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New York Story: The Dark Side of Gentrification

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For New Yorkers, real estate is a consuming obsession. Whether they rent or own, virtually everyone has a tale of triumph and/or horror to tell, and tell they do. The only three — or rather five — factors that really count in this equation are size; price; and location, location, location. But what constitutes the quality of a “location” in New York, especially in the past 15-20 odd years and counting, is subject to change. And that is a vast understatement.

Twenty years ago, you didn’t have to be rich to find an apartment in Manhattan. But even back then, “old-timers” who’d lived for years in rent-controlled or stabilized buildings had deals so sweet that newcomers would be green with envy. But still, in those days, if you swung into town, you could find a cheap hotel – not the Ritz, but a place to stay. Even bums could always find a Bowery flophouse for a pittance.

Today, on the other hand, in order to move to Manhattan you have to be wealthy or reside in one of the burgeoning number of residential dorms owned by New York University (downtown) or Columbia (uptown). The cheap hotels have either undergone luxe renovations or been demolished altogether, and the typical stay in a Manhattan hotel will set you back several hundred a night. The Bowery, which for more than a century was synonymous with the last stop for alcoholic bums on the skids, is now allegedly developing into a new art gallery district, with pricey restaurants and bars to match. Virtually all the flops are on the way out or long gone.

In roughly the past three decades, especially during the dotcom boom, New York City began to experience an amazing renaissance. As the city emerged from a horrible financial hole, the subways and streets became more user-friendly, and crime went down dramatically. Manhattan’s major parks, which had become hellish havens for drug dealers and even squatters, were renovated and are now safe, clean, and hospitable for residents and tourists alike.

In due time, Manhattan became the place where everyone wanted to be. Hotels and high rises continued to spring up, and old buildings underwent luxury renovation. Commercial rents were unregulated, so an old mom and pop store or downscale bodega could be driven out of business overnight when their lease expired and their rent doubled. In their place came more upscale offerings suitable to artists, hipsters, and yuppies.

As more and more people clamored to live here, areas that had once been unfashionable and/or sketchy became gradually gentrified. For those who knew how to read the signs, it was no surprise when even the most unlikely Manhattan neighborhoods — as well as those in the once unfashionable outer boroughs — began to transform into the new places to see and be seen.

It was back in the eighties, I’d guess, that the horror stories began. More and more friends and coworkers told of landlords trying to force them out so they could empty the building, renovate, and either charge the higher rents that renovation allowed or turn the building into a luxury rental or co-op. Some stubborn folk got large payoffs to move. Now that New York was starting to boom, things were starting to get ugly, and long time tenants could no longer take for granted that they would be able to endure the rising rents and cost of living in their newly revamped ‘hoods.

Having lived here so long, and having seen these changes take place in area after area, nothing surprises me any more. From Harlem to Chelsea, from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, from SoHo to DUMBO, neighborhoods that most thought were impervious to gentrification have become playgrounds for the hip and prosperous. The beginning of the cycle may be hard to discern, especially for the newcomer, and it may take years to come to fruition, but once the course is set, gentrification is well-nigh inevitable.

In the interests of brevity, I’ll leave the analysis of how these areas change for another post. For now, I just wanted to address the subtle but definite changes that are happening in my boyfriend BG’s northwest Bronx neighborhood – an area that is currently occupied chiefly by Latino immigrants and working poor. In some ways, this is terrific progress. But what happens to those long-time residents when the newcomers with more money and privilege move in?

Several months ago, BG’s Bronx building changed landlords. Things seemed to be looking up soon after. First, video cameras were installed in the mail alcove. Then, floodlights were set up outside the building leading up to the entrance. An announcement was posted that current residents could only keep their pets if they did not let them damage the apartments, as some apparently had. Two new sets of entry doors were put in, each with their own intercom buzzer. In short, the landlord seemed to be concerned with making the building safer and nicer. Generous of him, don’t you think?

Over the seven odd years that BG has lived in his building, the ‘hood has taken a decided turn for the better. When his brother came up to visit the first year BG moved in, he wryly remarked, especially on weekend evenings, that it was “getting very Bronx” on the streets. Lots of loud music, partying, and boom box music emanating from SUVs. The whole works.

But as the years went by, things started to get cleaner and quieter. The park closest to BG’s building got renovated. A new state-of-the-art library opened about a month ago. And the weekends are often so quiet that you could easily forget you were in New York City.

