Black Gentrification

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Dax-Devlon Ross, contributor to Dominion of New York and WOLDC, and the author of Beat of a Different Drum: The Untold Stories of African Americans Forging Their Own Paths in Work and Life, writes about his experience as a "black gentrifier" in his Hamilton Heights neighborhood.


Dax-Devlon Ross

Comments [37]

Has an income to afford the rent on a Manhattan residence unregulated by statute. Congratulations on your life. Really.
I don't want to deal in expected stereotypes (would it be better to live in a neighborhood made up of only unrecognized stereotypes); did you have similar feelings of incongruity when you were doing well in school?
Maybe there will some clues over at your website.

Feb. 20 2012 12:12 PM
Ethan Pettit from East Williamsburg

I am white and I started gentrifying Williamsburg, Brooklyn way back in the early 80s. I'm still at it, now working on Bushwick. And I'm not a real estate person. I do it all with art. With cultural activity, basically by just being there and being what I am. I have seen the whole arc of gentrification and the unique problems at each phase of the process. In the beginning there are very bad systemic problems of crime, collapsed industry, and environmental degradation. 30 years later the most pressing problem is affordable housing. For the most part, however, I prefer a street whose stores are open for business and not boarded up. From a long perspective, I view gentrification as the norm, and urban blight as the exception. Mind you, I loved the old neighborhood. But I also don't think it was sustainable, or populous enough. And, without owning any property, I do take pride in the new Williamsburg, have a sense of ownership in it, and a fascination with where it's going.

Jan. 09 2012 07:45 AM
Prue Barrett from Brooklyn, New York

A few years ago, my then husband James and I lived on W146th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway and I admit I felt very conflicted about being part of gentrification. My ex husband is African American, middle class, worked as a software developer and I'm white and from Australia. We lived in a building where some tenants had rent stable apartments and others, like ourselves, paid market value. On the one hand, I saw that we contributed to the overall increase of rents. But on the other hand the people in the building, the other African American and Latino families were so proud of James. They really looked up to him, they thought it was so great that he went to college, had a great job and played the piano brilliantly. I could see and the people in the building would tell me how they were very proud of James and I observed what a great influence he was in providing a different model, the model of the very successful African American man in that community which at times had lacked such examples. James' success gave them another option, he showed them there were other possibilities.

The overall question of gentrification is hugely complex, but I think by acknowledging that it exists and creating conversation you create the opportunity to address the unintended consequences of this type of change, so that the best parts of each community are preserved and fostered.

Jan. 05 2012 03:48 PM
fuva from Harlemworld

Of course, Harlem was previosuly dominated by the Dutch, Italians and Jews. All of them moved "up" out of Harlem, to other "better" neighborhoods they could eventually afford. They were not displaced. This is a critical difference between those neighborhood changes and what happened to Natives and what is happening to blacks.

Jan. 05 2012 01:40 PM
Kelly Virella from New York, NY

"The Truth From Becky"
Girl, you are too much! Check out my kinky hair and brown skin.

Virella is my maiden name, the one I inherited from my African ancestors' slavemasters. Not only that, I grew up dirt poor, in a trailer in rural Alabama. So I understand very well both sides of the fence -- poverty and wealth.

And yeah, I think it's crucial for black people to understand when we have privileges that we can use to help our people or anyone else.

Please don't assume that you know me, Dax or anyone else. We can get a lot further in what I believe is out common goal -- improving our community -- if we respect each other enough to ask questions.

Jan. 05 2012 01:30 PM
DR from Brooklyn

I am an African American who as a young professional twenty five years ago moved into a so called depressed neighborhood in Brooklyn . There were many challenges however there were joyful, beautiful people who lived there and we felt a kinship with our neighbors. We were going to make the neighborhood a better place for ourselves and the residents who lived there. We started block associations, went to prencint council meetings etc as members of the community. We became a part of the existing community. We were not gentrifiers.
The difference today is that it appears that the "new comers" don't connect with the people who live there. They want the property but are not interested in associating with the original residents. When they would see me in the street they wouldn't speak or acknowledge me especially if they thought I was one of the original residents from the community. Initially they wouldn't go to the parks or the churches or the schools or even allow there kids to play outside. When their numbers swelled and more residents were displaced the culture changed as did the services.

Writing this sound as though I am writing the Christopher Columbus story. He came to this country saw something he wanted and took it. He did not want to assimilate but wanted the land and the resources. Disturbingly similar but not the focus of this discourse.

When I moved in twenty five years ago the thought was that we had a great location downtown Brooklyn which was valuable and could become an even better place for the residents. Unfortunately that didn't happen. The neighborhood did not get better for the residents. They are no longer here.

If you want to determine if you are or are not a gentrifier (Black or White) ask yourself when was the last time, if ever, you asked,
Where are the people who used to live here and how are they doing?

