Gentrification: An Inconvenient Truth
Gentrification. The word is so often on the tongues of New York's young professional residents as to render it meaningless. As I moved to the city after two years in China, I prepared myself for the skyrocketing rents and surge of young people into previously seedy areas of Brooklyn along the L Line. Searching for apartments myself, I could not avoid the issue.
Everywhere I went, friends gave me advice on what the coolest area to live was at the moment: "oh, Bushwick it's gentrifying quickly, you should check it out." Upon arrival, I stayed with a friend for a week here. She adamantly referred to her neighborhood by its euphemistic name "East Williamsburg". Almost everyone offered advice: "Move to Crown Heights, it's practically buzzing with new bars and restaurants every week!"
The area around the Jefferson St. L Line is the Maginot Line of sorts in the ever-expanding gentrification surge of Brooklyn. North of Metropolitan Ave, empty factory buildings are being converted into lofts and co-working spaces, collectives, coffee shops. There is a new supermarket selling overpriced organic goods. To the south of the street, the neighborhood becomes less white and less Yuppy; the barrio, recent immigrants, the working class. I couldn't help but feel like an invader. What did these people think of me as I walked with my iPhone headphones from subway to home, to cafe and back?
I ended up finding a small but reasonably-priced apartment in the Lower East Side, an area that was itself not long ago, ground zero for gentrification in Manhattan. Even further back, it was America's most notorious urban slum, where some of my Russian forbearers first lived, fresh from the pogroms and the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Today, Katz's deli serves up $17 dollar corned beef sandwiches amidst a sea of new glass-walled condos that rent for several thousand dollars.
In a city where 20% of the population lives in poverty, rising rents have become THE topic of conversation amongst the city's chattering classes. The topic has moved from the fringe (remember The Rents are Too Damn High Party) to the mainstream (Bill de Blasio is poised to become the next mayor after a Democratic primary campaign focused on economic and geographic inequality in New York). Rising rents have affected everyone: struggling young college grads, but most seriously the disadvantaged residents of areas that must now move out or find alternate ways of scraping by, like renting out their rooms on Airbnb.
Working in urban planning, perhaps I am surrounded by people who care about these issues more than the average New Yorker. But I doubt it. In fact, the most ironic thing is that the people who might care most about these issues are the ones doing the gentrification themselves. We talk about gentrification, it's pros and cons, the tensions, the contradictions, etc. But under all of this there is the uncomfortable subtext of fear and race. Under all of it, we admit gentrification is a problem and we should do something about it: build more affordable housing, mandate inclusionary zoning, more affordable housing, etc. But we also enable it and desire it: young people in New York, or in San Francisco aren't about to give up their trendy cafes where they can set up their laptops and connect. In the 60's it was "turn on, tune in, drop out". Now it's plug in, sign on, tune out.
Hipsterdom, epitomized by ever-gentrifying Brooklyn, is supposedly an ironic protest against mainstream consumer culture. In fact, it's obsession with authenticity is in itself supremely ironic. It's really a cynical denial of reality: let's dress like we're poor so we can feel better about the fact that we're really not. And lets move to the next neighborhood because it's more "authentic" than the one we're currently in. It's not that there are bad intentions behind this, only the contradiction of well-intentioned idealism with reality and desire.
While some of the ideas for building more affordable housing may have merit, none of them will likely solve the city's long-term economic inequality. The city is too beholden to developers to really mandate anything significant that will reduce their profits. Bill de Blasio may undertake significant policies to address this, although the city's moneyed classes are already readying to defend their interests, trying to win him over if they cannot defeat him. Most of these policies address only those at the very bottom of the income scale rather than the squeezed middle.
The root cause is much more fundamental: a lack of working-class jobs that pay a living wage in a city where everyone is supposed to be in the "creative" fields, as Richard Florida would like. That doesn't mean we should do nothing on the housing policy front. However, the sad truth of our current fetishization of "creative industries" and cities is that not everyone can be in the creative fields. Perhaps in an ideal world, even a subway conductor, or janitor, could be a moonlighting entrepreneur. But the very functioning of the city depends on people doing jobs that are by their very definition not creative. Of course, the aspiration to be part of startup culture has it's spillover effects. In San Francisco this summer, I met someone who claimed they were opening a "startup" business, a barbershop.
As young people living in the city, especially young people who have gone to college, taken classes on poverty, consider themselves progressive, etc, it's easy to believe that economic inequality and the problems of gentrification are someone else's to deal with. We're just struggling 20-somethings, it's the bankers who are at fault! We read the charts, share the infographics, we understand! Oh, it's the plutocrats, the 1%. "It's a problem, yes we must do something!" But, what is to be done? If it entails giving up our cafes, our gastropubs, and our $5 grilled cheese, would we?