“The Greatest Sh**hole in The World!” My dad would always proudly exclaim when the radio host announced where they were located.
What has always made this city eclectic and exhilarating, despite the sometimes draining daily life, are the communities that have been cultivated by various groups of people who have sought refuge. That is why you’ll find a little slice of the world in every corner of New York.
It is common knowledge that gentrification continues to reverberate throughout NYC communities, especially those populated by people of color. While there are countless economic and racial arguments related to the outcomes of gentrification, and I’ll touch on some of those points inevitably, I’d like to focus on something deeper for a moment.
The soul of the city. The bodega or deli guy whose names you don’t know, but he knows your breakfast order. The salsa and merengue blasting out of your neighbor’s apartment too early for a Sunday morning. The smell of spices that take you on a journey across the world in a span of one block.
These things haven’t disappeared, but slowly we see the stifling and erasure of neighborhood character. The real estate industry fights for neighborhoods to be the next hip destination, or anticipates a corporate takeover of valuable real estate property.
On becoming a hip destination side, you can look no further than Bushwick. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn near industrial zones retain the “cool factor,” because it enables those with money to receive just enough of the “grit” of the city they crave. People can live in “luxury” new apartments in close proximity to the graffiti, industrial warehouses, and “ethnic communities,” but do they contribute to the local community? We constantly see the rise of the bourgeois local business.
What may have a been a Mexican bakery serving conchas and pasteles, will now be the latest upscale boulangerie or boutique vintage store. That’s not to say that both are not valid to exist–those pastry chefs have a right to be in business, as long as they have customers. This is not to place blame on the individual. Instead, it is to question what profiteers seek from Bushwick’s rise: they can continue to make it a hip destination by endlessly raising rents, but would like to preserve local attractions and small businesses only for those who can now afford the new normal.
On the corporate side, you can look at the fight that is occurring to resist a new development that would house a Target on 82nd Street, a bustling street filled with local shops at the crossroads of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens. Activists from the Queens Neighborhoods Union are in court attempting to halt the construction, fearing that a big box retailer will raise rent prices and undercut retail prices that force out small business owners in the working-class immigrant neighborhood.
I remember reading a poignant quote in a CityLab article that reflected the sentiments of those who are resisting new waves of gentrification that are cutting deeper into the outer boroughs.
“The danger is, if we don’t challenge Target, national retailers will think they could put department stores anywhere in the city,” said Paula Segal, Community Development Project attorney for QNU. “We will no longer have residential districts. It will just be Mall NYC.”
A microcosm of what Mall NYC could look like are the streets surrounding the Fulton Street Mall and Flatbush Avenue by the Dekalb Avenue subway station. While already filled with shops before, there was a mix of eateries, cell phone repair shops, a deli, small clothing stores, etc. Now it is a mega-luxury destination with a new shopping center, slowly erasing any sign of small business or affordability.
As I eluded to in my writing about the changes on Canal Street, we’ve seen it become more difficult for a diverse range of businesses to thrive and a multitude of incomes to live in neighborhoods across NYC. This is not to rag on the inevitable changes happening in the city – New York will be an eternally evolving city. Rather, the question from these conflicts is: how do we preserve the soul of neighborhoods?
How can we enable change, with balance, to allow immigrants and migrants of all kinds to continue to thrive; small businesses, whether bakeries or hardware stores, to thrive; culture, whether underground or traditional, to thrive? Must the change dynamics of a centrally located neighborhood always involve becoming the next major hub for cookie-cutter buildings and spaces for Starbucks, Duane Reade, and Chase? If that’s the future, what is the case for attracting various communities that seek refuge to New York, if it’s just going to be Anywhere, USA?