The New Hood: A Closer Look Into The World Of Gentrification
For the last half-century, West 116th Street has been one of New York City’s most dangerous and dirtiest neighborhoods. Back in the early 20th century, there was a steady decline in public safety in the city when the homeless population scattered around the area. The local playground, A. Philip Randolph Square ,was covered with homeless people rather than accessories.
The local children were never able to play in the park as the stainless steel slides were covered in plastic baggies containing small particles of crack cocaine. The smell of body odor filled the area like perfume in a department store and the water fountains were filled with dirt and human fecal matter. The water no longer comes out of the fountain as the pipes underneath have never been changed and stopped working fifteen years ago and when the water did come out, and it resembled the color and taste of black engine oil that was freshwater.
Despite all its problems, tenants of the apartment buildings in the area referred to their buildings as a safe haven as they were surrounded by their friends and family even though the perimeter of the buildings looked like it came out of a horror movie. The reasoning behind their friends and family being located there was because many of them lived under New York City’s affordable housing program titled “Section 8” and residents could afford to live there.
But now the residents who populated this neighborhood can’t afford to live there anymore.
It’s was a predominantly black African-American neighborhood, largely believing in the Muslim faith. Mosques and temples are located on every other block; while women wearing hijabs, and men wearing turbans are seen on every third person one would walk past.
Now it would be surprising if one would pass someone other than Caucasian every five people.
Today, the neighborhood’s surrounding areas have cleaned up significantly since the early 20th century. There have been less than five murders in the two buildings in the last five years, which is when the beginning of renovation began but the rent costs $3,000, and the majority of the residents who populated the area in the late 20th and early 20th century are now gone. Some died but left due to high rent in these buildings. The building that was once filled with family-like tenets has been taken over by people who rarely remember their neighbors’ first names. If they ever learned it at all.
Saying this neighborhood was a rough place to live is an understatement.
“Only the toughest could survive out here,” chuckles Ana Lopez, a 58-year-old woman who spent the first 23 years of her life living in the Philip Randolph Apartment building, which is located right across the street from the park.
Lopez was right. Over the course of the last century, West 116th Street and its surrounding areas have seen thousands of crimes from local drug trades to group killings all within a right block radius. In fact, this past Halloween, an 8-year-old girl who suffered from autism was killed by a stray bullet outside an apartment building on the same block. In the past decade, the block has reported 79 housing problems to the HRA with most of the complaints including rodents, cracked ceilings, and leaks.
But investors see potential and are coming in quickly to change things.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., just two blocks from Malcolm X Blvd., has undergone 18 construction renovations since 2003 and has seen a jump in the cost of living to be $52,109, which is 10 percent higher than the national average. The history that the area has is one of the biggest driving points for investors. The area is surrounded by historic churches, which have garnered international interest. The multi-colored column engraved Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on Malcolm X, was formerly a synagogue that was frequent by the man the church was named after. The neighborhood was founded by Dutch settlers in 1658 and a part of the Nieuw Haarlem village, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
It is rich in history and can be rich in revenue. In addition, the renovations are slowly paying off with a reduction in crime. There have been less than five murders in the two buildings in the last five years, which is when the beginning of renovation began, but the rent costs $3,000 and the majority of the residents are caucasian and wealthy.
“I’m glad to see some changes in the neighborhood,” says Jackie Richardson, a 79-year-old woman who has lived her entire life on West 125th Street and 8th Avenue. “But if we can’t afford to live here anymore, who is really benefiting?”
The acknowledgment of gentrification has been one the eyes of the population for a while, at least in the government’s eyes.
One of the first signs of the acknowledgment of gentrification and displacement occurred in the late 20th century when the Community Reinvestment Act was passed. Enacted in 1977, The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), is a federal law that requires the Federal Reserve and other federal banking regulators to motivate financial establishments to help uplift the financial needs of the communities in which they establish their businesses, most of these communities being located in low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods. The goal of this act was to be a countermeasure to elevate the effects of displacement across the United States.
