Gentrification and Community Organizing

Jack blogs:

This Friday I’m heading to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for the premiere screening of Some Place Like Home: The Fight Against Gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn, a documentary by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. FUREE, a community organization lead by and comprised primarily of low-income women of color, has been rallying the community in a fight against the rampant development that’s going down in Downtown Brooklyn and the surrounding area. While developers, big business, and politicians alike claim they are only trying to improve the community, the development is being conducted with little care or concern for the residents and small business owners who are already there. Some Place Like Home documents the struggle of FUREE, the neighborhoods’ residents, and small businesses against the forces that are trying to push and bulldoze them out. Check out the trailer below.

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5 Responses to Gentrification and Community Organizing

  1. 1
    nojojojo says:

    Crap. I wish this had been posted earlier. I live in Brooklyn only a few minutes from Medgar Evers; I would’ve wanted to see this. Maybe there will be more showings.

  2. 2
    Sailorman says:

    Gentrification is when new residents go into an area and raise prices by raising demand, thus often causing existing residents to leave. Usually, though not always, it’a a cross cultural issue; it’s almost always a cross class issue.

    But what does a dislike of gentrification mean, exactly? What is it based on? Replacing the old spanish market (it’s been there for 50 years) with a new nautical antique shoppe sounds bad…. but, then, what’s the reverse of gentrification? In new England, there are a lot of towns where people moving to the town have changed the town dynamic substantially. Is replacing the old nautical antique shoppe (it’s been there for 50 years) with a spanish market also bad? How can you separate those two things, and label one as problematic and one as OK?

    We can’t be telling people that they shouldn’t move. And we can’t be telling newly arrived movers that they shouldn’t try to change their location to their liking. So i am unclear exactly how/whether to sign on to anti gentrification: is a change only bad if it done by rich people?

    My parent’s old neighborhood in Queens was a thriving Jewish area which is now transforming into a non-Jewish, multiethnic, neighborhood, very heavy on Asian population. Leaving aside the fact that I personally don’t care (better restaurants, mmm), should that be considered a benefit or a problem? In either case, the “old guard” are moving out. Would it be OK if the newcomers were poor or the same, and only bad if the newcomers were rich? That doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. 3
    nojojojo says:

    Sailorman,

    I think you’re confusing gentrification with neighborhood transition. What you’re describing in Queens is what happens in every neighborhood in America over time. When a community’s ethnicity or class changes naturally, as it did in your parents’ neighborhood (let me guess — Astoria?), I have no problem with it, as long as nobody gets hurt.

    But too often this neighborhood transition occurs unnaturally and is very hurtful, especially when it’s conducted with all the care and sensitivity of a pogrom. I recently watched “Flag Wars”, a PBS documentary about gentrification in a Columbus, OH neighborhood. In the film there were two minority groups, (incoming) gay white men and (established) black families, vying for the same space. The tactics used by the incoming group were appalling. They included changing zoning regulations to get chunks of the neighborhood declared historic, which allowed them to then file nuisance complaints against their neighbors for everything from parking on the street to putting up artistic porch-signs; harassing a dying woman to try and force her to sell her house; using “friends downtown” to get their own infractions overlooked and their own loans approved; and worse. There was ugliness on both sides, I should note — the black residents who were interviewed said some nasty things about their gay neighbors, and apparently the gay residents suffered a spate of muggings and assaults at one point (don’t know if the perpetrators were ever caught). But it was clear that the newcomers were using the tactics of invaders, using their greater economic and political power to slash and burn their way through the existing community.

    And this was gentle, as gentrifications go. In New York, pro-gentrification groups organize themselves into corporations to hire lobbyists, grease the palms of members of the city council, attack the funding sources of community groups organized by the established residents, sue working-class residents out of mixed buildings (that is, buildings meant to have a mix of wealthy, middle-class, and poor residents), and so on. Maybe even take over the mayor’s office.

