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New York City's Perpetual Gentrification

Why the loudest anti-gentrification protesters come from the wealthiest areas in the wealthiest countries in the entire world.
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The Hub is the retail heart of the South Bronx. (PHOTO: FUTUREBIRD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Hub is the retail heart of the South Bronx. (PHOTO: FUTUREBIRD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

"L.A. flushes out at least a third of its population each decade, becoming an entirely new city in each generation." Journalist Doug Saunders wrote that in Arrival City, describing how people move through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Large urban immigrant gateways are in a constant state of churn. The displaced, displace. The real New York City:

As Cynthia Ozick said in the opening lines of her New Yorker essay “The Synthetic Sublime”: “More than any other metropolis of the Western world, New York disappears. It disappears and then it disappears again; or say that it metamorphoses between disappearances, so that every 75 years or so another city bursts out, as if against nature—new shapes, new pursuits, new immigrants with their unfamiliar tongues and worried uneasy bustle.” In Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik expressed this phenomenon another way: “There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears.” Which is also true of ideas: Hundreds of writers and thinkers have stated this same simple fact in their own way countless times before, because my sense of loss, and the city’s fundamental dynamism, exists on a continuum of loss and gain stretching back through the modern waves of immigration, to the Indians who lost their land to the Dutch.

Emphasis added. If a city is real, then it is dying. If a city is vibrant, then its neighborhoods are dying. The mythological South Bronx:

People told stories about their decades in the South Bronx, growing up in public housing, rescuing abandoned buildings, surviving, going to college, coming back. They talked about their fear of being priced out--and their fear of "SoBro" becoming the next new East Harlem.

The demographics of East Harlem and the South Bronx, explained the moderator, were the same until just four or five years ago. Now they're completely different. If you go there today, he said, "you'll think you're in Paris."

Emphasis added. That's funny. That's gentrification. The people telling those good ol' days stories are gentrifiers. Back to L.A. and Boyle Heights, home of Los Chipsters:

How does it make a difference if the residents who are part of gentrifying a neighborhood happen to have roots in the hood? ...

... Boyle Heights native and city worker Juan Romero opened Primera Taza four years ago, and he describes his decision to return this way: "We grew up always talking about being a part of something bigger. We’ve learned just how to create it for ourselves. Making it doesn’t mean moving out."

The so-called chipster phenomenon and its gentrifying tendencies (a close cousin of hipsters' gentrifying tendencies) have been getting more attention lately. The latino humor and satire site Pocho recently ran a piece on eight ways to tell if you're a chipster and the number one way was this: "You gentrified your own neighborhood when you moved back in with your mom."

Where are we now with the debate about gentrification? Theatre Bizarre. In San Francisco, we've got Gentrify Wall Street pretending to be employees of Google in order to make a point about the rent being too damn high. In 1970, the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland MSA was #1 in the United States for per capita personal income. In 2009, the same metro was still #1. Over that period, the population grew by more than 50 percent. The immigrants kept coming. The anti-gentrification protesters live in the wealthiest metro in the wealthiest country in the entire world. It's been that way for at least four decades.

A return to New York City:

Although I grew up in Phoenix, I’d heard about my New York roots all my life. There was Cannon Street on the Lower East Side, where my grandmother was born. There was Canarsie, Brooklyn, where my mother was born. And there was Flushing, where my mother’s family had its first house, the house where they lived until escaping to the Southwest in 1969. Even in the scorching desert, Grandma Sylvia and Uncle Sheldon referenced the Flushing house, a five-bedroom stand-alone with a yard, as if it were down the street. The talk was always about how the area was partially rural when they moved there from Brooklyn in 1950, about the large Jewish and Italian populations, and how Flushing hosted the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964. “When we moved there,” Grandma liked to say, “it was the country, and we were moving up in the world.” