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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Home I Knew Is Gone

Required listening: Spike Lee's "rant" on gentrification in Brooklyn, NY

I grew up in Flatbush and my teen years were spent during the early to mid '90s witnessing firsthand the effects of the crack epidemic and the drug war on a neighborhood.  Shootouts were common and gunfire echoed through the night like a snare drum.  The apartment I grew up in, which my family to some degree still lives in, was cheap for New York, even at the time.  The unfortunate part about New York being built on a series of islands is that there's no space to expand, and the housing market gets competitive and expensive. Years ago, before the war on the lower and middle classes, city planners had the foresight to install rent control and stabilization laws to prevent the laws of supply and demand from cannibalizing the populace.  After all, what's the point of having a good job if you can't afford to live there.  Rudy Giuliani, who won his first term as mayor with the not insubstantial financial backing of the real estate lobby, ended those laws which set in motion the runaway increase in rent in Manhattan, and eventually throughout the city.

Looking back, it's effect has been multi-tiered.  Drive the prices up in Manhattan.  The middle class who were able to live there before are forced to move to the outer boroughs.  But wait, some of those neighborhoods are sketchy and filled with drug addicts and minorities.  That's okay.  Arrest the drug addicts and minorities (in New York in the mid 90's, the NYPD's zero-tolerance policy and propensity for racial profiling made the terms interchangeable), rebrand the neighborhood by changing it's makeup (building more Manhattan-style dwellings and inviting more displaced Manhattanites) and/or by changing it's name to eliminate it's negative connotation (Spanish Harlem becomes SpaHa, the South Bronx becomes SoBro, Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, and parts of East Flatbush and Flatbush become extensions of Park Slope and Prospect park South).  The rising rents eventually price existing tenants out, and if that doesn't work, the landlords were empowered to let buildings fall into decay until the undesirables moved out, then repair them and rent for full market value.  And slowly, over 20, 30 years, people of color and/or less than extraordinary means are pushed further and further away from the city proper, or shunted into overpriced public housing.

Spike Lee has said some less than brilliant things in the past about race relations that you likely haven't heard if you're not from New York.  His views on gentrification are spot on.  I was priced out of my hometown.  I agree that it shouldn't have taken an influx of wealthier residents to have the city services (Police, Parks, Sanitation, Education) do their jobs in certain neighborhoods.  Trash would pile high and linger on the sidewalk for days (and in the summer, stink like hell) due to once a week trash collection.  Those same neighborhoods are now getting daily collection.  They're getting increased police protection, which is a marked difference from the "contain" mentality of my youth.  And while I don't begrudge anyone the increased service they get, I can't help but feel a little cheated.

Maybe it shouldn't matter to me so much what's going on in New York.  I'm not there anymore, not subject to anything Spike Lee was talking about.  But, I've always had a problem with injustice though, and what we're seeing there is the last bits of a systematic injustice become revealed.  And it saddens me.

UPDATE:  This is purely anecdotal.  I'm going on my own experiences plus what I've observed while I lived in New York and since I left.

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