Since the act was passed, a slew of studies have been conducted that studies the effects of displacement, including one a 1982 study that found that approximately one percent of all Americans, five percent of families, and 8.5 percent of urban families were uprooted out of their homes throughout 1970 to 1977 by either eviction, individual circumstances, selling their home, or leaving due to the changing condition of their neighborhood. However, many see that gentrification is not as much of a negative as it is positive. Lance Freeman of Columbia University and Frank Braconi found in their 2004 study that poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods of New York City were less likely to progress rather than poor households in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. In their conclusion, they found that a lower-income neighborhood could go from having over a 30 percent poverty populace down to 12 percent in as few as 10 years without any displacement whatsoever. However, in a follow-up story by Braconi published in 2007, apartment change and sales across different New York City neighborhoods and found that the probability of displacement declined as the rate of rent inflation increased in a neighborhood. Poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods were 15 percent less likely to progress than those in non-gentrifying households.
The continuous rise of housing costs and disappearing areas of once-affordable housing has become a worldwide discussion. In the United States, it has become a threat to the quality of life in major cities worldwide such as New York for lower and middle-class families.
Before his departure as mayor, Michael Bloomberg’s administration reconstructed and rezoned close to 40 percent of the New York Cities affordable housing neighborhoods also known as transforming neighborhoods, such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where luxury rentals now reside.
The de Blasio administration has continued where the former mayor left off as they are targeting other neighborhoods, such as popular boroughs such as Brooklyn, while in contrast requiring that developers seeking to profit from new real estate markets also build lower-cost housing.
But these neighborhoods are in areas where it is hard to access and difficult to travel to and from larger areas.
On the contrary, multiple studies produced in the last decade have that changing a neighborhood can in turn reduce displacement. Neighborhood upgrades such as the addition of bars, restaurants, riverfront/seafront attractions, and even expanded transit throughout different communities are successful in encouraging lower-income households to continue residing in their neighborhoods despite the changing of their environment.
“I don’t see changing neighborhoods as too much of an issue,” says Camila Douglas, a Pennsylvania native who currently lives in New York City’s upper west side.
Douglas has been in communication with one of her friends for the last two years with the possibility of buying a “run down” home then renovating the home and turning it over for a higher profit. A process known as “flipping a house.”
“Everyone’s doing it,” says Douglas. “I know people who have done it [flipped homes] and made a lot of money out of it. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Changing neighborhoods might not be the sole reason for displacement, according to some studies. A study conducted between 1989 to 2002 found that displacement was responsible for only 6 to 10 percent of all moves throughout New York, citing the main reasons being housing expenses, landlord harassment, or displacement by private action (e.g. condo conversion).
However, many are skeptical about the reports showing that displacement is not a result of gentrification. One organization that specializes in finding the correlation between the two is the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). A nonprofit organization made of up 600 groups of analysts across the United States which focuses on the greater opportunity for lower-middle-income Americans.
“We have seen higher impacts of [gentrification and displacement] among low income and moderate communities across New York City,” says Bruce Mitchell, a senior research analyst at NCRC. “Areas in New York [including areas in] Brooklyn, Central City and Hell’s Kitchen have seen a high level of gentrification due to red zoning.”
In their findings, the NCRC found that there was sizable contrast in the neighborhoods that experience gentrification. They found that neighborhoods in cities with signs of gentrification were much higher in percentage affecting minority residents across all neighborhood classifications; eligible, gentrified, other urban and OZ.
Their findings, which are divided into different reports spread out between 2000- 2012 and a follow up spread out between 2012-2017, found that gentrification and displacement mostly affected those in low-income neighborhoods located in large cities.
In the report, they also dialed into opportunity zones, which is an economic development tool that investors use to create businesses in economically distressed areas. On paper, the purpose is to create economic growth and job creation in those areas which then positively affects the residents in the communities and provides tax benefits to the investors. To accredit investors, opportunity zones are in the most dire need of investments and remodeling and need the most help. However, many fear that the result is doing the opposite and instead intensify gentrification in low income neighborhoods which primary demographics are minorities. In fact, 69 percent of the gentrified areas are either within or adjacent to an opportunity zone, according to the NCRC’s report.
“Areas that are in the lowest economic state in terms of both the median household income and home value of the property are more likely to be affected the most,” says Mitchell. “For the neighborhood to gentrify it has to be a really depressed state.”
The NCRC’s first report stated that Washington D.C. was the most gentrified area in the United States. Explained was that the area had the most number of neighborhoods eligible for gentrification then indeed became gentrified at the end of the time period (2000-2012). In the second report taken between 2012-2017, D.C. had then dropped to 13th place and other cities including Denver, Colorado, and Boston moved up with San Francisco taking over the most gentrified city in the United States.
However, when asked what city is the most gentrified in terms of area and population, Mitchell points out that the United States biggest cities tend to be the most affected by gentrification.
