Report on UDL Teach-In: Gentrification

With dramatic shifts like rent hikes, sprawling urban redevelopment, and tenant displacement occurring throughout the world’s cities, the Urban Democracy Lab’s Student Advisory Board hosted a teach-in at the Gallatin student lounge on March 21st pertaining to the topic of gentrification. In order to unpack the term that is so frequently discussed by both academics and urbanites all around the world, the Student Advisory Board hosted a panel featuring NYU Wagner Professor Jewell Jackson McCabe, Gallatin Professor and Urban Democracy Lab Associate Director Becky Amato, and Gallatin Junior Anamika Jain. Aree Worawongwasu of the Urban Democracy Lab Student Advisory Board moderated.

No event held at New York University discussing gentrification could be done without addressing the elephant in the room: NYU’s role in gentrification, and the degree of complicity NYU students have in the process. Anamika Jain, a Gallatin student and recipient of the Gallatin Global Fellowship in Urban Practice for the summer of 2017 and the Gallatin Fellowship in Human Rights in 2016, spoke of the virtues of researching one’s rent history when moving to a low-income neighborhood, and of engaging in one’s new community by shopping locally and going to community board meetings.

A key goal of resources like the Urban Democracy Lab’s Student Guide To Renting in NYC is to facilitate meaningful relationships between NYU students and local residents. This, as Gallatin Professor and Urban Democracy Lab Associate Director Becky Amato pointed out, entails the understanding that many of these residents feel either trapped or culturally displaced in their quickly changing neighborhoods, or offended by the bevy of new development for people who aren’t in their socioeconomic or even cultural bracket.

In a moment of powerful honesty, Amato pointed out that there, realistically, isn’t much NYU students can do to mitigate gentrification. Discussing the ways in which the government works hard to ensure that the type of people who attend institutions like NYU (highly educated, typically middle class or upper-middle class) live good lives, she pointed out how this concern is not typically extended by the government toward people who are longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. In addition to buying coffee at one’s local bodega as opposed to a chain like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as checking your rent history, Amato entreated students to realize that the world is in many ways made for us, and to advocate for the people whom the world is not made.

Eternally iconic for its storied role in African-American history, Harlem is a prime example of a low income neighborhood that has encountered considerable gentrification and demographic shifts in recent years. Having spent time in Harlem for over 50 years, Professor Jewell Jackson McCabe, an NYU Wagner professor with a distinguished career as an appointee under former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, and a mayoral appointee under various New York City mayors including John Lindsay and Ed Koch, spoke of the gentrification she’s seen occurring in the community since the 60s.

Speaking of the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street and 7th Ave in Central Harlem, Professor McCabe discussed how many of the house of worship’s churchgoers have moved from Harlem to the suburbs of Westchester and Essex County, New Jersey. The result of gentrification in Harlem, as McCabe put it, was a smaller population of longtime black residents, but a more flourishing population due to the new services in the area such as schools and places of employment.

While the influx of new goods and services into neighborhoods might sometimes be seen as a positive aspect of the gentrification process, there also comes a distinct fear of displacement among longstanding residents with each new amenity. McCabe described what she called the “fear factor” that black residents of Central Harlem and Latino residents of East Harlem feel towards incoming groups to their neighborhoods, such as the “little fiefdoms” of Japanese, Korean, and West Indian people in Hamilton Heights. McCabe articulated her understanding of this instinct.

As discussed in the Urban Democracy Lab’s Student Guide To Renting in NYC, the power and influence of community boards often leaves much to be desired from constituents of the city’s various districts. This lack of clout, according to Amato, justifies residents’ fears of being displaced or simply being ignored by city government. McCabe, countering Amato’s point, spoke about how community boards are only as strong as the people who attend meetings and put pressure on them, citing how Harlem residents used to show up to meetings and voice their opinions more frequently and strongly.

When a word association game regarding gentrification was proposed to the group, a notable amount of the words yelled out involved food (ex. “artisanal,” “Whole Foods,” “cage-free,” “gluten-free,” etc.) This spawned a fruitful discussion about the way that gentrification often oversees an inundation of healthier, more expensive food products (like fresh vegetables and soy milk) into former food deserts in low income areas, as well as the types of beverages typically seen in the bodegas of pre-gentrification neighborhoods (Tropical Fantasy and 40s of Ballantine Ale) and post-gentrification neighborhoods (diverse seltzer options, juice, kombucha, and cold brew).

Regarding New York’s model of gentrification, Jain pointed to the sort of aesthetic and lifestyle changes that typically occur in gentrifying New York City neighborhoods — fetishization of exposed brick and shiny tiles, the aforementioned incursion of high-end juice products into bodegas formerly known for slinging loosies, chopped cheeses, and malt liquor. She notes that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she spent time conducting research for the Gallatin Fellowship in Human Rights in 2016, gentrification is a subtler process, wherein black populations from the city’s outer rings displace immigrant communities in the center of the city, making the area “safer,” including the introduction of new schools, hospitals, and churches.

The panelists discussed the fetishization of markers of poverty, such as graffiti and old neon signs, as a prominent aspect of gentrification. As one student pointed out, Alexander Wang’s recent co-option and aestheticization of Manhattan’s Chinatown is an example. These former signs of urban dilapidation and marginalized cultures have rapidly been re-sold as markers of urban authenticity. This led to discussion of the culture of gentrification in New York City, where TV shows like Girls and Broad City present young white urbanites living in sexily “derelict” apartments in “up-and-coming” neighborhoods, and also in which white middle class students flock to said neighborhoods in search of cheaper housing.

The desire for pre-gentrification “gritty” living spaces, neighborhoods, and aesthetics is the commodification of the lives, cultural production and spaces of the urban poor and has political implications. Gentrification is not only motivated by those with more power having a need or desire to pay lower rent than in already “developed” areas, but also to consume and gain something from (therefore massively changing) the spirit of the place.

As audience members and panelists alike made their way to the exit, various critical questions regarding gentrification were stimulated — questions that have been challenging to answer through decades of discourse, let alone a single teach-in. Is gentrification inevitable? Or is it a deliberate process of re-urbanization? Is gentrification entirely bad? How can cities grow without displacing longtime residents? Will the housing bubble pop in the near future? And, most importantly: What can be done to protect low-income communities from displacement? With such a complex, wide-spanning, and ever evolving issue, it is critical to understand that none of these questions can be answered in one single teach-in or conversation, but instead must be tackled in a manner that adapts to the rapidly changing urban economy and political landscape.