Chat Corner: Gentrification and White Guilt

After reading an article in New York Magazine excerpted from DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Centurythe gang discusses gentrification, poverty, income inequality and white guilt. The conversation is edited and compiled. 

Photo credit: Brooklyn street artist Specter

Photo credit: Brooklyn street artist Specter

Sebastian: Just scheduled this article from New York Magazine. It’s an inside look at racist/predatory practices in the NYC housing market.

Angie: Interesting: …oh look, the landlord does business in my neighborhood!

Sebastian: Yeah, according to him some of your neighbors are racist af.

Jeremy: And now I’m depressed. This article reminds me of a book I read.

Sebastian: What was the book called?

Jeremy: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Specifically, the operative factor in the stress of poverty is feeling poor (i.e., inequality). The author drew on Ichiro Kawachi’s work linking high inequality to low social capital. The pull quote is that poverty is the “biggest risk factor there is in all of behavioral medicine.”

Angie: This article is talking about the street I live on: “We’re small, so we look into places that haven’t caught on — we just did a place on Nostrand Avenue. People are not even there yet. We put in $600,000 and everyone was laughing at us. “It’s crazy, you’re over there. A building for yuppies, white people? It’s not going to work.” The building was full of tenants — $1,300, $1,400 tenants. We paid every tenant the average of twelve, thirteen thousand dollars to leave. I actually went to meet them — lawyers are not going to help you. And we got them out of the building and now we have tenants paying $2,700, $2,800, and they’re all white. So this is what we do.”

Jeremy: Wow.

Sebastian: The realtor in the article is clearly a scumbag who has rationalized his behavior. How many times can you say, “It’s a little racist, but it’s not” in one interview?

Angie: The Crown Heights riots in the 1990s destroyed any type of relations between the Hasidic community and the West Indies community here. That was 20 years ago.

Angie: This entire article makes me realize I am a problem.

Sebastian: I don’t think you’re the problem just because you can afford to buy or rent in a neighborhood. But on the other hand, a lot of people ARE the problem because they want to buy in an affordable or trendy neighborhood, but they don’t want any of the poor minorities who might live there to stick around. I think the biggest problem is the total lack of oversight or mechanisms to control predatory real estate practices. Unscrupulous developers operate on the margins, so its hard to root them out.

Sebastian: It goes back to what jeremy said: high inequality = low social capital. The reason the homeowners in the article could be cheated out of their deeds is because they don’t know what they have.

Angie: There is more to it though. #whiteguilt

Sebastian: If by “part of the problem” you mean a wealthier person moving into a poorer (or formerly poor) neighborhood, then yes. Buti feel like having privilege isn’t really a problem so much as a fact of life. It’s not like the world would be better if you lived in a more expensive, whiter neighborhood.

Sebastian: That’s like me saying I feel guilty about being a dude. I mean, I’m not a misogynist and I think the patriarchy is some bullshit. And it’s good to be aware of how I benefit from it and the subtle ways in which I participate. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel bad about being a man.

Angie: That article bothered me because it was literally about my neighborhood. Something I am a part of right now. I am the white person who moved into the building who is willing to pay way more than the apartment deserves. I am the white person who likes to drink craft beers at the hipster bar on a street occupied by fruit stands, bodegas, hair wrap salons, and storefront churches. I am the person who likes burritos and chooses to go to the new bougie place instead of the dingy burrito shop that has been on Nostrand for 10 years. I am the reason shop-owners who have been around for decades can’t afford their rent any longer, so they move out and a new cocktail bar moves in. I am a part of the problem because I facilitate it. I am a consumer.

Sebastian: but if you’re implicated because you are a consumer, then aren’t we all guilty? I feel like that’s the nature of capitalism. I don’t think that it’s bad that there is a demand for urban living, hipster bars and walkable neighborhoods. Things were not better in Brooklyn when there was no demand to live there and no money in the neighborhood.

Angie: The market recognizes I am a consumer, so they start to change the neighborhood to fit MY needs, but end up pricing me out in the end. So I move another block down the street to start the process again.

Sebastian: I still think the real problem is that there is demand for “white” neighborhoods, and that there are no safeguards to prevent corrupt practices and exploitation in the service of meeting legitimate demands.

Angie: I live where I do because I hate driving, I like walkable neighborhoods, and I like being a member of a community. My bodega started keeping Bell’s Two Hearted stocked because I was a regular patron. The local grocery store made sure to have firewood for sale because they knew about our wood fire pizza oven. They know my face. They know my sandwich order. I feel better because I am participating in the community. I begin to think, “No I am not the problem,  I choose to live here because I also can’t afford Manhattan or Williamsburg.”  I live here because I like the cultural diversity. It makes me feel better, until I realize it’s beginning to fade.

Angie: What wracks my guilt the most is that I feel safer in the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Why do I feel safer? Is the community actually safer? Probably. But there is something more there. Yes, as development occurs throughout Brooklyn, the neighborhoods become better. The subways are maintained more often. The streets are cleaned more often. The buses run more regularly. The street lights are fixed immediately. But there have always been people in this neighborhood. Why does the city suddenly care about it now?

Sebastian: I can see it from your perspective. I live near a neighborhood where my grandparents used to live and I’m black, but I’ve had the same feelings. The fact of the matter is that me moving into the neighborhood means that I’m probably pushing out people like my grandmother, who live on fixed incomes or in affordable housing.

Angie: What is the alternative though? Live in the suburbs like my parents? White flight is a thing for Baby Boomers, not Millennials. I could either remove myself from the problem completely or participate in gentrification. What is my middle ground?

Sebastian: I think that it’s a political problem as well as an economic problem, which alludes to your point about services improving as neighborhoods get richer. There is a lack of concern for poor people and the neighborhoods they live in, so if you’re moving to a community to be a part of a community then try and advocate on behalf of the community. That’s way different than moving somewhere and saying “I like the amenities here, but I don’t like my neighbors.”