The most gentrified would be a large city like New York or Los Angeles in terms of sheer numbers because there are more neighborhoods.
“Economically prosperous larger cities have a dynamic of growth going on,” says Mitchell when explaining why larger cities are more a target to gentrification than smaller cities. “Downtown courts are attractive places, particularly for the developers and are companies to place their headquarters.”
The argument that New York has struggled with gentrification for years is debatable. The notion that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought New York’s economy to a standstill is undeniable. The glamour that is the Big apple is (or at least was) in great danger of being lost and abandoned after many of its residents (especially its middle-class families) moved out of the city and flocking to the suburbs where cases were fewer. What was left were the people who wanted to stick it out for their city and those who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else and the high hospital rates in New York City hospitals unjustly mirrored the low-income, minority populations that were hit hard through it all. Whether it’s through the death toll, hospital rates, loss of job security etc. minorities were hit hard along with the ongoing displacement they were going through all the while.
Those in the middle to upper class were less affected by the pandemic. Many could afford to adhere to the stay-at-home guidance or finally cash in on their retirement. Even before the pandemic, certain groups that tend to fall in the higher income bracket such as software developers, were already working from home partially to full time.
However, harder hit areas such as East Brooklyn, found many laid off of their jobs and borderline homeless all the while different investors continued their plans for more business as shown in Queens. Long Island city in Queens where they saw an increase in construction of private housings and a possible new location for Amazon’s second headquarters.
However, not everyone sees the correlation between the pandemic and gentrification.
“As the economy softens gentrification in these specific areas soften as well,” says Mitchell. “It goes hand in hand.”
However, studies find that gentrification hasn’t slowed down all that much during the pandemic in New York City. A report conducted by Street Easy finds that communities that reported the most Covid-19 cases in 2020 saw a rent increase of 22 percent in the last six years, compared to areas with the fewest Covid-19 cases which saw a 10% over the last six years. The majority of those cases which reported the most tended to be in lower income communities.
Although she lived in Brooklyn for the past 12 years, Samantha Lopez, 30, was abruptly forced out of her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment in March of last month because of an inability to afford rent. The landlord showed up at 7:30 a.m. and told her she had four hours to leave.
She was seven months pregnant.
For three years she called Park Slope her home. It’s where she met her former fiancé, then ended her engagement and met her current boyfriend who’s also the father of her upcoming child.
“I’ve made memories here,” says Ruiz. “Brooklyn was my home.”
For over a decade, Brooklyn was her life. The only life she remembers comes from this borough. She originally came here when she was eighteen to escape a verbally abusive household back in Manhattan. Her former home in Park Slope was considered one of the most dangerous parts of the borough, a former crime hot spot turned coffee and yoga hot spot. The ultra green J.J Byrne Playground, close to the center of 5th Avenue located a couple of blocks from the YMCA. It had so much potential for ‘organic’ gentrification and progression.
It lived up to the potential.
The area is flooded with highly-invested, newly-built condos and apartments. Marked as “new” “trendy” and “hip,” the prices are disproportionately high for locals in the area. Soon they will be “no longer welcome” or forced out like Ruiz.
“I have, all my life, lived in Brooklyn. Every milestone I’ve passed and every friend I’ve gained all happened there,” says Lopez. “I’m aware that a changing neighborhood isn’t unique to Brooklyn, every big city in the world is experiencing this but I didn’t know it was going to affect me the way it did.”
With nowhere to go, Lopez and forced to move back home with her mother back to Manhattan. This time, with her eight-year-old daughter, boyfriend and upcoming second child. Lopez felt hopeless before, during and after her move. Prior to her eviction, she stayed almost two months in her apartment eating dried cereal and drinking tap water. She gave up her car a year prior and couldn’t afford the $2.75 for a MetroCard to travel, which forced her to stay in. When the landlord showed up to her door, she knew it was time. It was four months to the day that she last paid rent and she already packed up her belongings, knowing he could show up at any minute to tell her she was no longer welcomed.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but I’ll figure something out,” Lopez says as she looks up at her childhood apartment building at West 116th Street. She moved back in with her mother, Ana, which has already caused four major arguments and one hospitalization in the 30 days their path re-crossed.
“I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the last 12 years. I’ve spent my whole twenties there,” says Lopez, as she steps in the lobby of her new home. “Now someone else gets to live where I created my memories and I’m forced to make new ones somewhere else.”