|[Whitewashing 5pointz; this just happened.]
In New York City, approximately one-third of all conversations are about gentrification: how the neighborhood is changing, the new development going up, the old [diner, deli, dive bar, place that sells actual useful things not just artisanal candleholders] is closing up. Particualrly after three terms of Bloomberg, the topic is omnipresent. Gentrification lingers over people's heads like a fart in an elevator.
These conversations often lead people to odd and paradoxical places. I caught one long-time Brooklyn woman describing how upset she got when the city began improving her neighborhood park, because it meant she'd be priced out of her home. My old friends from Brooklyn told me they were "hoping for a crime wave during the new mayor's term, so that people would stop moving here and rents would go down." They were only half joking.
|[A Saint Paul bookstore protesting the impending LRT.]
The Spatial Expression of Inequality
During the conference, one of the speakers had made a documentary called My Brooklyn that attempted to pose questions about race and gentrification around the Fulton Street mall, a recent epicenter of development in downtown Brooklyn. She showed a clip that juxtaposed two interviews with people on the mall. The first was a young white man describing (in somewhat problematic terms) how he'd never seen Scarface blankets for sale, and how the area was "ghetto" (or something). The second was an older Asian woman who'd run a wig shop on the mall for many years, talking about how she'd have to sell her business. The contrast was striking, meant to highlight different and problematic conceptions of race and place.
[The clip in question is about 3:00 into the talk.]
But there was an odd moment. The owner of the wig shop continued, describing how hard she worked because her two children were in college. But then my jaw dropped, because she said "one is attending the London School of Economics, and the other is at Williams College." Now, I don't know the exact circumstances of her situation, and don't want to assume anything about it. But the irony of the situation struck me. Those are two of the best and most expensive schools in the entire world (combined tuition is $70,000 per year), and both are well known for having strong ties to Wall Street, the City of London, and international finance industries, the very forces that fuel New York City's intense gentrification pressures in the first place. (Full disclosure: I went to Williams College. For some reason, I didn't become an investment banker.)
|[Gentrification protests in the Lower East Side in the 80s.]
I don't want to ignore race. In fact, the history of cities is crucial to understanding the connection between race and inequality in the first place. (A short list includes redlining, restrictive covenants, the connection between racism and "neighborhood" identity, perpetuated real estate wealth, police profiling, and the spatial inequality of our schools.) These issues are massively important, but to me they're important precisely as much as our solutions begin to address deeper issues of economic inequality.
I have two sets of questions, neither of which have easy answers:
#1) Who gets to speak for our city?
In other words, should homeowners have more influence over city decisions than others? Should long-time residents have more influence over city decisions than newcomers? For me, the answer has to be "no" for both of these questions. But how do we respect local histories without reifying identities that often exclude others?
#2) Who benefits from city plans?
In other words, what questions must cities ask when they "foster economic development?" How can cities make investments and improvements without deepening inequalities? How can planners and politicians begin to make decisions that are meaningfully democratic?
As I said, these questions don't have easy answers. But if we don't take the time to ask them, we're doing ourselves and each other a large disservice. We all have a right to the city.
|[A new light rail line in Saint Paul, with the State Capitol on the horizon.]