A Few Notes On Overgentrification

There’s an opinion piece in today’s NYT that blames the “overgentrification” of West Chelsea — specifically the influx of high-end retail, exorbitant residential towers, and vapid tourists — on the High Line Park, which if you haven’t heard of it is the elevated railway that’s being transformed into a park extending from roughly 10th Street/MePa into the low 30s on the far west side. This kind of writing drives me crazy because while it presents itself as being liberal and progressive — “save the local gas stations and help the working class” — at heart it’s very conservative, because in its nostalgic desire to keep one neighborhood (usually already gentrified) static, it ignores the plight of other neighborhoods (usually impoverished) whose populations have no desire to remain static. It’s like all those people who are like “let’s go back to the 70s” — which I can appreciate, because yeah, I want to live in a giant Soho loft for $300/month — but I also think of people who were living in Harlem and the Bronx when everything was burning, and I bet that they aren’t exactly excited to return to that period (and more to the point, areas that suffered forty years ago are in many cases still suffering). There’s a hypocrisy at play among those who like to complain about gentrification but who live in gentrified neighborhoods, and who moreover have never lived in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, and so have no inkling of what it means to crave those things complainers take for granted or even treat with disdain (a coffee shop being the usual signifier, or in this piece, tourists and their money). The piece in the Times reminds me of one written a few years ago by a blogger who lives in Cobble Hill who took a stroll along 125th Street and bemoaned the gentrification of Harlem, because the lines of vacant storefronts and pawn shops were now home to a bakery (as in one), a non-Starbucks, and maybe a new restaurant or two. I’m not saying that people uptown want to be infested with a strip of J.Crews and Banana Repubs, but there’s a middle ground, and it’s not wrong to want a coffee shop and a bakery, nor should wanting new businesses (or not really caring about the loss of gas stations) be equated with the desire to drive out every working-class person in the nabe. Believe it or not, people without millions of dollars also like to drink coffee and have fresh bread (and other kinds of fresh food) within walking distance of their/our apartments.

The piece also fails to address the problems that really afflict neighborhoods in New York City and elsewhere around the world undergoing similar transformations. In West Chelsea, the problem is clearly not the High Line, but rather the effects of an unfettered system — at local and federal levels — that has allowed an arguably unprecedented concentration of wealth in our country, which (yes) makes it all but impossible for those without millions of dollars to afford to live (or at least buy) in those neighborhoods now being populated by those who have — let’s just call it — too much money. At the same time, however, the solution is not to stop the development of parks or to whine about gas-station/auto-shop leases not being renewed; the solution is rather (and this is hardly revolutionary or at least revelatory) to tax the rich, both individuals and corporations, and to distribute the money to the less-than-rich, in ways that are reasonably fair and equitable. That’s what government is for, but neither party has recognized this fact for approximately fifty years, and we are now suffering the consequences, with the gilded soullessness of downtown Manhattan and “white-people Brooklyn” being only one example in the context of real property/urban renewal.

But since we’re talking about real estate, let’s examine a few ways to prevent overgentrification: 1) require builders of every high-end development downtown (and not just uptown and in the Bronx, where the poor already live, and where there’s a high concentration of public housing) to include a significant percentage of affordable housing units in new construction; 2) spend aforementioned tax revenue on non-profit, cultural development (parks, museums, theaters, innovative public schools, etc), in neighborhoods that aren’t already stuffed with these kinds of projects and (like uptown and in the Bronx) will actually appreciate the access to culture and (believe it or not) the tourist dollars that will follow; and 3) stop subsidizing professional sports teams and other corporations with money that should be spent on item 2.

I’m not saying these solutions are politically viable in the current climate — where “class war” has obviously become a derogatory/supposedly “inflammatory” term, despite the fact that it’s exactly what’s needed (at least in terms of taxation) — but they are still the solutions, and everything else on the real-estate front is a variation of these themes. Also note that these proposals would not stop gentrification, but would put some limits around it, so that ideally neighborhoods will be able to sustain a mix of wealthy and less-than-wealthy — i.e., a diversity of classes. Admittedly, neighborhoods already in place or quickly coagulating at the upper/wealthy extreme can be soul-crushing in the manner described in the piece, but those at the other extreme can be soul-crushing for very different reasons, and when you’re complaining about one, it’s important to acknowledge the other.