Skip to main content

There Goes the ‘Hood: a nuanced take on gentrification

It was May 6, the day of the bi-annual Clinton Hill House Tour, an emblematic sign of gentrification, as visitors paid $20 to troop into lovingly restored mansions and converted industrial spaces in a neighborhood that still houses many lower-income residents. Those collecting tour maps could also pick up a brochure for the new Forté luxury tower rising in nearby Fort Greene.

The final stop on the tour was in the southeast portion of Clinton Hill, not far from the official (though shifting, in the eyes of some real estate promoters) border with blacker, poorer Bedford-Stuyvesant. Nearby, outside a laundromat on Fulton Street, a black woman and a black man, middle-aged and apparently working class, were having a conversation loud enough to overhear.

W: I’m not coming back. They assholes.

M: People that work here?

W: No. The others. They new to the neighborhood and they acting like we visiting.

Race and class

The racial identity of their antagonists was unclear, but the class identity was not, and the episode encapsulated some tensions explored by Lance Freeman, a Columbia University academic, in his 2006 book, There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, based on interviews in two mostly-black neighborhoods, Harlem and Clinton Hill, where in recent years higher-income residents, black and white, have moved in.

(Here’s an NPR interview with Freeman. For another take with a similar title, note the recent exhibit on gentrification in Crown Heights, titled There goes the neighborhood!, at Five Myles.)

Freeman, who is black and teaches in Columbia’s graduate school of urban planning, is no apologist for gentrification, though some of his previous research has been criticized for too sanguine a take on displacement. His interviewees present a mixed view. (Crucially, in Clinton Hill, all are either homeowners or residents of rent-regulated housing, so they're not at direct risk of displacement.)

He writes:
Residents of the 'hood are sometimes more receptive because gentrification brings their neighborhoods into the mainstream of American commercial life with concomitant amenities and services that others might take for granted. It also represents the possibility of achieving upward mobility without having to escape to the suburbs or predominantly white neighborhoods.

Yet the long history of disenfranchisement, red lining, and discrimination also inspires a cynicism toward gentrification that might not be evidenced elsewhere. Though appreciative of neighborhood improvements associated with gentrification, many see this as evidence that such amenities and services are only provided when whites move into their neighborhoods. Moreover, many see these improvements as the result of active collaboration between public officials, commercial interests, and white residents.

Indeed, they appreciate some new everyday stores, the neighborhood’s physical appearance, and the government’s responsiveness in providing services such as trash pickup and public safety (and, if homeowners, the steady rise in the value of their homes). DeKalb Avenue, now a restaurant row in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, was “kind of scary,” one resident observes, and Myrtle Avenue until recently merited its “Murder Avenue” moniker.

Potential threats

On the other hand, even if they don’t feel personally threatened by displacement, residents recognize that friends and relatives, who might have previously wanted to stay in the neighborhood, have been priced out, and may feel that longstanding institutions, like local churches, are threatened. So there's a role for government in managing that change, as noted below.

And, as with the episode I observed, they feel less comfortable in public, wondering at shifting norms and who controls public space, even alienated by upscale retail outlets that clearly cater to "new" people.

In his book and at public events, Freeman has provided examples of that: what middle-class homeowners see as unsavory loitering may just be longtime residents hanging out on the block (though the cops are more responsive to the former); what the law considers an open-container violation, a man drinking from a beer can on the stoop, is seen by some residents as hypocritical when down the block wealthier newcomers can sip their more expensive beer at a licensed sidewalk café; and, at a building divided into rentals and increasingly-expensive condos, barbecuing in the public spaces becomes forbidden.

Yesterday, in a New York Times Real Estate section feature (LIVING IN/Central Harlem) that somehow managed to omit mention of the neighborhood's housing projects, we learned of another such conflict, in which a group of musicians jamming in a nearby park, as they have done since the 1970s, caused residents of a new co-op nearby to complain to the cops. A compromise was reached; the musicians agreed not to play near the street.

Displacement effects

Freeman’s previous study had shown that poor residents and those lacking college degrees actually were less likely to move if they lived in a gentrifying neighborhood. As Daniel Treiman wrote in his review of the book in City Limits, “While this piqued his curiosity, the book unfortunately does not shed much additional light on this counterintuitive finding.”

That 2004 paper, co-written with Frank Braconi of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, is called Gentrification and Displacement, and it covers several New York neighborhoods during the 1990s. I suspect that the study downplays signs of impending, if not actual displacement.

While affordable housing—remember that term?—is defined as costing 30 percent of household income, many in the city pay half their income in rent. Indeed, Freeman and Braconi point out that the average rent burden for poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods was 61%, nearly 20% higher than those outside the neighborhoods, at 52%.

They refer to that latter number as “still problematic” and, at a panel discussion last year, Freeman called the 61% figure "astronomical."

So there may be a tipping point of sorts. Even if a poor household wants to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood, and sacrifices to do so, doubling up or making an arrangement with a sympathetic landlord, at some point they just can’t afford it—and, since 1999, unregulated rents and housing values have risen steadily in neighborhoods like Harlem and Clinton Hill.

I asked Freeman whether he thought that ever-increasing rents would lead to more displacement. He responded, "I think there probably is some tipping point, although I’m not sure what it is. I too have wondered whether I would get the same results if I repeated the study with later data. When I get a chance, I plan to pursue this question."

Larger meaning

A Boston Globe review of Freeman’s book and others on the topic, by Columbia professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, points out, “The long-held truism of gentrification -- namely that inner-city residents and their leadership will vocally oppose the redevelopment of their neighborhoods -- needs revision.”

He notes, “The popular lament over the horrible living conditions in the ghettos of the 1980s and 1990s failed to take into account those who were buying up property and establishing a productive presence during these tough years -- the working class, immigrants, and unionized workers who had well-paying jobs in transportation, parks, law enforcement, and other city agencies.”

