Gentrification as a Way of Life

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By: Ed Morales

You could say my whole life has been a kind of gentrification story.

I grew up in the Northeast Bronx at the tail end of what was known as “White Flight,” a demographic shift in which most of the remaining European ethnics moved out of The Bronx and other boroughs to the suburbs because people like me were moving in. It was the first time in my life I realized that where you lived depended on your race. Through the ‘80s there were many incidents when people of color like Yusuf Hawkins wandered innocently into neighborhoods like Howard Beach and paid a price for invading White turf. But when I got out of university and moved back to New York, when I moved into a Loisaida block between Avenue A and B, I witnessed gentrification first-hand for the first time.

NuyoricanCafe1981-BIGIt was pretty rough in Loisaida, but I wanted to live in an area dominated by Puerto Ricans and I quickly got a job in a nonprofit set up to help high school dropouts get their GEDs. There was already a mix of downtown artists in the neighborhood, but after many years of the city evicting squatters, and cracking down on the fierce drug trade, gentrification starting kicking in during the late ‘80s. At the time, the Nuyorican Poets Café had just reopened and even though I welcomed that—I really wanted to read poetry there—I soon found that it would become tied into the process.

When MTV started showing up at the café because one of our poets, Kevin Powell, had been chosen for the first season of “The Real World,” lots of people from outside the neighborhood began showing up. The café was the spot, and so many young poets of color made a name for themselves. But it also helped make the neighborhood a lot cooler and safer-seeming to young Whites from the Midwest and beyond, who began moving in relentlessly, pushing up rents and helping turn it into the bohemian playground it is today.

WB-Mural_MiradaI moved to Brooklyn into an affordable space and began to hear about the same thing happening in Williamsburg and East Harlem. Williamsburg, I knew, was the first choice of artists who were getting priced out of Loisaida, so that seemed logical, but East Harlem? I began a period of eight years where, as a journalist, I followed the gentrification of the neighborhood my parents met in after migrating from Puerto Rico.

Some Boricua friends of mine were moving back to East Harlem because they were committed to the community and wanted to do their part to stabilize the neighborhood’s Latino population. They felt that if they worked hard and saved, they could buy up property and that would be the best way to maintain our presence in a neighborhood that pretty much defined the Puerto Rican experience in New York.

But in the middle of that noble quest, real estate began to take off in the city, and around the country, in such an exaggerated way that some have called the process hypergentrification, or gentrification on steroids. The same housing bubble that helped bring down the economy in 2008 had the effect of raising prices so high that many of my friends could no longer afford their dream of buying in Spanish Harlem.

It was during this time that I co-directed a documentary with Laura Rivera called “Whose Barrio?”, which told the story of several Barrio residents. While making the movie, my landlord in Brooklyn sold the building because the new Barclay’s Center Arena set off a real estate speculation frenzy in the borough. My rent was raised by $1,000 a month. We completed the movie at almost the same time we moved to The Bronx, right across the Willis Avenue Bridge.

Whose-Barrio-publicity-still-copyIn my new neighborhood I’m acutely aware of the threat of gentrification. Although there aren’t that many signs yet, it seems inevitable that there will be some spillover from East Harlem. Last December I moderated a panel about gentrification at the Bronx Documentary Center and screened “Whose Barrio?” to an eager group of worried Bronx residents.

I am glad there are many committed residents, including some recently moved in homeowners who are concerned that the South Bronx might face a sudden gentrification that will force residents out. But there is so much work in consciousness-raising to do, and we must be willing to confront both private developers and pressure the new administration to construct affordable housing.

It’s a very difficult fight when you have to cater to luxury housing developers who are only providing a precious few affordable apartments and are hostile to the interests of working class people of color. I think the entire concept of extracting high returns from the sale of residential real estate is problematic at its root. We must, as a society, begin to shift our priorities from amassing profits to making sure that we provide average people with the opportunity to work and maintain a decent living space.

Otherwise, we’ll just have to keep moving from one neighborhood to another, until there’s no room left in New York for us.

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Ed Morales is a journalist, poet, and filmmaker. He has been a Latin music Newsday columnist and longtime Village Voice contributing writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Times and The Nation. He directed the film “Whose Barrio?” about gentrification in East Harlem, New York and published a magical-realist gentrification fantasy story – “The Coast Is Clear” – in the anthology Iguana Dreams. He is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

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