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The Recap: Gentrification 2.0

By Ondine Jean-Baptiste

Posted on February 6, 2020


Each Recap post highlights a recent public program featured at Brooklyn Historical Society.  Scroll to the bottom of the page to hear the program in its entirety.

Is change inevitable?

That seemed to be the question of the evening at BHS’s first program of the season. On Wednesday, January 15th, 2020, the Great Hall was packed wall-to-wall with New Yorkers from all corners of the city waiting to hear what new aspect of gentrification we could possibly touch upon. Panelists included Matthew Schuerman, author of Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents; Kay Hymowitz, Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back; and James Rodriguez, contributor to the book Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965 and professor of history at Guttman Community College.

Jarrett Murphy, executive editor of City Limits, moderated this discussion which touched upon the various historical, social and economic changes that have contributed to New York’s ever-changing neighborhoods. Before Murphy launched into this oft-debated topic, New York City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso took a moment to address the audience. The council member, who has worked to stem out-of-scale development in the Brooklyn community of Bushwick, denounced micro-developments such as bodegas turning to coffee shops and increased bike lanes. He defined gentrification as “a movement of money into a community.”

Schuerman laid it out in simple terms: gentrification is about economics, a neighborhood that goes from below the area’s median income to above.

Rodriguez saw more nuance, describing gentrification as an amorphous concept with a multitude of “faces.” A community’s income and housing are two important factors, he agreed, but other trends amplify the phenomenon for instance appropriating food and customs that originate from working-class and predominately brown and black communities. One aspect of gentrification is repackaging and commodifying what was previously devalued; the sandwich known as “the chopped cheese,” is a case in point. Rodriguez also pointed out that class has always been racialized in the United States, citing Jim Crow-era segregationist policies and redlining, arguing that historically the populations most negatively affected by gentrification are people of color.

Expanding the conversation beyond Brooklyn, Hymowitz reminded her co-panelists that the changes we’re witnessing are not specific to New York and other large US cities, but part of a mass structural change in the global economy touching every part of the world. Our collective move from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based one shifts jobs to urban locales, she explained. She further complicated the racial component of the conversation raising the topic of “black gentrification” – young, college-educated black people returning to neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant who contribute to the displacement of the working class.

So the question remains: Is change inevitable? In an attempt to answer this question, more arise in its perimeters. Are there positive values to gentrification? Are gentrification and displacement inextricably interwoven? Is gentrification itself racist?

Listen to the audio of the full conversation below to hear the various viewpoints presented. We hope they help you come to your own conclusion on this contentious debate.

Listen to the full program here

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