When I visit BG, I always pick up the free biweekly Bronx paper, The Norwood News. It is here that one can read about the signs of change, progress, and economic growth that the Bronx is beginning to enjoy. Most of the news is heartening: an arts scene is burgeoning in the once horrific South Bronx and “SoBro” is slowly but surely developing into an up-and-coming area; neighborhood businesses have banded together to keep the shopping areas cleaner and safer. A landmark movie theater not far from BG’s place has been restored to its former glory after languishing abandoned and forgotten for decades, and is being utilized for concerts and other cultural events.

But a series of recent Norwood News articles made me feel uneasy about BG’s new landlord and his attempts to improve the state of BG’s building.

This area of the Bronx was considered very tony from the 1920s through the fifies or sixties. Subway lines were constructed to allow easier access to those who worked in Manhattan and moved to the Bronx, as those who could afford it fled from the stultifying confines of cramped Manhattan tenements to the grander abodes now being built. BG’s building, which was built in 1920, is one of a plethora of buildings on the Grand Concourse which sport grand architecural features, particularly in their lobbies and outer facades.

Though BG’s building is now a bit worse for wear, and it is still a constant battle to remove the graffiti that keeps springing up on the outside of the building and, less commonly, in the hallways, the potential is there for an impressive restoration. And apparently, some landlords and realty companies have spotted a trend and are running with it.

Recently, a group of developers bought up a number of buildings in the northern Bronx and upper Manhattan. Their modus operandi seems to consist of trying to push long-time tenants out by intimidation. Their first step is to make improvements to the building, as BG’s new landlord is doing. Then they often tack on part of the expense of this improvement on to tenant’s rents. A large number of tenants have had their leases revoked for real and not-so-real “violations.”

The goal seems to be to fix up the buildings, thus increasing their value, and then probably “flip” them over, selling them at a profit – or else turning the buildings into coops after the old, mostly poor tenants have been ousted.

So although I am happy, in one sense, that BG’s building is being improved, I don’t dare let on my anxiety about where this seemingly positive trend may one day lead. As I said to BG, rather cryptically, I doubt the landlord is doing this simply out of the kindness of his heart.

I suppose time will tell. Although it would be nice in a sense to see the neighborhood become more upscale, I can’t help but wonder how many residents may be displaced by the change.

And as the artists, “urban pioneers,” and hipsters jump on the bandwagon, initially drawn by the relatively cheap rents and more generous space, where will the current residents go?

Aye, there’s the rub.

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About Elvira Black

  • http://chapertoo.blogspot.com Berry

    Elvira, you’ve done it again. We could write about this topic for ever. It’s not just a New York issue either. I am quickly becoming a admirer of your work.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    where will the current residents go?

    New Jersey is calling.

    Dave

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Elvira writes,

    “And as the artists, “urban pioneers,” and hipsters jump on the bandwagon, initially drawn by the relatively cheap rents and more generous space, where will the current residents go?”

    What’s wrong with the park bench? Let’s hear three cheers for American capitalism “Hip hip! whore-ahh!

    Nice job Elvira. Except for the rub.

  • Nancy

    Another outstanding article, Elvira. Good job. Query: has the landlord raised BG’s rent? Down here in the DC area, the poor (especially illegals) are increasingly “renting” big homes in the suburbs behind a front renter, and then crowding in 10, 20 – sometimes 30 to a house (? I suppose they live there in shifts?), and if the city/county tries to evict them or close them down, they scream they’re all related & are being picked on & the authorities back off. At least, this is what’s going on in such suburban DC areas as Herndon & Sterling. What is interesting is that these areas are ‘way out away from public transportation. What the elderly do, I don’t know, as that seems to be a problem that’s conveniently ignored by all, especially the government at all levels.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Berry:

    Thanks so much! Ah yes, it is far from being solely a NYC problem. I’ve heard horrific stories having to do with the old “eminent domain” issue. In a rather ramshackle but middle class coasal Florida town, for example, there was a lot of coverage about a community that is being forced out to make way for condos, etc etc. I know sometimes communities get razed to build highways and such, but this move seems more motivated by pure opportunism and greed. The residents are fighting back, however. It’s a huge kick in the ass when you’ve lived in a community–sometimes your whole life–that might have been written off as “beyond the pale” until developers and local politicos suddenly realize the value and potential of waterfront property.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Dave:

