same time, there was a mass migration of African Americans into Harlem. Over time, the neighborhood became a hub for African American culture and business (“CUMC”).
In recent years, Harlem has seen tremendous periods of booms and bouts of gentrification causing many of its original inhabitants to move away. This area was once heavily dense with cultural diversity with a wide variety of traditional restaurants and art shops to choose from. In a report published by New York University Furman Center in 2015, Central Harlem ranked as the 2nd most gentrified area in all of New York City (“Curbed”). This area witnessed a dramatic increase in educated residents and single-family households. Rents in Harlem continue to rise, while historic buildings such as the Renaissance are being torn down at a rate faster than any resident would like to acknowledge. In an article published by the New York Times, Michael Henry Adams begs the question as to whether gentrification is truly a force of good for all or just for the few. He states, “to us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people” (“Adams, 2016”).
After reviewing both positive and negative effects of gentrification, one question that remains is whether society, as a whole, appreciates gentrification or not. Lance Freeman examined the answer to this question by conducting a study to collect qualitative data from residents of gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City. Some of the responses received were extremely disgruntled with the changes that gentrification surfaced. One response stated the process as “pushing poor people out of the city and in the process breaking up the power bases of their struggle” another said, “it’s gentrification, but you could also almost call it apartheid by both race and class” (Freeman 59). Although there are proponents of gentrification that argue it promotes economic and social advancement, it seems that many victims of gentrification see it as the root of many economic, social, and moral evils.
So is gentrification a positive change? It is plausible to say that the costs of gentrification cast a shadow on its benefits. Rather than improving the living quality for all, it is hindering the economic and social wellbeing of a large portion of society. While some may argue that it is gentrification that is responsible for eliminating the “ghettos” of the world, what they may fail to realize is that it is at the expensive of one clear group. Those of lower socio-economic strata are subject to losing their homes and livelihoods at the mercy of those pushing for gentrification to erect skyscraper housing and upscale coffee shops. Economically, they are marginalized with no remorse. Socially, these poorer populations are ostracized from society. Pushed to live on the outskirts of cities as a result of high rent prices and immoral real estate coveters, it appears as if society is committing a grave social injustice but is choosing to sweep the issue under rug, instead of resolving it at the core.
In order to promote economic and social advancement for all, the process of gentrification must be reworked to address the needs and desires of those that it does not immediately appeal to. Two tools to mitigate the impacts include a minimization of resettlement and offers of compensation. By limiting the number of residents that are being displaced and ensuring that they are moved to a relatively close neighborhood, the livelihoods of these people are respected and their neighborhood ties are kept intact. In terms of cost analysis, it seems that resettlement efforts have the potential to become too costly for a city to do. The city must ensure that infrastructure is adequate and facilities are updated, as well as be certain that there is some form of compensation for those that are being resettled. In the long run, the less people needing to be resettled works to be more cost effective for the city. To avoid immoral displacement, it is important for the individuals affected by gentrification to be compensated. Although the World Bank has policies for resettlement compensation, it should ultimately be up to the local cities and governments to establish fair compensation agreements. These recommendations essentially serve as a buffer—lessening the impact of the negative effects of gentrification and encouraging advancement for all, including those of the lower income class. In the end, change in landscapes, neighborhoods, and cultures can be positive but only if that change is for the good of all New Yorkers and not the select few.
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