The Most Important “G-Word”
As you walk to the train every morning, you hold your breath while stepping over the protruding garbage bags awaiting pickup. While scuttling over them, you smile at the woman collecting bottles from your building’s garbage cans. She smiles as if she has seen a thousand of “you” live and leave here, and she knows that she will outlast your stay. A few years ago, that may have been true, but with the new “improvements” in your neighborhood, you are not confident that she will. Turning the corner, you hear bachata music pouring from the nearby barbershop as you finally exhale the words, “I love Washington Heights.” You then pass an artisanal coffee shop that replaced the neighborhood bodega. Continuing down the cracked sidewalk, you suddenly step on to freshly poured concrete connected to a new austere modern highrise. Finally, you make it to the corner of your block, to grab the train and you feel like something is missing. The panhandler that you regularly slipped the loose change in your pockets is no longer there. Then, you realize your interactions tapered off coinciding with the increased appearance of police officers hiding behind the train turnstile. Without exchanging words, the officer’s lurking presence reverberates, solidifying the rumbling of a word that pierces through the fabric of your community…Gentrification.
In 2017, I had completed the aforesaid journey to the train when I decided to quit my job and pursue a Master’s in Real Estate Development. My commute to the office was enough time to contemplate how painfully ironic the contrast was between the neighborhoods that encompassed my personal life and my work environment. I was a financial advisor who lived in one of the many neglected communities in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. My career in wealth management had taught me that disparities in resource distribution often began with ownership and investment in Real Estate. With the charge to learn the tools of gentrifying forces, I entered classrooms with a quiver of facts regarding redlining, discriminatory lending practices, and the social effects of poor housing policy. I was prepared to cut through professors’ and colleagues’ malicious subterfuges to defend communities from gentrification. Yet, what I found was not a gentrifying phantom system, but an organized system plagued by complex unanswered questions. This revelation forced me to challenge what I thought about gentrification and how you should think about it too.
Gen·tri·fi·ca·tion /ˌjentrəfəˈkāSH(ə)n/: is defined as the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents. Although the definition of gentrification is straightforward, I found myself not only challenging people but also being challenged with questions such as, “If economic diversity is integral to communities’ health, why are wealthier people moving in reprehensible?” “What is the difference between gentrification and normal market real estate cycles of development?” “When minorities protest the construction of new affordable housing, doesn’t it hurt the community?”. “Can ethnic minorities gentrify communities of other ethnic minorities?” These questions revealed that both developers and those living in communities are operating from historical disparities in the knowledge of resources. Over the last year of pursuing my Masters in RE Development, I have been haunted by the question of, “Where do we begin to deconstruct the Goliath that “gentrification” has become to empower people?”
Through conversations in classrooms with developers, reading, and attending protests, I realized the source of gentrification’s daunting power begins with its own ambiguity. For years, the barrage of overwhelming developmental changes coupled with the lack of discourse within communities has led to this ambiguity. Therefore, it leaves people to pack everything they are feeling and witnessing into one word. Much like how the prolific professor Kimberle Crenshaw has led us to contemplate how ethnicity, class, and identity affect feminism, we must devote language to address what particular forms of gentrification are affecting a neighborhood. Gentrification must be deconstructed into veins to parcel out larger scale implications; such as financial gentrification, ethnic gentrification, educational gentrification, etc. With more decisive language, we may extract addressable questions such as, ‘What is the educational demographic entering my neighborhood?” “Does it displace employment and services?” “What investment is being made to address stressed school systems in my community?”. Ultimately, answering more scrupulous questions can allow citizens to identify desired investments and mitigate unwanted effects. Dissecting new language around gentrification will take time, but in the strides that we have made around ethnicity, gender, and much more, we have demonstrated that this new lexicon can be crafted as well.
Now, for the million-dollar question—What next? With this new language, we take these discussions to the most important yet, least attended forums…community boards. Through my studies, it became clear that community boards are the organized democratic forum where dissection of neighborhoods occurs but, also can be stopped. Community Boards create sub-committees such as Economic Development & Culture, Land Use, Education, and Public Safety that hold open, documented meetings to vote on issues. The employment opportunities available to the women sifting through your recycling bin, the coffee shop that usurped the bodega, and the interactions of police offices with residents are overseen by these committees. Whether you attend the meetings or even become elected to the board, you have the first and final say. You can determine what housing resources are pledged before a developer can even break ground. The word “Gentrification” can and should be reduced from its nebulous usage, so we may leverage the allusive power we truly grasp. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margret Mead
The word “Gentrification” can and should be reduced from its nebulous usage, so we may leverage the allusive power we truly grasp.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margret Mead