The Gentrifier’s Guide to Not Being an Asshole
Brigette Blood on the streets in Bushwick: One “white lady drinking tea” can unwittingly change a housing market.
If anyone needed a perfect Rorschach test for 21st-century gentrification angst, it showed up this summer on Slate. The website created an "Are You a Gentrifier?" calculator that promised a simple yes/no answer. The calculator itself was fairly ham-fisted — anyone with a higher-than-average income living in a poorer-than-average zip code got tagged with the G-word — but the comments section quickly exploded with tellingly defensive objections: "Why is it my fault rents went up?" "The only true gentrifiers are the people who flip houses. People like me who integrate into the neighborhood rather than trying to change it aren't hurting anything." "How can I be a gentrifier if I'm black?"
It's one of the realities of modern New York: Wherever you go, there somebody else just was. And with both an influx of young urban transplants and soaring housing costs wherever you look — an August real estate report found that rents in parts of Queens are rising even faster than those in Brooklyn — if you moved recently, regardless of your own paycheck and complexion, there's a good chance you replaced someone who was poorer and darker than you.
Ever since the 1950s-era flight of city dwellers to suburbia began to reverse course, it's been recognized that upscale immigrants bring more to a neighborhood than just increased demand for artisanal condiments. Residents with the ability to pay more for rent — even if it's just by quadrupling up in a two-bedroom apartment, dorm-style — drive up prices, pushing the existing population elsewhere. In Bushwick, the number of residents earning more than $100,000 a year nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012, according to data provided by City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso's office; in that same timespan, average rents after accounting for inflation rose by 50 percent, and the neighborhood's Hispanic population shrank by 9 percent, even as overall population increased.
And once newcomers arrive in a neighborhood, they tend to snowball. This is not just because they tell their friends about their new discovery, but, rather, due to the problematic racial calculus of neighborhood desirability — their very presence makes it seem safe for others of their ethnicity and/or artistic bent. The bit from the first Sex and the City movie where Miranda trailed a white dad with a stroller into Chinatown to find a desirable apartment was controversial not just because it was cringeworthy, but because it was a scene that, at the time of the film's 2008 release, was being repeated (if not in quite as bald-faced a fashion) across the city.
Brigette Blood, who moved to Bushwick after graduating from college in 2003, readily acknowledges that as much as she's thrown herself into fighting the runaway gentrification of her adoptive home through her work with the North West Bushwick Community Group, she can't entirely mitigate her own ripple effect on housing demand. "When the landlord next door comes to show his apartment and there's a white lady sitting out front, that's a kind of power that I can't deny," she says. "A white lady sitting out front drinking tea has a different cultural reading for a lot of people than the very wonderful Puerto Rican men who hang out on my street all day."
The arrival of newcomers can destabilize a neighborhood's economic ecosystem as well, pricing out bodegas and the like to make way for everything from indie coffee bars and gourmet groceries to the bane of the unintended gentrifiers' lot: chain stores. William Powhida, an artist who moved to Bushwick in 2008, recalls a conversation with a since-departed local artist who, as a Spanish speaker, kept close contact with the Hispanic neighbors who'd preceded her on her block. "Many of her neighbors were happy their kids could play in the street, that there was a reduction in crime, that some good things were happening for the neighborhood," he says. "But every time a U-Haul showed up, the neighbors would observe, 'Oh, los blanquitos, the price of chicken is going to go up.' "
If the ubiquitous gentrification wars have a silver lining, it's that longtime residents and newcomers alike have begun struggling to find ways to make the hostilities less hostile. And while these ideas may not assuage your guilt at your rent check being the instrument that evicted a family of five — in fact, as all involved make clear, assuaging your guilty conscience should be exactly not the point — the Voice has found a number of residents who can suggest some basic do's and don'ts:
✔ Don't assume a blank slate
Nine years ago, The Onion ran what remains the definitive account of how not to behave when moving to a new part of town. In a mock op-ed titled "Sometimes I Feel Like I'm the Only One Trying to Gentrify This Neighborhood," the fictitious author ran through all the clichés of the Ugly Gentrifier, such as: "I'm trying to convince the owners of that taqueria on the corner to change their decor to incorporate some more of that funky Day of the Dead motif I really like. But they insist on bland white walls. Ugh!"
Like most Onion articles, it was funny because it was largely true. The real estate press in particular loves to present outer-borough neighborhoods as terra incognita waiting to be "discovered" and civilized. In one such article this summer, the Wall Street Journal described the Weeksville section of Bedford-Stuyvesant, an area that has been continually occupied by African Americans since the early nineteenth century, as a "forgotten" neighborhood. "Historic section gets new attention as buyers push deeper into the borough," the subhead went, as if people with money were bushwhacking into the darkest jungle, machete and mortgage deposit in hand.
