Gentrification Doesn’t Just Happen

09/24/2013 12:30 PM |

Williamsburg skyline Brooklyn waterfront

“As long as people want to live in good neighborhoods and pay cheap rents, and as long as there are artists and gays and bohemians, and as long as we keep producing young people who crave newness and a place of their own, gentrification will continue,” Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin wrote yesterday. “Our neighborhoods will continue to be reshaped.” He’s right to a certain extent: the city is an ever-changing place, and the first artists who crossed the East River to take up studio-residences in Williamsburg were attracted by the same thing that has attracted people to Brooklyn for decades: cheap rent. (The opening to Sophie’s Choice: “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947…”) But the full story of Williamsburg’s transformation from what it was in the 70s to what it is today isn’t one of the natural ebb and flow of populations, of unpredictable municipal vicissitudes. It’s of direct government intervention to redraw and recolor communities like Williamsburg. The data back me up.


In 2005, Bloomberg pushed through his rezoning proposal for the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts, which is how we got the high-rise apartment towers along Kent Avenue: Northside Piers, The Edge, the upcoming Domino redevelopment. And though they came with token affordable-housing requirements, they also brought thousands of new, well-off residents with them—those who can afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a one-bedroom—transforming the neighborhood in a way an influx of artsy college types never could have. The reason the neighborhood feels like Manhattan now is because it was deliberately re-created to attract the same sorts of people attracted to Manhattan.

According to the census, in 1980, the median household income was $21,195. (All numbers have been adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars.) In 1990, it had risen 28 percent to $27,292. In 2000, it had risen another 7.5 percent to $29,361. Between 2005 and 2009, the average median household income was $51,736, a jump of 76 percent! This wasn’t the story in the city as a whole: the median income in 2000 was $47,707; from 2005-2009, the median averaged $50,173, an increase of 5.1 percent. In less than a decade, a single zip code went from far below the city’s median income level to above it.

That this time span overlaps the rezoning isn’t coincidental. The change results from 12 years of Bloomberg conspiring with real estate developers to push the poor out of the city or at least to its margins while welcoming in every billionaire in the world. I’m a native Brooklynite frustrated by the increasing unaffordability of my hometown. But I don’t turn to the nearest person walking down the street and hate them for living here, just like you don’t blame terrorism on the nearest Muslim or unemployment on the nearest Latino. If you want to be angry at someone for making it a struggle to live here, hate the landlords, the developers, and the rest of the money people on their way to the bank with your cash. As Michel de Montaigne put it: “one man’s profit is another’s loss.”

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

4 Comment

  • Michel de Montaigne is wrong. No economic transaction ever takes place unless both parties feel that they’re coming out better in the end. Yes, developers and landlords may be making a profit, but the residents are getting a nice place to live in an area where they want to be, and so are also profiting. If the residents viewed this transaction as a loss, they’d go elsewhere.

  • Dudley is wrong there are many poor deals you are forced to accept as there is little or no acceptable alternative.

  • you’re correct that i (as the reader) “don’t blame terrorism on the nearest Muslim or unemployment on the nearest Latino,” but of what relevance does a line like that have to do with the article in question?

    what kind of analogy is that?

    it’s something i would never think about when mulling the pros and cons of gentrification, so why bring it up in the first place and force it on the reader?

    you manage to slyly reinforce those stereotypes just by mentioning them in a way that has absolutely no relevance to the subject you’re writing about, while distancing yourself from taking responsibility for those words. they’re your words, not the reader’s

  • Stop hating on hipsters and start blaming developers/landlords/Bloomberg? Sorry, but the two come hand -in-hand. Hipsters came because now a neighborhood is safe for those white trust-funders. Bloomberg re-zoned neighborhoods to welcome the hipsters. Can’t blame a chicken without blaming the egg or vice versa. Something like that.