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.