Jan. 05 2012 01:23 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I agree with what Ellen has to say about long-time residents being the instigators of making neighborhoods like Crown Heights into more thriving, safe areas. What many people are not aware of is the strength and proliferance of block associations in these neighborhoods, and how much work they do (both socially and politically) to change the tone of the streets.

The nuance to that equation is that home-ownership by residents greatly effects the tone of the streets; I am aware that this is a potentially thorny issue in any neighborhood, because it comes down to: who can afford to be a homeowner? I have lived in parts of Bed-Stuy in which gun shots went off every other weekend during the summer - which always occured right in front of three huge, tenement-style buildings - and conversely, I have lived on beautiful, tree-lined streets in which a large amount of the homes were still owned and occupied by older black people in their 70's and 80's, and the generations of their children and grandchildren. These families were/are constantly involved in the community, and also make it a point to reach out to newcomers to get them involved in the community. Here's a piece I wrote about an issue in my neighborhood, if anyone is interested:

Jan. 05 2012 12:54 PM
Nan from Prospect Heights (sorry)

As a white kid on the UWS in the '80s, I got to watch my neighborhood "gentrify" as yuppies from the midwest moved in. No race difference, but they changed my neighborhood and talked about it differently from the way that I did. I'm still bugged that they took on such a careless sense of ownership while destroying things I cared about.

When I moved to Sunset Park, my favorite things about the neighborhood had been there for a very long time (a lot of old churches, eastern european/hispanic/asian food, etc.), and it was awesome. Now I live in Prospect Heights and I just can't get excited about the longtime businesses and cultures in the area. This makes me hate myself.

I think the degree to which you can count yourself as a "gentrifier" turns out to be personal: if you value and want to respect the history/current culture of an area, it's much better than if you don't care about or hate the things that have been there for a long time and consider yourself to be "making it better". Those people are the worst, and it doesn't matter what race you are.

Jan. 05 2012 12:47 PM
john from office

Fuva, these are neighborhoods, not museums. All areas change. Should I also learn about the Italians, the Irish, please stop hold bad, crime ridden areas as cultural institutions. They are dumps.

Jan. 05 2012 12:39 PM
The Truth from Becky

Clearly Fuva is "the truth" here today.

FYI to Kelly clearly not black Virella I can tell you really mean well, I get that but I think we understand Dax more than you know, we are clear on his position ALSO "wisdom" does not only come from "privelege".

Jan. 05 2012 12:38 PM
fuva from Harlemworld

Seriously, white people who move into traditionally black communities like Harlem, should first take the time to learn the history of those communities. After doing so, they may conclude that the lower property values and rents they pursue there are a direct result of decades/ centuries of systematic socioeconomic exclusion and terror (segregated employment and housing, redlining, etc.) -- both instituted or sanctioned by the government -- the effects of which have never been systematically addressed.
Does this mean they are using their resultant economic advantage to leverage and even perpetuate historical wrongs? Aren't black folk leaving Harlem and traditionally black communties mostly because they can't afford it? They are on my block.

Jan. 05 2012 12:33 PM
paul_b from Prospect Heights

S: A cool-moisture type room humidifier will relieve that overwhelming radiator heat. Many types, very wide price range, buy at hardware store, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, etc.

Jan. 05 2012 12:20 PM
Ellen from Brooklyn

I agree completely with Joe Black and one of the callers. People don't KNOW what your background is just by looking at you, but they can see your skin color. I live in Crown Heights and the neighborhood has changed a lot in the last five years. A lot more wealth and a lot more white people.

A lot of those white people DO have money, but not ALL of them do. I have many white friends that are barely able to get by (and I mean that seriously, not as hyperbole), but they will occasionally get harassed for being "rich." They don't care about fancy new restaurants opening and they'll be forced out when their rent goes up, but they are still part of the gentrification process because of how others perceive them. People see Joe Black and they judge him on his skin color and they might not think there is money in the neighborhood.

Most of the positive change in my area of Crown Heights has come from long time residents and this generally means black people. They are business owners and community board members who have been working to improve the beauty and the safety of the neighborhood. But I think the increase in rent (the negative side of gentrification) comes from seeing white faces, regardless of who actually has the money and who is actually putting in the effort.

Jan. 05 2012 12:20 PM
Kelly Virella from New York, NY

I know Dax-Dev personally and edited this piece. I think the situation is much more complex than a lot of commenters seem to believe and Dax-Dev does a great job of capturing that in the article. He's completely comfortable with his neighbors -- so there's no questions here about any alienation from other black people.

What made him decide that he was a gentrifier was the realization that he himself was actually displacing people in the building in which he was living. In fact, he met some of the people who were having to move out.