"People with privilege have always been able to take what they want," observes Elizabeth Yeampierre, the longtime director of the Sunset Park environmental justice community group UPROSE, which has begun working with local businesses to help them stave off displacement by more deep-pocketed merchants. " 'OK, let's go to Red Hook. Let's go to East New York. Let's go to Brownsville. It looks raw and funky, let's live there.' Without thinking of what the consequences of their decisions are for other people."
Elizabeth Yeampierre’s advice to newcomers: “Sit back and listen.”
It's simply the way that many people — particularly the young and the new to New York — approach their housing choices, especially when they're already struggling to find a rent they can afford. Powhida says that art schools in particular have long espoused a mantra of "go to New York, live as cheap as possible," without considering the impact of huge numbers of young graduates doing so all at once. He recalls overhearing a group of young friends on the subway discussing where they planned to move. "There wasn't any sense of awareness of any existing residents or what's going on there. It's just: Is this convenient, is it good for me, is it going to be fun?
"I don't want to judge these kids," the 39-year-old quickly adds. "I think I was probably about the same place when I moved here when I was in my early twenties."
None of which is to say that anyone has to do a master's thesis on the community they're joining before signing a lease. But it's important to keep your eyes open, and not to act like Columbus on the beach, with nothing on your mind but where to find the nearest coffee bar. (Or, in Columbus's case, gold mine.) "Realize that there's a history there before you," advises Tamara Zahaykevich, a sculptor who landed in Sunset Park in 2009 after several previous moves, and ended up deeply involved in community campaigns to fight the effects of unfettered gentrification. "A lot of people move into a neighborhood and say, 'Oh, there was nothing here before.' And that nothing may be nothing to you, but it is something to somebody. And I think that that nothing allowed for speculators and developers to spin that whole thing of 'We're creating something great!' "
✔ Think locally, shop locally
Rejin Leys has experienced the full range of Brooklyn's transformation, bouncing from Prospect Heights to Fort Greene to Bedford-Stuyvesant before ultimately landing in Jamaica, Queens, the neighborhood where she spent her childhood. When she first landed in northern Bed-Stuy, near the Kosciuszko Street J stop, in 2002, the Haitian-American mixed-media artist recalls, "We thought we'd found a place that would never get gentrified. And things did start to change slowly around us. It felt like no place was safe if you were trying to find something affordable."
In particular, she says she started noticing one of the sure signs of modern Brooklyn hipsterization: stores with no obvious function or hours. "There were starting to be these little storefronts that didn't have a sign, their hours were kind of mysterious, and it turned out to be kind of in-crowd places where you had to know," says Leys. "It wasn't really for local people. One of them was a gallery, and I'm an artist, and I thought, 'Oh, this would be great — if I only knew how to contact them or what their hours were.' "
At the same time, it can be helpful when new arrivals go out of their way to patronize existing stores, which can otherwise be some of the first victims of the changing clientele, as old customers are forced to move and new ones turn up their nose at the unfamiliar. Hunter College sociologist Mike Owen Benediktsson recently published a study of commercial spaces in Williamsburg following the 2005 city rezoning that paved the way for waterfront condo towers. His research found that 90 percent of the 52 bars and restaurants located in the surrounding twenty blocks were less than a decade old; at the same time, the number of Hispanic-owned groceries, dry cleaners, and other businesses dropped by half, outstripping even changes in the residential population.
"It's very easy to just say, 'Oh, I'm only going to go to this café because it has the trappings of a gentrified space — and I'm not going to go into any other place because I don't feel comfortable because I'm not the dominant person there,' " says Kelly Anderson, a Hunter College professor and filmmaker whose My Brooklyn documented the city-led conversion of Brooklyn's Fulton Mall from an African-American shopping mecca into today's playground of upscale chains and even more upscale condo towers. "People fall into self-segregating ways of being really easily, and I think those businesses really appreciate it when people come in and spend money there."
✔ Do your homework
The last thing anyone needs when trying to find an apartment is any more work to do. Merely navigating the hell of New York real estate listings is a full-time job in itself. But tenant advocates warn that doing some research before you move in is the best way to ensure that you're not being used by landlords to jack up rents — and that you won't become the next victim.
