Challenging an Inevitability Narrative of Gentrification in New York City

A few months ago, I wrote a post in response to a New York Times article on Queens real estate where I suggested that Queens residents might resist external definitions of what success and change look like in New York City in an effort to retain and celebrate those things that make our borough unique and special.

The most disheartening response to my post came from a fellow Astorian who remarked via Twitter that it might be too bad, but it is going to happen: Astoria will be the next Park Slope.  What saddened me was not our difference of opinion, but rather the overwhelming presence of an inevitability narrative of gentrification in this comment.

An inevitability narrative of gentrification assumes that change will happen, but more insidiously, that change will always look a specific way.  Whatever demographic nuances might actually exist in Park Slope, the message seemed clear: neighborhood change will be wealthy, white, and otherwise homogeneous.

Perhaps not surprisingly, responses to Spike Lee’s now infamous gentrification remarks brought the inevitability narrative front and center in public discourse last week. A New York Daily News article “Gentrifiers, hold your heads high” by Joshua Greenman makes the inevitability argument with thinly veiled euphoria, saying of Lee’s monologue “it’s ignorant, because the phenomenon he decries is mostly innocuous, inevitable and, in a diverse and economically dynamic city, healthy.”

Gentrification has been described in many nuanced ways, but “innocuous” is not, and should not, be one of them. To do so erases the real pain New Yorkers experience when their neighborhoods change around them to the point where a place that once felt like home becomes unrecognizable.

That change will happen is indeed an inevitability.  That change will happen within the context of capitalism in our city is also an inevitability.  New York, after all, has always been about the market.  While other American cities historically had industry as a business, New York had the business of making money as a business. However, what exactly change will look like is where we New Yorkers can be inventive, inclusive, protective and appreciative about what makes our neighborhoods unique and inspiring.

By acknowledging that each one of us has a role in actively shaping the way our city changes, we might regain a collective power misplaced to forces, like gentrification, that seem to have spiraled out of our control.  We are New Yorkers after all, we don’t like anyone telling us what to do, who we are, or how things have to be.

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3 thoughts on “Challenging an Inevitability Narrative of Gentrification in New York City

  1. I’m a former NYer (lived in Sunset Park most of my life, and in Astoria for the last year of living in NYC) and am now living in SF (a city also facing strong bouts of gentrification.)

    I see the unfortunate, inevitably of gentifrication, as a symbol of weakness in the collaborative efforts between neighborhoods and local governments. In Spike Lee’s response he mentioned the unfortunate process of people who have been fighting for changes in neighborhoods for decades, only now seeing change because people with larger income finally arriving (and thus their tax income assisting in making these changes possible.) The rapid development from gentrification should be a catalyst for change in local government. Helping communities empower themselves. Empowering them with better education and tools to continue stepping up in the socio-economic ladder, in turn, increasing taxable income and basically leading to similar positive improvements of gentrification, without the displacement. These neighborhoods are already culturally-rich hubs — the people that live within them came to live in them, and offered a piece of themselves, why can’t the neighborhoods in turn, do the same for them?

    /rant

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the Changing City | tastoriaqueens

  3. Pingback: One More Year of Excellent Eating in Astoria | tastoriaqueens

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