    Actually, some, if not many parts of New Jersey are enclaves of the wealthy, and other areas nearer to Manhattan such as Hoboken have become more and more expensive as far as I know. But it’s probably true that there are poor areas where ex-New Yorkers or just poor folks in general reside in Jersey now.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Ruvy:

    Thanks! Well, yes, there is the issue of the homeless–BG was actually in that category for awhile too. Though he lived in Manhattan apartments for a number of years as well, he went through long periods of living in cheap SRO hotels, Bowery flops, and yes, even shelters when he fell on hard times. It ain’t too pretty, but he survived, and he’s very happy to be in his little Bronx abode now. That’s why I get nervous when I hear talk about the developers coming to call.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Nancy:

    Many thanks! Yes, I’ve heard of that trend as well in some sururban areas. Aside from illegal immigrants, the whole socioeconomic base of suburbia outside major urban areas seems to have been turned on its head. As the once-dangerous “inner cities” get renovated, gentrified, etc., the suburbs seem to have become the less desirable place to be, and this seems to be where some of the poor have been fleeing to now that the cities are the new areas of choice.

    Lest I be thought of as a complete bleeding heart (lol) I do think if I were living in an area where a large group of illegal immigrants were residing en masse in one house I would be annoyed to say the very least. I know from hanging out in BG’s Bronx hood, however, that even those living in “poorer” neighborhoods often have cars, which helps if you’re not near a subway line. However, I see an awful lot of poor schlubs waiting on long lines in front of the local supermarket waiting to get home by bus. BG is fortunate that his place is near two subway stations–one literally a few feet away. Neither of us have a car or a license, so I could never “afford” to live anyplace that wasn’t a few blocks from mass transit and a decent grocery store.

    As far as BG’s rent, so far so good. But he recently heard some neighbors talking about how one studio apt had just been converted to a one-bedroom. I don’t know if this involved tearing down walls and combining apartments, or somehow building a complete kitchen in a very tiny space, but either way…

    In addition, I’ve been hearing a lot of banging, booming and clanking from down the hall lately, and I immediately envisioned a major renovation taking place, but that’s just me…I don’t know. I guess time will tell…

  • sr

    Elvira, this has nothing to do with your blog. Is Shark still around? Not that I like him, however I do care that all is well with him. Just have not seen comments from him. Just a thought.

    Thanks,

    sr

  • Anon

    I am one of the artists in the South BX that is “Pioneering” the impending gentrification. I am very conflicted about it, but, I work hard to support my expenssive art “habit” in an unrelated field, I am poor, I try to be righteous and positive, and I have added a lot to the BX in the last 4 years, just like the BX has given me lots of love…

    I’ve come to think that the problem is not in artists and people with more privilege moving in to poor neighborhoods. The problem is that we are greedy capitalists, all of us rich and poor alike, it’s our culture, and we have secured no real rights for tenants. Most people don’t even vote, or even care. They just run like rats.

    The only way to counter the force is to organize and take charge of our communities’ destinies. Grass roots, cause noone will do it for us. Otherwise we will just run, like rats in a race, to Jersey and beyond.

    Thanks for letting me rant.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Hey sr:

    I’ve seen Shark sightings here and elsewhere, so I think he’s still swimmin’ around!

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Anon:

    I think most people in most communities would welcome artists like you because they enrich a neighborhood immeasurably. It’s not the artists per se who are “responsible” for full-blown gentrification in my opinion. Often a neighborhood may get an influx of artists who, like many of us, cannot afford Manhattan–oftimes when unused commercial/loft space becomes available–and artists need space and light to create. Although they may signal the first glimmerings of yuppification, their presence is, in my opinion, valuable and positive.

    I sometimes feel a little weird in BG’s hood because I think that if I were one of the struggling Latinos here I might look at us “gringos” askance, as in: here come the invading Nordic hordes! –lol. But people here are almost always gracious, friendly, and polite. Aside from that, BG is himself a poor artist, and a number of his neighbors know and like him. Like most people here, he literally could not afford to live anywhere else.

    The true cutthroat capitalism comes in later, when real estate developers catch wind of things. I know what you mean about feeling ambivalent, but I don’t think a few poor artists are displacing the existing poor.

    And even for those who are not destitute, it’s not a sin to have a bit of money to invest to try to own a piece of the American dream. The forces that be are, as you say, larger than all of us individually. But hopefully those who have lived in these areas all or most of their lives and others who move here before a boom hits can remain where they are as long as they desire. I, for one, am glad to hear you are part of the Bronx arts community.

