Note: This is an edited and reworked piece that I thought was timely. I continue to struggle with what is happening in our nation. The combination of Covid-19 and racism is toxic. I can only hope that we come through it to a better place, having begun to reckon with our history. I will look for opportunities to do my part. I think writing about difficult subjects, which many find hard to talk about, is one way. I would like to have those conversations. I’m not sure how to go about doing it other than to post it here. I welcome other perspectives.
In 1980 I was in graduate school. I lived in a studio apartment on West 80th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in a building owned by Columbia University. Gentrification was taking place right before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working-class people were displaced. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered; boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer.
I commuted to campus by subway. I gave careful thought to my route to the station to avoid the junkies and panhandlers. My shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the street, almost always in daylight, I walked quickly. I welcomed the neighborhood changes that allowed me to relax my shoulders.
These issues of community change were being discussed in my grad school classes. The question was: Can the market provide low- and middle-income housing when there is so much more money to be made in high-end housing? What is the incentive to create housing for the poor and working class? Is the government’s role to create that incentive? If so, how should it do it effectively? Almost 40 years later, we are still grappling with those questions. Meanwhile gentrification has marched through other areas of the city, particularly Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up.
I had reason to think about the changes wrought over the last three decades in New York City when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour, cycling through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2018. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were hollowed out, drug infested and crime-ridden. I wouldn’t have considered visiting either one, much less bike through them. In contrast, in 2018 I cycled past art galleries and craft beer breweries.
I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. Gentrification is understood to be a bad thing especially for poor, immigrant communities. Activists who fight it paint a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While there is truth to that portrait, I think it is oversimplified.
There isn’t one monolithic army encroaching all at once – there isn’t one homogenous group of rich, white people. We need to acknowledge that when demographics are changing, it is a dynamic process. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that contributes to the failure to integrate. Some may come to a neighborhood expecting their every need to be accommodated, without regard to those already there. But, not all come with that baggage. Some may come precisely to live and/or raise families in a diverse community.
I may be particularly sensitive to integrating across economic class based on my experience moving into a suburban development outside of Albany, NY. I grew up thinking suburbs were homogenous, but I learned otherwise as an adult. In my subdivision there were those who were stretching to their financial limit to live there, and there were others for whom it was very comfortable (my family fell into this latter category).
Our daughter became friends with a girl down the block. We made overtures to invite the whole family over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments, I came to believe that the Mom made assumptions about us because my husband is a doctor. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something more. They were of more modest means. We never got beyond neighborly friendliness. Eventually they moved away. An opportunity was lost to both of us. Economic differences can create awkwardness. It is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.
Economic status can be one barrier within communities, race is certainly another. Canarsie, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, underwent a huge change in racial composition. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My junior high school was 98% white. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan was received with tremendous hostility by white parents. A group was organized, Concerned Citizens of Canarsie (CCC), to protest. The choice of CCC as a name, which carried echoes of the KKK, was probably purposeful. The CCC slogan ‘neighborhood schools for neighborhood children’ seemed reasonable enough on the surface. A car, with a bullhorn on the roof, cruised through the neighborhood admonishing parents to keep their children home. The vast majority listened. Even though I was only 13, I believed that racism and fear was at the heart of their objections.
A boycott of the schools went on for weeks. I was alone in my 9th grade classes; just a teacher and me. I remember walking in the main entrance through a path defined by uniformed police and sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. My sense that the parents were racist was born out by their behavior.
Ultimately, the boycott failed and the busing plan was implemented. There was personal fallout; my friendship with Pia got caught in the crossfire.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to attend better schools and escape the violence. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them. After the boycott, Pia never invited me to hang out at her house again and she kept her distance at school.
In the aftermath, there was some white flight, but the neighborhood remained stable for a number of years. In 1972 Canarsie was about 10% black, by 1990 it shifted to just under 20%. By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. While the racial composition changed, its economic status remained stable as a middle class neighborhood.
Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians sought years before. According to a New York Times article from 2001, “Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family…”
These were shared values, but the white residents didn’t see it. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 after the firebombing of a real estate agency that was showing homes to black families. Ironically, the firebombing was intended to frighten blacks away, but white families left. The neighborhood became homogenous again – today it is over 90% black.
In reading and thinking about the issue of neighborhood change, commonalities emerge. Problems start with assumptions based on stereotypes and ignorance. There aren’t effective mechanisms to get beyond that. We have no language to talk to each other about these subjects. Perhaps that is something we can remedy.
One essay I read analogized different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. Maybe neighborhoods can be helped to mature beyond the ‘toddler’ stage. Perhaps opportunities can be created, by local government structures or nonprofit organizations, to facilitate community conversations, to break down assumptions and stereotypes.
We must find ways to do better. Forty years from now, I hope we aren’t asking the same questions about how to integrate communities across race and economic status.