One increasingly common tactic in gentrifying neighborhoods, tenant organizers say, is for owners of rent-stabilized buildings to offer "preferential rents," providing a lower monthly rate than the official legal rent filed with the state. This may sound like a gift to the tenant, but in fact it can provide a huge windfall for landlords: By claiming high legal rents even while offering apartments at a discount, building owners leave themselves plenty of headroom to jack up rents later with little notice.
Loraine Dellamore, an organizer with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, recalls one white woman, a transplant from Manhattan, who spoke at a recent town hall on tenant harassment (an assembly sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams). "When she moved in, she was paying I think $900 a month," says Dellamore. "And then they decided, after living there for four years, you're no longer going to have preferential rent — your rent is going to be $2,400, $2,500."
Bushwick condos offer stunning views of people who soon won’t be able to afford to live there.
The woman ended up moving out rather than pay the increase, recalls Dellamore. But even then, her landlord still received a bonus: Whereas rent regulations limit increases on existing tenants to a few percent a year, apartments that are vacant are subject to an immediate 20 percent "vacancy increase." This year, for the first time in New York, one-year leases must be renewed with no increase at all, after a year in which falling fuel costs had led landlords' outlays to level off. But for building owners who can churn tenants in and out — say, by luring them in with cheap rents before turning around and hiking the price — it's a potentially huge payoff.
Combating all this requires knowing your legal rent history as recorded by the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal, which can reveal any questionable shenanigans such as unauthorized MCIs (major capital improvements, where a landlord performs upgrades on a property and demands rent hikes in exchange), vacancy increases, or even mystery increases in legal rents that are simply recorded by a building owner with no written justification. ("The burden is always on the tenants to make a complaint," says Flatbush Tenant Coalition organizer Aga Trojniak. "It's a ridiculous system.") You can't request an official rent history on your residence from DHCR until you've moved in, but a visit to the independent website amirentstabilized.com will at least let you know whether you have legal standing to challenge your designated rent.
✔ Talk to your neighbors
"The first thing," advises Anderson, the Hunter professor, "is don't be an asshole. Treat the people in your neighborhood as your neighbors." It sounds simple, but all too many newcomers have a hard time with it, especially white residents in neighborhoods dominated by people of color. Anderson says she's heard from many African Americans in gentrifying neighborhoods "that they really feel that vibe that [new residents] look past them, or look at them like, 'What are you doing here?' "
Beyond seeing your neighbors as fellow humans, far too few neighborhood newbies take the next step of actually getting to know the people they've settled among. For Zahaykevich, the Sunset Park sculptor, the turning point in her relationship with her new community came when she went to a local testimonial on housing issues put on by the low-income housing education group Neighbors Helping Neighbors. "They were talking about all of these people in this community that were losing their homes," she recalls. "There were about eight women or so that got up and told their stories — like, 'I live with three kids, our landlord raised my rent from $900 to $1,400, and they're doing absolutely nothing to fix the space.' "
Curious to find out more, Zahaykevich started attending community board meetings, and began learning not just about neighborhood issues, but about her neighbors themselves. "It started making me feel less like a transplant being here and being invisible, to seeing people from these meetings on the street and in some cases saying hello to them, and forming relationships with them over time," she says. "That's been really, really helpful for me as a human."
Those on the other side of the gentrification divide express similar sentiments. "Don't be afraid to approach your neighbors," says Dellamore, the Flatbush organizer, who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. "Find out what sort of neighborhood is this, what sort of building it is, is it safe, do we have good heat? You don't want to be friendly-friendly if you don't have to, but at least interact to know what you are coming to face." That should go double, she says, if you receive warning from your new landlord about steering clear of people who don't look like you. In her own building, she says, "When they come to see the apartment, [the landlords are] already saying, 'Don't talk to her. She's a troublemaker.' "
In Crown Heights, which is facing a double whammy of gentrification at its western end as more affluent residents drift east from Prospect Heights and south from Bed-Stuy, residents both new and old banded together in late 2013 to form the Crown Heights Tenant Union, which now boasts several dozen members who do battle for their common interests. "If a building doesn't have heat, the building doesn't have heat," says CHTU organizer Cea Weaver. Besides, she says, "You'd be surprised at the amount of compassion and anger that some of the longer residents have — 'Oh, my god, you're paying that much?' "
✔ Shut your mouth when necessary
UPROSE, originally the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, started life in 1966 as a neighborhood social service agency before shifting gears around the time Yeampierre arrived as director in 1996 to focus on environmental justice issues, battling plans for a waterfront power plant and working to create safer street crossings on major avenues. Soon enough, though, the group realized that gentrification might present it with its biggest battle, since there was little point in preserving the waterfront if no existing residents could afford to stick around to enjoy it.