  • Bliffle

    One can argue that gentrification improves the housing stock, and that includes everyone, rich, poor and middleclass. It certainly seems evident: the shanties that infested many important US cities in my youth are now gone, replaced by interesting combinations of upscale luxury townhouses, middleclass mini-communities and lowcost housing (sometimes reserved for city employees, say). Where do the displaced poor go? They become Housing Pioneers and do what they must: they find new ways to live and they form new communities, perhaps in some neighborhood previously considered kinda OK, and then they improve it, though to get started sometimes they have to first degrade it, almost as if they need a breather to gather their capital and their energy to get started. You will see them at Home Depot with carts full of lumber, toilets, paneling, drywall, etc., jabbering in foreign languages, children running around, wives selecting tiles. All of them happy. Smalltime capitalists. No Central Planning. Simple UBC regulations. With a good detailed drawing they can get a permit over-the-desk down at Cityhall or the county seat, as long as it meets the UBC and some simple safety and density requirements, etc.

    You should go to Home Depot, Lowes, or whatever, and look at the people (but don’t stare, they’re not bugs under a microscope!)

  • sr

    #11.Thanks Elvira.

  • Anon

    Elvira, thank you for your kind words. I have felt really welcome here in the BX. Part of it is because I have paid dues and gotten involved, part of it is because people here are unpretensious and tolerant. A lot of the old timers aren’t so sure about the impending gentrification, they got a “Bring it on” attitude…

    This is refreshing from some other more guarded parts of New York, but maybe it’s a little naive. I am seeing the landlords in the neighborhood (who are not locals) salivate and begin to inflate rents already. It’s less organic than people think. There is a definite media-landlord cooperation, just read the Real Estate feature stories about the South Bronx. they are full of misinformation and propaganda; puff-pieces designed to generate interest and speculation as they pretend to be factual reportage…

    And as an artist, I am sick of beeing taken advantage of to “improve” a neighborhood for outsiders, when all I’m trying to do is survive… And then we get priced out. We saw it happen to all the other neighborhoods, and yet we have learned nothing except a poem that is always the same… If New York loves artists, then what has the city done to protect artists from the lessons learned in Soho, and Dumbo, and Williamsburg, and the East Village, and Long Island City, and on and on? Not much, that’s what.The only ones that seem to act on the lessons learned are the investors and speculators… Heard of the lawsuit between the tenants and landlords of the Clocktower building? No? This landmark development was hyped in ALL the papers, yet noone cared that it very quickly ended up in a lawsuit with 17 tenants involved against the lying and law-breaking government-sanctioned developers, with no help from anyone. The media, the advocates, the local agencies were curiously absent. Tenant-friendly? Artist-friendly? The people yes, the system, no!

    The capitalist ideal presumes that the market will correct these issues. That also presumes lack of corruption. The market sometimes simply responds, but very often it is manipulated, brazenly. I hope, hope, hope that things slow down so that if the BX changes, it’s done organic, not through unfair and systematic speculation.

    Thanks again.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Bliffle:

    Though there are some urban versions of what you describe in NYC, they are a bit different than the suburban or even perhaps rural concept of picking up roots and rebuilding, sometimes literally, from scratch so to speak.

    Most “superficially,” but still significantly, there are as far as I know, no Home Depots, Lowes, Targets, or Walmarts here in the city. The closest I’ve seen are much smaller K-Marts, since space is at a premium and commercial rents can be exorbitant. The suburbs surrounding New York are much like suburbs in other parts of the country, however–though perhaps more expensive on average.

    There is a version of the urban pioneer in New York which Anon touches on in his comment below, but it does not always lead to a happy ending. For instance, in the 70s I began seeing lots of ads in the Village Voice for raw loftspace in SoHo in downtown Manhattan. These were usually former printing plants, warehouses, and other industrial spaces that were no longer in use, and some folks, particularly artists looking for sufficient space for live-in studios, would rent them and convert them so that they had residential amenities–adding fixtures, etc with their own capital. This began during a period where living in many areas of Manhattan was not fashionable, and industrial areas like SoHo and later Tribeca were gritty, rather creepy former commercial wastelands–no grocery stores, shops, or other essential local businesses and services to speak of.

