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De-Gentrify New York and Give Her Back to the World

April 28, 2011 | Old School | New York City

With Samuel R. Delany, Jonas Hassan Khemiri, and Reno; curated by Sarah Schulman

 
Joined by two festival participants, three classic New York artists who love their city, bring their hearts and minds together to ask the question: What are the five necessary steps to de-gentrify New York? How do we overcome the crippling homogeneity that has turned parts of our historically dynamic urban mix of poets, immigrants, and revolutionary immigrant poets into destination drinking zones for investment bankers?

The following statement was issued by participants at the conclusion of this workshop.

The panel began with opening remarks from Sarah Schulman and Samuel R. Delany. Many of the participants also attended the previous night’s discussion on the same topic with different panelists.

Sarah opened with the full text of the famous Miilan Kundera quote which begins: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.” She then says that although the term “degentrification” was coined in London after World War II, in the United States it became associated with issues of white-flight and lower-income housing projects which changed the urban landscape of the five boroughs in the 1960s. Warehousing of unprofitable housing stock and racial unrest in largely black and Latino neighborhoods kept certain parts of New York more impoverished and drug ridden than they otherwise would have been and the tax base of the city eroded almost to the point of bankruptcy through the 1970s. In the 1980s political rhetoric pushed initiatives to attract wealthy renters and home owners and concurrent with the AIDS epidemic, gentrification takes off in New York in 1981. Now in 2011, Manhattan is overflowing with rich taxpayers and yet the city is losing teachers, hospitals, affordable housing and other social services faster than even in the 1970s. Why? The political excuse for gentrification was to expand public goods and services to the public via an expanded tax base, but it now appears that the sole motivation was to further enrich consortiums of real estate owner/developers.

She goes on to suggest as part of her conclusion that if the streets of New York (and specifically Manhattan) are famous for being fluid, dynamic sites of communal memory and as such, the source of inspiration for many artists, writers, and public intellectuals from around the world, what happens to that source of inspiration if it is intentionally deprived of all diversity and unpredictability by city planners and profit-driven developers?)

Five Steps to De-Gentrify New York:

1. Make being “uncomfortable” (in chaotic, diverse environments) a valued cultural commodity. Uninterrupted “comfort” has become part of a false life in an unjust society. Being uncomfortable is part of the process of being a full human being. (Meaning that urban gentrification is the denial of the experience of life and happiness of people who are not members of the socio-economic elite.)

2. Eliminate MFA academic programs! Don’t make an MFA degree the only prerequisite for employment. Revalorize artists who become great artists by living around other creative people who are actually *making art* rather than just going to school.

3. Stop the upscale, designer food craze. Revalorize local ethnic restaurants by supporting family restaurants purveying food from immigrant cultures in immigrant neighborhoods. Keep small Ukranian, Dominican, Chinese-Cuban restaurants, and Jewish delis in business!

4. Legalize Marijuana—in part to slow the destructive promotion of meth, crack, and chemical designer drugs

5. No more corporate welfare. Instead, offer free tuition to CUNY, free healthcare, and lower rents to New York natives.

Samuel R. Delany says as a professional fiction-writer and English professor, he has no particular expertise in gentrification causes or termination. But as a native New Yorker, he did live through and later write a non-fiction book about the gentrification of New York’s Times Square district, noting how it drastically changed the character of that neighborhood from the 1970s to the present day. That book “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” was published by NYU Press. Born into a middle-class family in Harlem by a father who ran a local neighborhood business, a funeral home, Mr. Delany has experienced all the benefits of a diversified New York: the countercultural communes of the East Village; the elite private schools nestled in various residential neighborhoods and the Temporary Autonomous Zones created in parks, along waterfronts, private clubs, and adult movie theaters for public gay sex.

He initially acknowledges the surface appeal of urban gentrification. “So why shouldn’t people want to live ‘somewhere nice’?” Why shouldn’t a developer go to an already desirable place with a good reputation and try to make it ‘nicer’?” He then cites a couple of reasons why such supposedly simple goals and motivations don’t work well in contemporary New York. One reason is that the developer is making decisions based only upon how much he can charge for the new housing he creates. Profit can’t be the only criteria for how or why a neighborhood is changed. The other problem with making urban neighborhoods “nice” is that “nice” implies a category of “not nice” which is to be actively excluded. “Not nice” has too often become the code word for “not wealthy” and “not white.”