I think it's brave and bold of him to recognize that his money and privilege are part of the problem for his neighbors. But that's just the beginning of understanding privilege. The next step is to use the privilege to create a fairer, more just society. That's when we start talking about things like affordable housing and mixed income communities.

Jan. 05 2012 12:17 PM
paulb from Prospect Heights

This is all so.... abstract.

Some friends, "gentrifiers?," feeling cramped by Park Slope prices, found a nice prewar, elevator building apartment south of Prospect Park, quite a mixed neighborhood. They were overjoyed: no fee, reasonable rent, big rooms: a corner apartment with lots of sunlight, a landlord eager to welcome a couple with higher income and more education than he'd traditionally had in the building and who'd done a nice job fixing up the apartment for new tenants. The landlord wasn't soaking them rent-wise, not by a long shot.

BUT: the problems. Neighbors were very loud all the time, loud music very late at night, stamping around, shouting. Conversations resulted, the results of the conversations being one of the occupants in the upstairs apartment began (I kid you not) peeing out a window directly above one of theirs.

Conversations with landlord, the landlord tries to intervene, ultimately says there is not much he feels he can do. He doesn't have grounds to evict the "problem" tenants (who were only a problem for the new tenants and ultimately the landlord, not the building's other residents). The landlord, who sounds like a saint, apologetically lets my friends out of their lease with no penalty.

Where are your sympathies?

Jan. 05 2012 12:15 PM
The Truth from Becky

All of this conversation over melanin....the real issue is clouded! Have and have nots, two classes rich and poor is where we are headed without drastic change.

Jan. 05 2012 12:11 PM
fuva from Harlemworld

On another note...Brian, WNYC and other such shows -- that I LOVE -- tend to get their "black" perspective from "new negroes" who are often quite removed from the reality of the black masses and not ashamed of it. This can make for interesting segments. But these folks, for the most part, will NOT be the source of the kind of race/ socieconomic discourse that we really need to be having. Let's be clear.

Jan. 05 2012 12:10 PM
LM from New Rochelle

We're white. We moved to the inner city in Boston because we wanted to not contribute to segregation & have our kids know people of different races/ethnicities... I always worried if we were gentrifying the neighborhood... but it never "turned around" ... nevertheless, my kids have always gone to school with a diverse set of people, played with them in our neighborhood, etc. and have a very open-minded view of people (New Rochelle is equally diverse if not as poor as inner city Boston). I deplore gentrification especially since it is driving many lower income people out of NYC... but also wonder how to achieve diverse (class & race) communities... more affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods? This is what the US should be trying to achieve...

Jan. 05 2012 12:07 PM
kikakiki from Harlem

When a Black or Latino moves into a neighborhood regardless of income, it does not change the dynamic of the area, i.e. more policing, upscaling restaurants, changes in the district school, but when whites begin to move into a neighborhood it impacts differently, not necessarily the individuals fault but the perception of the landlords, the store owners and the local police precinct. I grew up in Harlem, where I live now was once called Harlem, but is now not known as Harlem but as "morningside heights" and though it is stands in the midst of a housing project the policing, the stores and the schools reflect the fact that many whites live in the area

Jan. 05 2012 12:06 PM
fuva from Harlemworld

"Class" divisions in the black community have always been less pronounced, for obvious reasons. Blacks in the "middle class" have always been closer to/ connected to/ affected by the black "lower class" majority because of race, segregated neighborhoods and/or because they almost always had close family members in it.
Unfortunately, black "class" distinctions and separation are becoming more pronounced, as reflected in this writer's story. At issue here seems to be the distance Dax FEELS from his neighbors; his inability to relate to them, reflecting a growing and counterproductive schism in the black community that will inhibit its ability to address the ongoing challenges it faces across "class".

Jan. 05 2012 12:00 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

It's about economics and culture. If enough people - young/old, black, or white, want sit down restaurants, imported beer, or the New York Times stocked at their local bodega - it will happen regardless.

Jan. 05 2012 12:00 PM
Kevin Barnes from NYC, NY

I do not agree with the concept that Blacks are gentrifiers because they make more money than their neighbors. It is a concept that smacks of elitism to me. Our communities, for centuries were forced to live in ghettoized environments because of our race. The economic stratification encompassed professionals as well as those without a formal education in ghetto environments.

If Dax is feeling uncomfortable because he makes more money than his neighbors, there are many ways to give back to those without. Mentor a child who does not have a father figure in his life. Volunteer in a local school to help younger kids excel in math and reading skills.

I also take umbrage that Blacks in the US are called racists. We can definitely be bigoted, but not racist. Blacks do not control the government, the economy or the armed forces of this country.

