The first time I heard the word gentrification, many years ago, I instinctively tried to separate myself from the displacement process (I was naive and young) in New York City. Because that’s ultimately what gentrification is—the replacement of one set of people and values with another usually radically different set.
This process used to take a few years. It’s chronicled endlessly, with often nauseating preciousness, by The New York Times (Who actually says, ‘I live in FiDi!?’). Now it seems to happen in months. Areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and even Brownsville are being developed by and for New York City’s ever-expanding moneyed class. Luxury glass castles are built within spitting distance of housing projects (witness many parts of Chelsea, which has experienced a new hyper-gentrification since the High Line Park opened and Google moved in).
In New York City, the gentrification was engineered in concert with two other huge developments: the astounding drop in crime rates from the 1980s and the equally astounding loss of life from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Author and activist Sarah Schulman astutely weaves these many threads—the physical gentrification of urban space, white flight and suburbanization, the subsequent loss of cultural memory and capital and the increasingly MFA-dominated arts machine—in her book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness To a Lost Imagination.
The most glaring and sad example of what this means on the ground is Manhattan’s St. Vincent’s Hospital. The third oldest hospital in New York City, which went bankrupt in 2011, was where a majority of people with HIV/AIDS were cared for and died throughout the 1980s and into the next decade. It housed the first and largest AIDS ward on the entire East Coast and was home to one of the most renowned HIV treatment programs in the country.
as Jane Jacobs wrote, urban spaces only work when there is a mixture of people, businesses and diverse public spaces all colliding in bombastic and unplanned ways.
Those spaces are now becoming The Greenwich Lane, a group of 200 condominiums in 10 buildings with amenities suitable for plutocrats, celebrities and oligarchs (prices appear to be running the $2,500-per-square-foot range, as Rosie O’Donnell just bought a 3,000 square foot condo for $8 million). Well, my naivete has now morphed into sadness. I know that all cities must change and that New York City, in particular, has always transformed in dramatic fashion.
This is the city, after all, that tore down the original magnificent Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to make way for the monstrosity of bleakness that is Madison Square Garden. Even so, what’s happening now is something altogether more threatening. As everyone knows and as Jane Jacobs wrote, urban spaces only work when there is a mixture of people, businesses and diverse public spaces all colliding in bombastic and unplanned ways.
Related: What Would Jane Jacobs Do?
Those moments (they do happen, sometimes!) and spaces (you must explore all the nooks and crannies of the urban ecosystem) are far too rare nowadays. New York City in 2013 needs way less of this homogenized sameness and way more of this shared, artist-centered community building.
What does it mean to be a citizen artist in a city? How are these issues tied up with globalization and massive income inequality?
Watch the video below to learn more (Sarah Schulman’s superb summary of her take on gentrification starts 29 minutes in).