    But what happened to many of these artists is that they did all the hard work of making these loft spaces livable and then got the boot when the area became “hip”–in large part due to the presence of the artists in the first place. Areas that become artist’s enclaves quickly generate a “hipness” factor, and soon the artists can get squeezed out by greedy landlords and the new demand for housing in a once unsafe and unsavory area. Today, no one but a wealthy established artist would be able to afford to live in SoHo, and the area, which has become heavily commercialized, is not even the art mecca it once was–the new area du jour for the top galleries is now uptown in Chelsea.

    In short, the story of the urban pioneer is not always a success story. The best strategy nowadays, if one can afford it, is to try to grab up any real estate in an as yet not “emerging” neighborhood that may be for sale, rather than for rent, if that exists. Meanwhile, rental and housing prices gather steam and soon the poor and working class–even middle class–are priced out.

    There are a few options for the poor, but there is not enough housing stock to fill the need. The city is investing in more low-income developments, along with those that exist already. The federal Section 8 program subsidizes rents in participating rental units, but the program is very tough to get onto. Habitat for Humanity literally builds housing for the working poor, but this is, again, more of a suburban thing, since there are virtually no houses in Manhattan (save for very pricey old townhouses for the very wealthy).

    I wouldn’t look at the folks in Lowe’s as if they were bugs, because I too am in a way an urban pioneer. I moved from a ritzy area of Manhattan when it was still affordable to a recent college grad to the humble Lower East Side, when coops built for working class families were still being offered at a very cheap rate. My building has since gone private and the coop prices have gone up to what the market will bear.

    When my ex-boyfriend and I sell our coop, I will take my half of the proceeds and buy a coop in the Bronx, which is still a place that many middle class folks would not have the temerity to move to in its present state. So once again I’ll be putting down roots in a poorer, unfashionable neighborhood where prices and rentals are already beginning an inexorable rise upward.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    sr:

    No prob–Shark hasn’t been gracing any of my posts of late–they’re too tame, I’d imagine–lol.

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Anon:

    Yes, I’m very familiar with the pattern that emerges whenever an area enjoys an influx of artists to a formerly unfashionable and poorer–even dangerous and drug infested– area. In my own case, I’ve seen the Lower East Side morph in this fashion from a place one would only go to shop for bargains into the hipster haven it is today, though it’s not really considered as much of an art district (though there are a number of storefront galleries here now).

    The only answer for those who can afford it is to buy into Bronx buildings that go coop or to live in a rent stablilized building and hope it stays that way. Artists are indeed pawns in the real estate game, and often it is a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy–if there is talk of a new “artist’s area” developing in the South Bronx, the buzz begins and higher prices follow.

    What also happens is that even if current tenants do not get priced out, the cost of living goes up as the mom and pop stores and services become more high priced. It seems like a neverending conundrum.

    I hope that you are able to either maintain a reasonable rent or perhaps buy into a building if it goes coop at the “insider’s” rate. In any event, it’s possible that the growth of the Bronx will be more organic, as you worded it. There are still areas of Queens and even Brooklyn that are “developing,” and I think the Bronx is still considered “beyond the pale” for many.

    Nevertheless, it is indeed horrible to establish roots and pay dues and then find yourself forced out again. I wish you the very best as I will soon join you as an “uptown” Bronx neighbor!

  • http://chaptertoo.blogspot.com Berry

    “Jane’s New York” aired a feature on this topic today and some of the acronyms are ridiculous…SoBro and BelDel…goodness gracious!

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com Elvira Black

    Berry:

    Shoot–I had never heard of Jane’s New York and missed the segment. I’ll have to check it out in future.

    I guess the acronyms are all part of the real estate game. I’ve just heard of BelDel in the context of bars springing up in the area which borders Chinatown and that used to be pretty “tame.” The piece I read was about the difference between the bars above Delancey and below. The former were for those looking for a one nighter (so they said) and the ones below were more for those who live in the ‘hood and need a babysitter so they can go out and have a few beers at the local bar. The differentiations can get pretty bizarre, but I actually did “get” it in terms of the distinctly different flavor of the two areas.

    Also the real estate people will sometimes rename a formerly beyond the pale ‘hood so it becomes “part” of a more established, desirable one by proxy. For instance, I think the “East Village” used to just be considered part of the Lower East Side back in the day.

    Thing is, as areas change almost block by block, and given that New Yorkers can be so territorial, I suspect it satisfies some residents as well to be able to say they’re from BelDel and such.