Mary Pattillo's Black on the Block, written by a black sociologist who moved into a “historically poor and predominantly African-American community rapidly gentrifying,” shows how Chicago is behind Brooklyn. Pattillo and fellow gentrifiers are often “sandwiched between empty lots and dilapidated, low-income housing projects,” but such luxury of space no longer exists in Brooklyn.

While in Chicago, most whites won’t move into a black neighborhood, in New York, that depends on the housing stock; Harlem and Bed-Stuy, for example, have become places to buy. (The Times's headline on the Central Harlem article was "A Neighborhood Worth the Big-Ticket Investment.")

Reviewer Venkatesh points out that, while “it is the black middle class moving in and buying real estate, the physical infrastructure of their neighborhoods is being rehabilitated by white-owned firms that get the lion's share of the city contracts. Thus, the net result is that middle-class blacks have become brokers, helping to ease the path of mostly white-controlled real estate firms that wish to reclaim undervalued inner-city neighborhoods.”

What to do

Freeman suggests that the wave of gentrification needs management “to help us achieve a more equitable and just society.” He notes that it “would be a supreme irony if those who were once confined to neighborhoods like Harlem can no longer afford to live there,” especially since they endured the bad old days. Also, he suggests that housing security is a value unto itself, and wholesale gentrification in neighborhoods like the ones he studied can generate cynicism and resentment.

That all suggests that gentrification is much easier when there’s vacant land to add buildings. Otherwise it can turn into a zero-sum game. Unmentioned, but another potential zero-sum effect, might be adding affordable housing but with the tradeoff of "extreme density," as with the Atlantic Yards plan.

Freeman’s wary of extremes:
One doesn’t have to be a Marxist, however, to recognize that whatever its efficiencies, the market can produce outcomes that are not socially desirable. Conversely, one doesn’t have to be a libertarian to realize that the market produces choice, dynamism and wealth. The most pertinent debate seems to be how to strike a balance between allowing the market to do its thing while correcting for some of the undesirable outcomes inherent in market capitalism.

Thus he suggests two strategies, one quite familiar to New Yorkers, one not. In inclusionary zoning, which has been deployed already, new housing developments must set aside some units for low- and moderate-income households. The idea is to share the wealth allowed by upzoning for increased density.

His more unusual idea concerns tax-increment financing (TIF), which is usually an economic development strategy and, in fact, has been applied to the financing of sports facilities. The idea is that new taxes generated should be plowed back into the neighborhood to subsidize housing and ensure that gentrifying neighborhoods maintain socioeconomic diversity. The design of such a program, however, might be complex.

Where has that worked? Freeman pointed me to the Illinois Tax Increment Association, which may be a partial model, but seems to be focused on overcoming blight, conserving old structures, or creating industrial jobs--not capturing increased housing value generated by gentrification.

As Freeman writes;
What gentrification can do is help minimize the extent to which various aspects of quality of life are dependent on one’s class. Because so many things are dependent in part on where one lives—primary education, exposure to crime and environment. Hazards, access to decent and healthful food—the quality of one’s neighborhood can affect life outcomes.

Focusing on the neighborhood

At a discussion held in June 2006 on housing displacement, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, Freeman suggested that the change was more noticeable because those who moved--as people often do, for various reasons--were replaced by people who did not necessarily share their race and class.

He reiterated a theme of his book:
In general, affordable housing policy has not necessarily tried to focus on those neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification. They are either focused on neighborhoods that are already very poor, or there might be some policy described to de-concentrate poverty, but I think if we’re concerned about displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods or preserving affordable housing opportunity in those neighborhoods, I think we need to think about targeting affordable housing to those neighborhoods.

Another tactic might be the belated revision of the 421-a tax break, which has subsidized luxury construction in most parts of the city without requiring affordable housing and, in those areas where affordable housing was part of the tradeoff, did not require it on-site.


  1. Norman - This is an excellent post. I really enjoyed reading Freeman's book as well as Pattillo's articles leading to Black on the Block.

    One interesting thing about Freeman's and Pattillo's books, however, are that both are about neighborhoods where most of the gentrification has been by African Americans. While there certainly are white people moving into both Harlem and Clinton Hill, both Freeman and Pattillo take great pains to demonstrate that these are primarily African American neighborhoods with an African American "gentry". I think their work also goes a long way to show how there are intra-racial conflicts (in fact, Pattillo makes it one of her main points) as well as inter-racial conflicts - which have dominated the conversation about gentrification and, along with the points that you draw in your review, not to over-simplify our perceptions of what is happening in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, Harlem or North Kenwood-Oakland, Chicago.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

No, security guards can't ban photos. Questions remain about visibility of ID/sticker system.

The bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Community Update meeting June 14, held at 55 Hanson Place, addressed multiple issues, including delays in the project, a new detente with project neighbors,concerns about traffic congestion, upcoming sewer work and demolitions, and an explanation of how high winds caused debris to fly off the under-construction 38 Sixth Avenue building. I'll have more coverage.
Security issues came up several times at the meeting.
Wayne Bailey, a resident who regularly takes photos and videos (that I often use) of construction/operations issues that impact residents, asked representatives of Tishman Construction if the security guard at the sites they're building works for them.
After Tishman Senior VP Eric Reid said yes, Bailey asked why a guard told him not to shoot video of the site, even though he was on a public street.

"I will address it with principals for that security firm," Reid said.
Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, the …

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what might be coming (post-dated pinned post)

Click on graphic to enlarge. This is post-dated to stay at the top of the blog. It will be updated as announced configurations change and buildings launch. The August 2014 tentative configurations proposed by developer Greenland Forest City Partners will change, and the project is already well behind that tentative timetable.

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…