Thank goodness for the new Brooklyn
Gentrification: Like traffic at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, it’s a fact of city life all New Yorkers love to hate. That is, all except real estate developers.
As most people see it, gentrification is a scourge allowing money-hungry, politically powerful developers to destroy beloved neighborhoods and organic communities long nurtured by poorer and ordinary working folks. Even gentrifiers themselves stare into the foam of their lattes meditating on their contribution to this social injustice.
This picture of gentrification has shades of truth in it. Some developers are dining on caviar and champagne off the humdrum condos with which they have littered the city. And like all major socio-economic changes, gentrification has made many people indisputably worse off. Still, you have to ask: What’s the alternative?
Just think of New York City in the middle of the 20th century, well before the hipsters, Starbucks and German tourists appeared. You’ve probably heard the litany of woes from the 1970s and 80s: crack cocaine, drug gangs, pregnant 14-year-olds, mean streets, abandoned and burned-out buildings — and most of all, violent crime.
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In 1980, 1,814 people in New York died at the hands of their fellow citizens. In the decade between 1969 and 1979, poverty rose from 14.5% to 20%; the national average was only 12.4%. Payroll employment plunged from 3.8 million to 3.3 million jobs, while median family income similarly dropped from $36,543 to $29,878. Little wonder why mid-century Gotham took viewers into the noir environs of “Taxi Driver,” “Fort Apache: The Bronx” and “The French Connection.”
Throughout the boroughs, the white middle class, the sons and daughters of early 20th century immigrants who had sweated through nights in the tenements and days in sugar refineries and garment factories, packed up their Chevrolets for the suburbs.
In a single decade, the city’s population declined from close to 8 million in 1970 to 7.1 million in 1980. The city’s left-behind blacks and Puerto Ricans had few options. Unable to afford a move to New Jersey or Long Island, and unwelcome there anyway, they faced a dwindling number of the manufacturing jobs that had once lifted so many of the city’s families towards the middle class.
The waterfront workforce in New York City went from 35,00 in 1954, to 21,600 in 1970, to a mere 8,000 in the late 1980s. Small wonder that by 1975, the city was this close to broke.
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Brooklyn, now the mecca of gentrification, was in an especially dark place. For much of the 19th and 20th century, Brooklyn had been a thriving working-class city with its own daily newspaper, plenty of factory work for aspiring immigrants, and a vivid esprit that would color many memoirs and novels of the time. That spirit took a big hit in the 1950s when The Brooklyn Eagle closed and the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers left the grimy city for the sunny future in Los Angeles.
When the Brooklyn Navy Yard, once the largest employer in the borough, was decommissioned in 1966, the working-class despair was as thick as the borough’s much-mocked accent. By the 1970s the old Brooklyn was a bleak shadow of its Dodger-era self. “‘We gotta get outa Brooklyn.’ You heard it over and over in those days,” the writer and native Brooklynite Pete Hamill has recalled.
Don’t imagine that New York City was suffering alone. The disease of industrial decline was spreading to other American centers. In the latter decades of the 20th century, older northern American cities were losing population. Seattle peaked at 550,000 in 1960 but declined to 494,000 in 1980. Washington, D.C., had 800,000 souls in 1960 but watched their number dwindle over the next 40 years; as late as 2000, only 572,000 people lived within the boundaries of the district.
As in New York, the hangers-on tended to be poor. Between 1969 and 1999, poverty rose in the nation’s 10 largest cities, most markedly in older industrial municipalities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.
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So what reversed this urban death spiral? The crucial answer is an epochal shift in the economy and labor market. Industrial-era cities needed a large pool of factory workers, people — mostly men, mostly with a high school degree or less — who worked with their hands.
A few signs of a different order came as early as the 1960s. With advances in technology and communication, knowledge jobs — lawyers, bankers, traders, media employees — that required at least a college degree and little physical strength were becoming more central to the urban economy, especially in New York City.
Within a few decades, the balance between the blue- and white-collar economy was noticeably shifting. The number of knowledge jobs exploded in both number and type: lawyers and managers to staff a growing number of government agencies. They were doctors, researchers and administrators for what would become an omnivorous health sector; more writers, reporters and producers for new cable networks, to name just a few sectors of a labor market shifting under the feet of urbanites.
As of the late 1990s, the internet was leading to a profusion of new businesses and ways of earning a living that bewildered anyone over 40. Programmers, web designers and developers, digital marketers, software engineers: The young and educated were giving cities a new identity. Meanwhile, creative occupations both familiar (musicians, documentary filmmakers, graphic and fashion designers) and new-fangled (mixologist, artisanal brewmaster, social media consultant, app developers, start-up CTO) were also starting to spice up the urban labor market.
