Back in 1985, Williamsburg was a sleepy, poor part of Brooklyn inhabited by Jews and Hispanics who had long been at odds with each other. The area saw a decline in manufacturing, with crime on the rise. Today, one might find a major thoroughfare closed off for an art exhibition attended by hipsters and indie rockers, and streets lined with trendy cafes and modish art studios.
What used to be ranked as one of NYC’s worst neighborhoods has become the headliner for positive change. Williamsburg is now increasingly occupied by upper-middle class Americans. Williamsburg’s evolution can be thought of as a ‘rebalancing’ of demographic groups, or even social mixing: for the past 20 years all kinds of people have been moving in and out. The net effect has been an increase in Williamsburg’s safety, quality of life, and desirability.
Wealth essentially has shifted from other parts of the cities (where these new residents used to live) to Williamsburg. Educated individuals from higher social strata have moved into the renovated apartments of poorer individuals.
This shift in wealth has led to a shift in racial demographics. Gentrification is not literally defined by a change in racial proportion. However, because the Caucasians moving in generally have higher incomes than African-American and Hispanic minorities moving out, Williamsburg has become characterized by the influx of predominantly Caucasian people into what was once a largely African-American and Hispanic neighborhood.
Williamsburg’s transformation can be likened to a neighborhood-wide Renaissance. Many often cite good schools, clean streets, and safe neighborhoods as invaluable revitalizations of gentrification. “When you’re trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy,” says New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson. There are not many issues that are as divisive as gentrification, and its nature is such that by comparing the ‘before and after’ states of a neighborhood, the after is, usually, an improvement over the before.
Though Brooklyn is often the go-to example of gentrification in NYC, it is not the only area experiencing this economic and demographic transformation. Harlem in Manhattan, Long Island City in Queens, and the Bronx have also experienced gentrification. These neighborhoods have seen tremendous drops in crime and have become more desirable neighborhoods for both residents and businesses.
The Bane of Brooklyn
But the process that a neighborhood goes through from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’ can be unpleasant. Many people are speaking out against gentrification and how it negatively changed the culture of their former neighborhoods. Spike Lee has referred to gentrification as the Christopher Columbus Syndrome: wealthy individuals come into and take over areas occupied by disadvantaged individuals who, by many accounts, are satisfied with their lifestyles. Previous residents are subsequently displaced from their homes. And while the area might undergo beneficial changes, only the new inhabitants are able to reap the benefits, often leaving the old inhabitants in situations worse off than before.
The narrative above represents almost exactly the changes that some Brooklyn neighborhoods have experienced.
One of the most convincing examples of the displacement of the poor in Brooklyn is on Franklin Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the Crown Heights neighborhood. A Street lined with bodegas and thrift shops no more than ten years ago, Franklin Avenue is now home to cafes and non-profits. What used to be housing projects are now condominiums with soaring rent prices.
Often, when gentrification begins in a neighborhood, an increased police presence follows. In Crown Heights, there are more police cruisers patrolling than there were in pre-gentrification times. “It’s kind of like, ‘Wow, you didn’t come before when we were calling, but now you’re here everyday,” said Craig, a forty-year-old African-American man who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years (he did not want his full name disclosed).
In 2004, the NYPD introduced Operation Impact, an initiative aimed at preventing and reducing violent crimes throughout the city. Hope had arisen for Crown Heights’ future after the neighborhood saw a decline in crime due to gentrification, and thus the NYPD decided to make the process faster by categorizing it as an Impact Zone. It is undeniable that these efforts have made Crown Heights safer. Many remain skeptical, however, about whether Operation Impact actually eliminated the crime, or merely transported it elsewhere.
NYC Project 8 housing law decrees that an occupant cannot be evicted on the basis of a new demographic moving into the neighborhood. However the limited resources that the occupants have make the $10,000-$20,000 offers (from real estate agencies, developers, etc.) to leave their apartments lucrative.
Many do not realize that the stipend will soon dry up because of exorbitant rental prices in neighborhoods they will be pushed into. Such was the case for residents living in housing projects on Franklin Avenue. When they were offered cash payments to move out, they took it and quickly realized that they would have been much better off staying in their old apartments with lower living costs.
A Blessing Or A Curse?
Gentrification is an urban process, initiated not by city officials but by human migration. A future in which city officials can help the poor transition out of gentrifying neighborhoods would decrease the concentration of crime and poverty. Even wealthier residents who move in can help the poorer residents moving out in finding homes.
But that is unclear at this point. What is clear is that gentrification is a necessity to the stability of NYC’s future development. But it will continue to face opposition until it helps those who need it the most, the poor.