Jan. 05 2012 12:00 PM
Camille Brown from East Harlem

I've lived in Harlem for over 20 years. I like the new mix because the new generation of settlers bring badly needed services, shops, and grocery stores.
I go out and there is a great mix of old timers and new folks. Harlem needed some new blood.

Jan. 05 2012 11:59 AM
10037 from Central Harlem

I am white. I moved to Central Harlem. I love the diversity. I love the central location to transportation, the library, the post office, etc.
I moved because the rents are cheaper. Yes, I moved into a "remodeled" apt, but I could not afford the same amenities in midtown, where I was paying more for a 4th floor walk-up, w/o a real kitchen, w/o laundry, etc.
So, am I a "gentrifier" or am I someone who is just looking for affordable housing in NYC?

Jan. 05 2012 11:59 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

As a white, creative person who has lived in urban black neighborhoods for 20+ years (currently Bed-Stuy), I am both embracing some of the things Ross is saying, but also rejecting them. As a liberal, I am wholly-conscious of the down side of so-called "gentrification" and how oblivious newcomers to neighborhoods like mine can be, and how they don't even try to befriend our neighbors and to get involved with, and respect the community. Obviously, people with more money displace poorer renters in neighborhoods like this.

But the flip side is - in NYC, especially, black owners of real estate are reaping huge rewards from selling to whomever can afford the buildings they are selling. They are not considering whom they are displacing, and are simply concerned (as anyone would be) with getting a good price for their buildings. Also, being white, I wholly reject the label "gentrifier." I have always looked for housing that suits my financial, professional, and space needs, and made an effort to become a part of whatever neighborhood I live in. Also, I have been "displaced" by wealthier people in other neighborhoods I used to live in (such as Fort Greene, in Brooklyn).I have been the victim of reverse racism countless times, and the irony is, many white people who move into black neighborhoods are the very people who are already involved in, or friends with, members of black communities.

That said, I love my neighborhood, and am now a proud homeowner, and live on a very mixed (economically and racially) block.

Jan. 05 2012 11:58 AM
RJ from prospect hts

The primary problem is the absence of affordable housing for all throughout the city. Decisions on cultural and historical living spaces would be much clearer if housing weren't a commodity rather than an essential part of life.

Jan. 05 2012 11:57 AM
john from office

So, we should allow areas to remain poor, underserved, crime ridden. Character of an area does not equal fearing for your life.

So the corner bodega now sells capucinos instead of blunts is a bad thing??

Jan. 05 2012 11:57 AM
tony from bayside

Are all those folks(kids) in williamsburg owners?
Perhaps, trustfunders..

mixed human that just moved to bayside...

Jan. 05 2012 11:57 AM

i'm a latin brooklyn native who moved to washington heights 15 years ago after leaving the city for college. i thought i was a gentrifier then, had a steady job, seemed to be the only person who left the building during the day to go to a job. over time of course, i lost the job and have freelanced and taught and wrote and scraped by like everyone else around me. i didn't do a thing to the neighborhood. it ghetto-ized or barrio-ized me. how i feel about that changes day to day. i dig my vecinos but hate overwhelming radiator heat.

Jan. 05 2012 11:57 AM
The Truth from Becky

Very tricky Brian.

Jan. 05 2012 11:55 AM
Joe Black

I too am an African American male from an upper middle class family outside of NYC. I just moved to Brooklyn and feel inherently different from the African Americans I live around. So, I’m constantly battling the question am I a gentrifier or not? My ultimate answer is no. Yes, when my neighbors look at my face, listen to the way I talk and the way I dress they know I’m not form their neighborhood. But, if visitors to Brooklyn pass me on the street, they’ll have no clue that I’m an African American attorney who went to Yale Law, and neither do my neighbors (unless I tell them:)

Jan. 05 2012 11:55 AM

Gentrification is a racist word. Just as saying "There goes the neighborhood" when a person of color moves in is racist.

Jan. 05 2012 11:54 AM
bernie from bklyn

why label yourself a gentrifier? it has a negative connotation...this is great- the way it should be, really. work hard, go to school, make some money and improve the neighborhood. perfect scenario, zero negativity.

Jan. 05 2012 11:54 AM
RJ from prospect hts

The guest refers to "individuals" changing a community. But it's never about individuals.

Jan. 05 2012 11:53 AM
The Truth from Becky

Dont do it, don't accept or create a new title of Black or Latino Gentrifide because Brian is trying to sway you..dont give white people a way out, dont take on are a successful Black person yes, lucky blessed etc but still Black, if you dont think white people see you the same way, think again!

Jan. 05 2012 11:52 AM
Kabir de Leeuw from Manhattan

Renters are not gentrifiers. Landlords are gentrifiers.

Jan. 05 2012 11:52 AM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

So, let me get this right. An improving neighborhood is a bad thing?

Jan. 05 2012 11:51 AM

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