    And the long-term implications of this are bad for everyone, IMO. I lived in Boston for 10 years until 2007. The city has been losing population for years and is only (just) growing now due to immigrants moving in. The core problem is affordability of housing, and the cause of that is (IMO) gentrification. In the 1990s, Boston was a boom town; between biotech and the internet, lots of young adults moved in, made a buttload of money, and raised the demand — and cost — of housing to astronomical rates. Even poor neighborhoods were affected, because the middle-class people priced out of Back Bay and all the places the newcomers loved had to go somewhere. It didn’t help that so much of Boston’s population consists of students, who are willing to live 4 people to a 1-bedroom. Between them and the high techers, ordinary middle-class people just couldn’t survive in the city. So many of them moved further and further out into the Greater Boston area — triggering school closures (because the students and techies didn’t have kids, and because the people moving out often were the teachers), an overall loss of jobs as blue-collar companies and industries left (there weren’t enough high-tech jobs to replace them, and then the Dot-Com blowout reduced the tech jobs), an increase in traffic and pollution (because Boston’s train system sucks, so all those people moving out to the boonies had to get cars), and all kinds of declines in the city’s quality of life. This is why I left, finally — I was a young person who came to the city during the boom, but I wasn’t a techie, so I struggled financially. I moved from apartment to apartment as I got priced out, racked up debt, took a roommate, applied for heat assistance when the oil shortage 3 years ago slapped me with $400 heating bills… Finally I realized it would be cheaper for me to live in New York, where heat and hot water is usually included in rent (unlike most of Boston), where I could get rid of my car, and where there was some lingering semblance of a rent control system to create affordable housing. But I digress.

    I should say that I’m all for neighborhood improvement. I’m a single woman; some of the effects of gentrification are great for me, like increased safety and lower crime. But I don’t think those changes necessitate the displacement of families and long-term residents en masse. There’s a way to do things, and I don’t think gentrification is the right way.

  4. 4
    Sailorman says:

    thanks; that’s a good explanation. I’m just going through a mental thing lately where I am trying to step back and look at things in a different way and ask myself whether I am starting from a preconceived notion. So it’s not clear to me whether this is all really just a way to substitute ‘Gentrification” for “neighborhood change by rich people, except neighborhood change that I like.”

    As a result calling it ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ doesn’t really seem to change things much to me, as it’s really an a prior assignment of value: again, it seems like ‘unnatural’ gets assigned to things people don’t like, while ‘natural’ is when you think the result should be considered as a benefit.

    I mean, let’s face it: neighborhood transition is very rarely ok with the old guard. Whether a neighborhood is moving down, up, or sideways, generally it’s going to change people’s lives and generally they are not going to be super happy about it. People tend to fight to preserve it, and in a decent percentage of those fights there will be a winner and a loser.

    So now I am asking myself: is there a non-negative way (or as you might put it a ‘natural’ way) for a neighborhood to transition to being mostly rich people and developments, with the accompanying change in feel, stores, and character? Is it only the “pay off the politicians” part that makes it bad?

    Because from what I read sometimes, it doesn’t seem that lots of authors seem to think there is any defensible merit to that type of change in neighborhood, whether it is referred to as gentrification or not. And that doesn’t make sense to me. If it’s OK for a neighborhood to change, then why make the exclusion?

    IOW, I’m trying to figure out of the anti-gentrification folks are objecting to a very certain manner/method of change, or if they are objecting to the actual change itself. If it’s the latter, i can see signing on. If it’s the former, not so much.

  5. 5
    nojojojo says:

    I can’t speak for the other anti-gentrification folks, but for me it’s about the way the change is done. Use whatever value-laden terminology you want — natural, non-negative, fair, whatever. For me the bottom line is when neighborhood transformation done with a conquistador mentality, driving out or financially “killing” the extant population in order to make way for the new. As I said, neighborhood change doesn’t have to be done this way.

    Astoria in Queens is a perfect example. It has an established population of longtime, mostly assimilated immigrants (Jewish and otherwise) that is currently being supplanted by a population of newer immigrants from multiple countries. Some of that is backwash from another gentrification, as Chinatown rapidly becomes unaffordable for the Chinese Americans who made it what it is. But anyway — there’s a lot of tension and anger about it, but I don’t see any of the slash-and-burn tactics that I associate with gentrification. I don’t see the Nepalese people of the area forming an “Astoria Improvement Corporation” and using it to fund nuisance lawsuits against poor established Russians because they want the Russians’ houses as investment property. I don’t see wealthy developers pressuring the city council to use eminent domain to take away people’s homes so they can build another Gap. All of this may very well be happening; I don’t live in Astoria. (Brooklyn has its own problems.) But that’s not what I’m seeing. What I see instead is several groups of people living and working and just trying to get by alongside each other. They probably don’t like each other much, but they aren’t actively trying to fuck each other over. If the neighborhood’s ethnic/class balance is changing, it’s not a deliberate thing on any one group’s part; it’s just the result of the usual complexities of city life and possibly national or even global events. So that’s not gentrification to me. That’s the way neighborhood change is supposed to happen.