"One of the hard things about displacement and gentrification is some of the people who move in, you really like them," says Yeampierre. UPROSE has worked closely with artists like Zahaykevich — whose studios are being evicted from the rapidly redeveloping Industry City warehouses on 31st Street between Second and Third avenues — and Yeampierre praises what the newcomers have brought to the community, including pitching in on air pollution projects and helping to create art for last year's climate march.
Sunset Park’s waterfront: The new Williamsburg?
Still, while she welcomes the support, the energy, and the knowledge that new arrivals bring, Yeampierre says it can be a mixed blessing. "With gentrification, what's happening is people are coming to meetings with a lot of opinions and hijacking the meeting," she explains. "They know everything, and they basically put a chilling effect on everybody else." She recalls one artist who approached her group with a proposal for a mural, with very fixed ideas about what he wanted to paint. "Well, ask. Is that something that we need?" she says. "You came in with your idea and your vision, and now you feel good because people showed up and they splashed paint on the wall."
The favored term for addressing this bull-in-a-china-shop approach to working with existing communities is "checking your privilege." Yeampierre explains how it applies to her as well, as a lawyer working in a community where advanced degrees are uncommon. "If I walk in a room, and if anybody knows I'm a lawyer, what people will do is they will defer to me, and they'll say, 'Let me hear what you have to say.' So what do I have to do? I have to not speak. I have to sit back and listen. And I have to respect that their voice is supposed to be telling me how I'm going to use my skills. And if I can't control that — because I'm opinionated — I don't participate, I send someone else."
It's a skill, Yeampierre says, that is sadly undeveloped in many newcomers, even those with the best of intentions. "People who come from a long history of privilege don't know how to do that, even when they're trying," she says. One example: UPROSE tries to operate by what are known as the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, a list of six rules for bringing together diverse groups in a way that everyone has a say. (Number three is "Let People Speak for Themselves.") When presenting these principles to people from more privileged backgrounds, Yeampierre says, "Five minutes after, I'll say, 'What does everybody think?' And their hands go up — they're the smartest kid in the room. They can't control it!"
She's smiling when she says it, though. And, she adds, "to the credit of some, they do it well. And they become models."
✔ Be aware of your own role
No one even pretends to believe that gentrification can be stopped — not, that is, without starting to reduce the gap in spending power between the gentrifiers and the gentrified, which is probably beyond the abilities of any neighborhood organizing effort. (Though several community activists do include pressing for an increased minimum wage across all industries — beyond just the recent ruling by a state panel to raise fast-food workers' wages to $15 an hour by 2021 — as one way to at least begin to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.)
And so the first step, anti-gentrification organizers say, is admitting that you're part of the problem. "As an artist, once you're moved in to a neighborhood, to try to mitigate the effects of gentrification would almost be like bailing a leaky boat with a little cup from inside it," says Leys, the Jamaica resident. Yet she says that working to fight for reforms such as the Small Business Jobs Survival Act can at least stem the tide: "If landlords are allowed to add a few zeroes when your lease is up for your commercial rent, then no local longtime diner or cabbie hangout is going to be able to survive once the developers see that they can try to make more money on businesses that cater to newcomers."
New residents may also find that there are particular skills they can offer to their adopted communities, aside from their ability to write large rent checks and talk over their neighbors. Blood, of the North West Bushwick Community Group, says young residents with flexible schedules can serve a valuable role by attending policy meetings and reporting back to those whose work schedules keep them busy during the day; Anderson says she's been heartened when other recent arrivals in her Sunset Park neighborhood have called their fellow newcomers on tone-deaf actions like hurrying to phone the cops on local undocumented homeless.
The hardest step is the same as for anyone trying to influence city development policy: tracking zoning regulations, going to community board meetings, and trying to organize your neighbors, new and old alike. "There is a learning curve," says Blood, especially since "newcomers tend to be very social-media-savvy" while the city political apparatus tends to skimp on its Facebook status updates.
In the end, though, we know that gentrification can come for us all. (Unless we are deep-pocketed enough to be the beneficiaries of "aristocratization," as foretold in another Onion article on how "the recent influx of exceedingly affluent powder-wigged aristocrats into the nation's gentrified urban areas is pushing out young white professionals.") Leys recalls that at an artist event to organize for the SBJSA that she attended, "One person looked very interested — until we suggested that she should contact her local councilman." The woman, she recalls, replied, "Oh, I don't do politics."
"And I thought, be prepared to move back to Oshkosh when you get priced out."
Correction, August 25, 2015: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rejin Leys's neighborhood.
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