For the socially conscious city dweller, gentrification is the buzzword of our times. It's heralded by the upscale juice bar on the corner, a new yoga studio down the street, and the sight of a web journalist plunking out prose in the window of a made-to-look-old coffee bar while sipping a $5 latte. In a time of growing urban populations and rising income inequality, gentrification is associated with skyrocketing rents, displacement of longtime residents, and the rapid yuppi-fication of the neighborhood's culture.
In the latest New York magazine, Justin Davidson asks if this is all gentrification has to offer. His argument:
Gentrification doesn’t need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it’s the result of aspirations everybody shares. All over the city, a small army of the earnest toils away, patiently trying to sluice some of the elitist taint off neighborhoods as they grow richer. When you’re trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy.
The lightning-fast replacement of low-income neighbors by towering, multi-million dollar condos is not the kind of gentrification Davidson is talking about. But one Froyo outlet, or even two, need not spell doom for a neighborhood.
Yet those Dickensian juxtapositions are actually a sign of a city that is doing something right. Subsidized housing helps preserve neighborhoods from a uniform wash of affluence. Chelsea and the Upper West Side--two of the wealthiest districts in the nation--still make room for low-income residents in [New York City Housing Authority] projects.
That gentrification may not be completely evil isn't an entirely new argument, but it's an idea that's been bolstered by scholars in the last few years. Recent studies have backed this idea up, finding that gentrification improves the finances of original residents, and that people aren't necessarily bound to move out once affluent neighbors move in, though not everyone is convinced by the idea of a gentrification trickle-down effect.
As Nancy Biberman, who runs a South Bronx charity, rightly points out, "The things that low-income people think are nice are the same as what wealthy people want." You know, good schools, clean streets, safe neighborhoods. In between the extremes of a poverty-stricken food desert and the bougie condo wonderland lies a middle ground, an economically diverse neighborhood where everyone can benefit from changes. Can we find it?
Read the whole thing in NYMag.
[Image: Smorgasburg via Flickr user Bob Jagendorf]