Gentification: Coming Full Circle Where It Began
Gentrification is a land mine of a subject, for a myriad of reasons. For one, while there are superficial positives (better policing — albeit at the expense of the “unsavory” and “dispensable” indigent groups who occupy the to-be gentrified areas — more healthy eating options, better healthcare, schools, shopping, etc.) there are many more profound negatives that not only do not get addressed with action, but often go unspoken; except among those who are displaced and adversely affected.
Which brings us to the Bronx, in New York City.
Gentrification as it is known in the 2010s did not begin in the Bronx. However, a great deal of what led to what BECAME gentrification DID begin there. Most people who either lived in, visited, or know of the history of the Bronx post 1975 knows how negatively affected the Bronx became after mass exoduses down south and out of the country on the part of factories, manufacturing and other like jobs. Whether it is a cart before the horse situation or the reverse, White Flight (a phenomenon with which most people are aware) was concurrent. Whites left the Bronx (and several areas in Brooklyn, Harlem and parts of Queens) and fled for Long Island, Westchester/Rockland/Orange/Putnam counties, New Jersey, or clear across country to get away from the impending development of ghettos.
We all know what happened in the late 1970s and into the 1980s in the Bronx, thereafter. Here are several images and a documentary that gives you great insight into what was actually taking place at the precise time when life in the Bronx bottomed out completely:
80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979):
The Bronx in the 1980’s (1984; Several Part Series):
For those who lived in these areas throughout the 60s and 70s, there were not many options; higher education was virtually a myth, with no means to fund it, in many peoples’ cases, jobs were scarce, the ability to move was borderline out of the question. It became a way of life for those who remained after the White Flight Era of the late 1960s and 1970s. Those who left also took the jobs with them. This left the area with no real tax base, relegated many to welfare and subsidized housing — whether by their own volition or because of lack of opportunity elsewhere — and most of what you see in those images and documentaries became what the Bronx was known for until the late 1990s.
One thing that often gets lost in this generation of time between the 60s and 90s is how a certain culture rose from the concrete, almost in the manner that “succession” occurs in nature’s forests, rivers and lakes, when left to decay uninterrupted: Hip Hop. As poverty, lack of jobs, lack of outlets for entertainment became the way of life in the early 1970s, adolescents and young adults began crafting ways to entertain and express themselves. For years, even before ghettos developed (which were arguably forced by Robert Moses’ overzealous desire to build expressways carving up most of the Bronx almost ensuring that secluded areas would form later), “Rent Parties” were the norm. These parties included people inviting neighbors from the block, friends and whoever wanted in to come to the home of someone looking to raise money to pay their rent in a given month. With a donation to the cause, the admittee could then dance the night away with good music and food. That concept lent itself to the beginnings of Hip Hop, which incorporated elements of gathering and enjoying music, while developing other ways to express one’s self through art, rapping over older records, which were scratched, interpolated and mashed together to create a new sound never before seen on the music landscape. The rest was history from there.
Only one thing, those who left via White Flight were long gone (besides an underprivileged few who remained, those who stayed because of pride and they desire to not leave their homes, and helped develop the burgeoning Hip Hop culture that began to engulf the Bronx). This left Blacks, Puerto Ricans and a few of the aforementioned Whites who remained to become the forefathers of Hip Hop. While Hip Hop grew, the ghettos did not improve at all until the late 1990s in most areas.
Which is when Gentrification began throughout New York City.
Many buildings in neighboring Harlem were sold for $1 beginning in the mid-1990s; unbeknownst to many Harlem natives. To those who knew, they had long been redlined from employment, lines of credit or any other legal means to save money to afford the costs of not only buying shells of abandoned buildings from the 70s and 80s, but the means to renovate these buildings (which was a key caveat that prevented many in Harlem from ever owning the buildings that their families had occupied for sometimes three or four generations prior). This led to many buildings being sold right from underneath those who not only inhabited the buildings, but contributed to what became known as the culture in Harlem and, similarly, the Bronx.
Cities began revitalization initiatives in the 1990s, with an eye on increasing the respective tax bases throughout the Uptown neighborhoods, and bettering the quality of life in general (often under the guise of “bringing jobs to the area”; but not for those who inhabited the area, rather for those who these new building owners sought to come in and displace the “undesirable welfare recipient maggots” — as many were referred to in those times). Some even received tax abatements, grant funding, and other incentives to “come back” to the areas that they willfully vacated and took jobs and opportunities with them to begin with. Hip Hop and other beautiful aspects of indigenous culture have often sprung up in place of an abandoned and marginalized group. Without White Flight and the subsequent poverty and marginalization that occurred, it is doubtful that Hip Hop would have taken hold in the way that it did, or would have even been birthed to begin with. In other words, one event begat the other, and vice versa.
The grand irony now is those who fled (literally, in some cases) for their lives from the Uptown areas in New York City, and specifically, the Bronx, are coming back in droves; coming back to areas that are — in some cases — virtually unchanged from their conditions when White Flight initially occurred over 40 years ago. It is a stark and amazing event. Areas where Whites wanted no parts of after intentionally torching buildings for insurance money to fund their lives after leaving the Bronx are often the same people (or their children/grandchildren) returning to reclaim what they willfully left behind to rot, with the people who were left to do the same.
It is as if a full-circle solar return of sorts has occurred. This is not written to be antagonistic or racist in any way, shape or form, but to utilize euphemisms and dance around the realities of what occurred in the 70s and 80s is to neglect how profound the effects were, and still are, today.
People who fled in droves out of fear for their welfare and lives are returning even bolder than the people who remained for the past 40 years, and are now buying up old shells (like the ones pictured above), and developing new housing galore: right in the backyard of people who still find themselves redlined from opportunities that would afford them the financial wherewithal to do the same. Naturally, this produces conflict. And most recently, this is what is happening in the Grand Concourse/Mount Eden/University Heights sections of the Bronx — the newest cabal of gentrification:
A people protesting the “invasion” of gentrifiers. Indigenous people would welcome better healthcare, food options, living conditions, etc., if they were not being so systematically displaced in the process. This is becoming commonplace in New York City; not just in the Bronx, but in areas of Brooklyn, as well.
Given that White Flight led to the area falling into disrepair, the polar opposite is now occurring; White Influx now leads to Indigenous Exile. Amazing how these social constructs work, is it not?
You have to give credit to those who have seen the double-talk and lies that gentrifiers have promised elsewhere in New York City and refuse to leave their area without a fight, or at least a fair piece of the pie. Far be it to take a stand against people who willfully left an area unprovoked to come back and bully their way back in at the expense of the very people they fled to the suburbs to get away from in the first place.
For those who desire to do more than lament what is taking place, and want to get involved, be sure to subscribe to the People Power Movement on Tumblr and follow their events. There is a local community speakout scheduled for November 18. Subscribe to and follow People Power Movement here: People Power Movement.