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Americans have always moved to opportunity. When the Midwest farms were turning to dust, laborers moved to California. When the children of former slaves wanted to escape sharecropping and Jim Crow, they moved to Detroit and Baltimore where factory jobs were plentiful.
Interestingly, the poor and working class now tend to stay put; it’s the highly educated who move to knowledge cities like New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland where they might actually find jobs — or create businesses — promising attractive income, sympatico colleagues and stimulating work. Unlike their suburban parents, these arrivals prefer densely settled, walkable neighborhoods, and bike lanes.
Even young people high in animal spirits need places to live. By 1990 in New York and somewhat later in other American cities, developers, who had shied from building in cities that were losing population, were back in business.
In fact, a seemingly endless line of young newcomers has clamored for apartments. Some developers repurposed the abandoned buildings left by departing industries, residents and bankrupt landlords. Many lobbied for zoning changes that would allow them to build residential high rises. They often got them.
Parks paid for partly by developers or with the tax revenues and foundation money that came from a new generation of affluent New Yorkers appeared in former brownfields. The enormous decline in crime beginning in the 1990s, a product of smarter policing, demographic shifts produced in part by the gentrifiers themselves, and other hard-to-determine factors also added to the lure of city living.
But along with their innovative new businesses and disposable income, the newcomers have transported any number of problems with them.
First among them, of course, are astronomical housing costs. The demand for housing put upward pressure on rental and housing prices, enticing some landlords to raise rents by jaw-dropping amounts, both displacing residents and pricing out many aspiring migrants.
Neighborhoods seem to change their character in a New York minute, leaving older residents bereft of the Laundromats, bodegas and even churches they had long depended on.
Add to all of that racial and ethnic tension, as predominantly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant can get whiter and more affluent at breakneck speed, and it’s clear as the glass on a new condo why gentrification gets a bad rap it’s easy to see why gentrification sparks such intense emotions.
During his first campaign, Mayor de Blasio named it as one of the top challenges for New York. “I see people suffering and feeling like they’re losing their grip on the place, and my job is to help New Yorkers live in New York. It’s not to clear the place out and see it fully gentrified,” he told New York in 2013. His campaign motto, “a tale of two cities,” evoked the contrasting image of well-heeled, gym-toned arrivistes in their river view aeries on the one hand, and the struggling Hispanic janitor and his family facing eviction from their cramped three-room apartment.
De Blasio was speaking for many New Yorkers for whom gentrification seems a “brutal” invasion, even a brand of “colonialism,” that destroys communities’ cultural heritage. At a 2014 event at Pratt Institute, director Spike Lee, wearing a “Defend Brooklyn” hoodie, angrily blasted the “Christopher Columbus syndrome.” Referring to the home still occupied by his jazz musician father, he went on: “We bought a house in nineteen sixty mother f—-in’ eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the f— outta here!”
The problem we are left with is this: There are few, if any, examples of urban revival without gentrification. Cities with good jobs attract educated men and women who create businesses and bring in more tax dollars, which, assuming effective local governance — admittedly a big assumption — means more services, parks and amenities.
That’s a virtuous cycle.
Cities stuck in a fading industrial past, places such as St. Louis, Buffalo and Milwaukee, have not been able to attract an educated middle class, that is, gentrifiers. It is true they in turn don’t have to worry nearly as much about greedy developers, displaced minority residents or high levels of inequality.
Instead they have the opposite worry: abandoned factories and a dilapidated housing stock, higher levels of concentrated poverty, few rich people to pay the taxes to support necessary services and a large population of demoralized citizens.
It’s not impossible to imagine a city where gentrification and opportunity for the less educated co-exist. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Seattle is one place that has managed to have both gentrification, relatively low poverty rates (14.5%, a quarter of them university students) and, according to research from Harvard’s Raj Chetty, a lot of local children who can look forward to having better jobs than their parents.
Easing regulations to promote more housing and infrastructure might help. Some neighborhoods will probably remain out of reach for the poor and even the middle class no matter how tall the high-rise housing.
But the laws of supply and demand have not been suspended citywide. At the very least, more supply through infill development and more flexible regulations for multi-family units could ease prices in more modest neighborhoods.
Gentrification and its inevitable housing pressures are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. The United States produces about 1.6 million new college graduates each year, up from 840,000 in 1970 and a million in 1990. Officials have projected another 400,000 people moving to Portland by the year 2035.
Seattle has been growing by 14,000-18,000 residents a year for the last few years; many more are on their way. D.C., one of the most popular destinations for millennials, predicts 250,000 new residents in the next 20 years. New York too expects its population of 8.2 million to grow to 9 million by 2040.
Hate those newcomers all you want, but keep in mind we wouldn’t want to live without them.
Hymowitz is author of “The New Brooklyn” and William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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