True Community Media As a Key Weapon in Battle Against GentrificationBy: Andrew J. Padilla
Growing up in El Barrio, the vast majority of media one consumes in your community, is not written by or for the people of your community. Nine times out of ten when I turn on the TV, or read the paper, if I see my community at all, I am viewing it through someone else’s lens. If you view it enough, someone else’s lens can become your default. The first time I realized this lens crafted by those that didn’t particularly care for, understand, or even hire from my community, I was overwhelmed with shame. I should have known better.
“Don’t just repeat the news,” my dad would always say.
“Tell me who wrote it? Who published it? Why was it written now? Who loses? Who benefits?”
Early this winter, Fox News Latino called me for a story on Gentrification in Spanish Harlem.
“Just hear them out,” my mother said.
As I spoke with the reporter, I thought of my dad’s words:
“Who benefits?” “¿Quién se beneficia?”
Reporter: “Hi I’m with Fox News Latino and I’m looking to speak to Andrew?”
Me: “Ummm…this is him?”
Reporter: “Hey Andrew! I was wondering if you had a chance to talk about “gente” fication in El Barrio?”
Reporter: “No, “gente” fication?”
Me: “What is that?”
Reporter: “Did you see the article on “Gente” fication in the NYT? Latinos from Boyle Heights in L.A. are actually the ones leading gentrification there.”
Me: “Really now?”
Reporter: “The new coffee shops sell expensive lattes, the restaurants are improving, but they are run by people from the neighborhood.”
Me: “Yea, I read that piece. Forget all of the economic displacement gentrification causes. Some Latinos are still around so it’s ok. Latino’s are doing it so it’s ok. It’s still becoming more expensive for existing residents to live and shop in their own communities, isn’t it?”
Reporter: “Well the face of gentrification there is Latino and some are benefiting from it. I was wondering if you’d found any examples of that in your work in El Barrio and if you could point them out to me?”
Taking a breath.
Me: “I know plenty of small business owners hustling hard as hell to do keep their small business going, like Michelle at the East Harlem Cafe, Aurora at La Casa Azul Bookstore, Jorge at Justos Botánica, Orlando at Camaradas El Barrio, and the list goes on. But most small business in East Harlem are not thriving because of gentrification, they’re holding on by a thread because of it.”
Reporter: “Can you think of anyone who is economically benefiting from it?”
Me: “Small business owners are hurt by gentrification just as residents are. If not worse. Some tenants have rent control, rent regulation, etc. But there is no commercial rent regulation for businesses in New York City. So when property value rises, their rent does as well. Rising land value benefits those who own land. Considering 70% of NYC rents, 93.6% of East Harlem rents, and most small business do as well, gentrification does not benefit us.”
Reporter: “Have you seen Latinos who left coming back and making businesses here?”
Me: “When people leave a gentrifying community, they tend to need a lot more money to re-enter, live and start businesses in the same streets they grew up on.”
Reporter: “We’ll maybe we can tour around East Harlem and you can point me in the direction of some people to talk to?”
Me: “Honestly, I’m not the only voice in the community, there are plenty of other people out here you could and should talk to and that is reach out you should do on your own. I worked for the census, I knocked on each door in East Harlem and its far wealthier neighbor, Yorkville, and just check the numbers, they don’t bear out the migration you’re trying to write about. You may find a few Latinos benefiting here but they are the exception not the rule. We aren’t leading this change, large developers that donate to every local election are the ones truly influencing our housing policy.”
Reporter: “So what are some examples of it, even if it’s rare?”
Me: “If you don’t have any evidence of “gente” fication of my hood, why are you writing a story on it?”
Reporter: “Well, my editor really wants me to write it.”
Me: “Where’d he get that idea?”
Reporter: ”Well…he saw that New York Times piece on “Gente” fication in L.A. and and wanted to do a story on it in El Barrio.”
Me: “What if the facts on the ground don’t reflect what your editor wanted you to write?”
Reporter: “My other editor is a bit more flexible, but with this one I don’t have much of a say. He really wants me to find a way to “make it work.”
A few weeks later the article came out.
Not one person quoted from El Barrio, meaning not one person in El Barrio bit the reporter’s approach.
I was filled with pride.
As mayor De Blasio releases his affordable housing report and our neighborhood continues to recover after the East Harlem explosion, it becomes even more important that we be critical of what is said of us, done “for us”, and continue taking control of our own narratives.
We cannot let outside journalists, academics, and politicians dictate our history, reality, and vision for the future.
Deciding through whose lens we view our own community, and through which lens we want to create media on our community, is key in battling against gentrification.
If you know youth in El Barrio/ Manhattan interested in free educational and training programs to begin telling their own stories I recommend MNN El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center, which offers education, training, and internships for media makers in these age groups: 14 to 20-years-old and 18 to 24-years-old. Click on links to apply.
Andrew J. Padilla is a Puerto Rican filmmaker, photographer, and street reporter born and raised in East Harlem aka “El Barrio.”