30 November 2015
We Are ALL New York
by John Ros
A response to participating in the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) protest of the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit at the Brooklyn Museum on 17 November 2015. A continuation of the conversation started here.
NEW YORK — Cities have always changed. Immigrants move in and become active members of a community — in part, because there is opportunity, and in part, to assimilate into their new cultural surroundings — their new home. These actions in the past happened more naturally and contributed to lively and changing neighborhoods throughout the city. These changes were largely controlled by the local community. Landlords and homeowners lived locally, and community leaders and neighbors alike cared for each other and the well-being of their neighborhood.
Today’s practice of development and displacement is something entirely different and is happening at an accelerated rate with overseas investors and non-local real estate speculators taking advantage of government loopholes, lax rules, and little to no oversight. These changes are not organic, they are a calculated and deliberate assault destroying the foundations of neighborhoods and the sanctity of life for vulnerable and marginalized communities. They take our rich and vibrant neighborhoods and rather than investing in them responsibly, with community involvement; they create cultural dead zones, taking advantage of the desperate for the benefit of the few. In their wake, communities become broken, divided, displaced, and completely turned upside down, cloaked in the facade of revitalization and promise of a new day.
[Gentrification] was first coined in 1964 by Marxist planner sociologist Ruth Glass, for whom the rescue of Notting Hill and Islington streets by ‘pioneering’ London bohemians with the cash to do up attractive old houses that banks wouldn’t lend on went hand-in-hand with the displacement of longstanding, blue-collar communities who could no longer afford to live there. . . . By 1988, rioters in New York’s Tompkins Square Park were carrying placards reading ‘Gentrification is class war.’ (Robert Bevan, The Guardian)
Changing neighborhoods may be a class issue, but in America, it also means it’s a race one.
(Gillian White, The Atlantic)
Today, in New York City, the term has broadly come to define white people displacing overwhelmingly black communities. Though this definition is fairly accurate on face value, the overly simplistic explanation to the much more complex problem is trite and does not begin to deal with the multitude of issues at play.
New renters displacing the most recent native communities are scapegoated. They are the face of the faceless developers and elected officials reaping the benefits of such complicated and deep-rooted problems. This is not to whitewash the role of the newcomer tenant to the community. Affordable neighborhoods are desirable to many who simply cannot afford the rising rents that surround them. Some new tenants move into their new neighborhood with little to no respect of the historical or current political structures that lie within. Then again, some are active and concerned members that make up the diverse structure of communities that represent so much of New York City. Polar opposites on the spectrum fill these newly vacant spaces. Should we fault all newcomers who come in the true name of community involvement?
We are all the face of gentrification — the overprivileged newcomers, not-so privileged newcomers, and the native middle-class and poor community members. Those in power divide us so that their deals can be had behind closed doors, land-grabbed, and in five or ten years, we will all be none the wiser and we will all have no place to live or shop.
The use of the word gentrification also does not enter into the discussion of increasing income inequality, or why the topic is being ignored in general. Gentrification often becomes a means to an end. We see it as unstoppable as either the victim or the culprit. But the issues are so much broader than that. We must face these issues head-on and bring to light all of the harder, messier conversations and actions. We must not fall into the power elites’ hands, fighting among each other, dealing with symptoms as opposed to causes and solutions. We must fight for a more equal playing field for all. This is not utopian, this is democratic.
The easiest thing to do is to pretend that all of this doesn’t affect you. Whoever we are and wherever we live, we have a role to play. We have to start by playing a more active role in our own local communities. Get to know our neighbors, have discussions, especially with people with whom we disagree. We must accept that we will never fully understand where a person comes from, what they have been through, and how those sum experiences determine their standing. We also have to be careful not to push our own experiences and expectations on each other. This goes for prejudging someone based on their external or internal, stereotypical characteristics. Empathy and compassion for one another will allow us to find strength in our differences and work together as one community built by the diversity and individuality of all of its citizens. Momentum must come in the form of solidarity.
If we are going to get anything done we have to realize a few things:
01. Gentrification is not inevitable.
People power comes in numbers. We must be aware. We must show up.
02. We must fight this as a united front.
We all work in different ways and have different strengths and weaknesses. Rather than allow this to work against us, we must work together. We must remember that at the end of the day, we have to want the same thing: Strong communities that can support every member. How we get there and who gets the credit will be immaterial in the end.
03. Civic action will look different for every neighborhood.
Communities must decide for themselves how to move forward. This is not a one-size-fits-all struggle; however, we can learn from each other and work together. There is obviously strength in numbers.
04. Our global problems must and will be solved locally first.
Join a community group. Attend Community Board and City Council meetings. Write your City Council member, your New York Assembly and Senate representatives, as well as your federal representatives. Have your voice heard. You are not only speaking for yourself, but for your community members that cannot be in attendance, or whose voices have been marginalized. We must also be present and hold our elected officials to the highest standard. Ralph Nader said recently that we should ask those seeking elected office, “Since the people are sovereign under our Constitution, how do you specifically propose to restore power to the people in their various roles as voters, taxpayers, workers and consumers?”. We must hold all of our elected officials accountable.
The accelerated rate at which we receive seemingly infinite information is not only making it impossible to keep up, it is creating a cacophony of visual, written and audible noise that becomes indecipherable. It often seems our only hope is to retreat into the growing digital sanctuaries of distraction that have been so carefully curated for us. The speed of technology along with the insatiable corporate takeover of our globe is interconnected in a way that is destroying the foundations of neighborhoods and the sanctity of life for the vulnerable: those deemed expendable.
So what can we do to start to change things? I have spoken before about ways of supporting the Occupy Movement. These actions pertain to being an active member of our community and seeking less comfort in seemingly unavoidable corporate mechanisms. BAN also has a great list of demands pertaining directly to displacement that you should become familiar with. To these demands, I would add suspending the EB-5 Visa Program in New York City, which, in theory, works well in depressed cities. Its continued use is fueling the hyperdevelopment by giving developers easy access to low-interest loans with no oversight and should no longer be allowed in this city.
American capitalism and the global corporate expansion is destroying our democracy (along with our environment). As long as we still live in a democratic society we must act as democratic citizens and be active and passionate about the policies that are being made that affect us every day. Failure to do so will not only destroy our democratic system but will ensure our continued slip into the oligarchic global corporate capitalistic culture. Make no mistake, corporations do not only have more clout than people (from actions such as Citizens United); unlike people, they are unbound by a nation-state, increasingly so if the TPP passes. They have no loyalty except to unfettered capitalism, which has become their religion and form of government.
The answers ahead will be difficult, most certainly because we cannot rely on anything that has worked in the past. This is a new time that will require new solutions. Our local communities are where the answers lie. They will be unique to each community and will require the involvement of all. We can come together as a binding force, but we must take that energy to our own communities and make them work for us specifically. Together, not only can we fight it, we can support each other and bring back our local vitality – the essence that has always made New York City, New York City.
All images by the author: taken at the BAN protest of the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit at the Brooklyn Museum on 17 November 2015.