Thirty-five years ago, Delany moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan because he had a three-year-old daughter whom he wanted to raise in a diverse, thriving neighborhood. Every possible demographic seemed to live there: natives, immigrants, wealthy, poor, straight, gay, whites, non-whites, and mixed. The range of goods and services within walking distance reflected the practical needs of this diversity. One of the first things Delany decided to do after he moved in was to create a support group for other gay fathers, so that they could pool information and allow their kids to socialize together. Soon they were a regular activity group of roughly 40 fathers and 60 kids that did a lot towards making New York a “nicer” place for their families to live. Today his daughter is a med school graduate working in Pennsylvania and his neighborhood is completely different. It is almost all wealthy white families surrounded by expensive boutiques and chain stores, with very few mom & pop businesses anymore. In north Philadelphia where he works, residents are organizing to prevent what happened to New York’s Upper West Side and Lower East Side from happening to them. Delany’s five suggestions are loosely based on similar styles of resident activism.

Five Steps to De-Gentrify New York:

1. Nobody can do it alone. You have to form a group.

2. Talk to businessmen and landlords who actually live in the neighborhood.

3. Network in and with schools as a good place to meet and discuss community needs, research the neighborhood’s history, and create a community newspaper to share information and advocate for what may be needed.

4. Developers should design for diversity, utility, and transparency, because fear and homogeneity kill the vitality of neighborhoods.

5. Say “Hello,” “Good Morning,” and “Good Evening” to everyone you see on your street more than once until they say it back to you! Familiarity and basic courtesy kills fear and makes neighborhoods more friendly.

Once the floor was opened up to the other participants, a wide range of men and women had a lot to say. One male literary translator who moved to Manhattan in 1985 said that he was dismayed at the pessimism he heard in the previous night’s panel, but that he remains hopeful even though he sees how we are losing small manufacturing industries, and that we have lost the organic development that enriched Manhattan in the past. He thinks a solution would be to remove the tax benefits to commercial landlords for keeping street-level store fronts vacant and shuttered.

Lou, a retired Native New Yorker moved from the Bronx to the Village where he has lived for 40 years. What he hates most about his neighborhood now are all the upscale dress shops, that are just tourist traps, not useful for anyone who lives there. He mourns the death of the old printing factories that used to be in the area. He said that he is middle-class, and his neighborhood is being taken away from him.

Emily, a writer whose first novel was published last year was a suburban kid who ran to Manhattan to escape homogeneity. She then left the Upper West Side for the Lower East Side in 1980, before the gentrification boom. Most of the same people still live in her building, but she has seen five new gentrified buildings go up recently all around them. She has been active in her community by curating a reading and music series hosted in local laundromats. She also says that getting a dog has gotten her more intimate with people and places in her neighborhood because it replaces the social contact with strangers she might otherwise get by having children.

Aaron is the publisher of Come With Us magazine and is partner in a bookstore in Brooklyn. He also used to sell books on street corners, which made him more aware of and sensitive to the daily life in different neighborhoods. He believes in promoting values and the welfare of neighborhoods you love, but he says he doesn’t believe there is any need or benefit to communicating with local landlords and business owners, because they don’t care about neighborhood residents. Which was strange to hear from him since he *is* a small business owner.

Bill, a poet, artist, and IT developer originally from the East Village now lives in the diverse environment of Jackson Heights, Queens, and is optimistic about the city. His daughter was born in the now-vanished St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village, and now she lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Melanie is a journalist who lives in Pennsylvania and commutes to New York for work. She originally came to in the mid ’80s to go to journalism school. While here she researched a story about a girl working in a Times Square peep show, and was surprised by how well she was treated in that environment. However, she was eventually mugged on the street and then moved away from the city for 15 years. She has recently come back on a short-term journalistic assignment, and finds herself excited and energized by the city again.

Gloria Albasi’s Italian family moved from the South Bronx to Crotona Park after the riots and once the Bronx had been burned out and left in disarray. She says that her parents had to beg the bank for a mortgage to get a house there, and says in retrospect that the Bronx may have been deliberately under-developed and politically set up to fail as an affordable working and middle-class neighborhood in order to artificially drive up the real estate values in Queens and Brooklyn. She still lives in the Bronx, between Morris Park and Indian Village, and yet still finds political propaganda and social stigma attached to the Bronx even though the developers are starting to invade there too now that they’ve elevated the cost of housing everywhere else.

Margorie is a woman in her 60s, who wrote for the Village Voice and is now losing her home because her building is being replaced by a luxury high-rise.

It was a moving, personal and intellectual conversation between New Yorkers who love the diversity of their city and see a desire for homogeneity coming from the new arrivals, who fear the wealth and the culture of wealth, and see conformity and supremacy as the reigning destructive values in the new New York. These changes are not natural evolution, but deliberate policy to bring moneyed whites into the city at the expense of everyone else. It was a conversation filled with mutual recognition and acknowledgement.

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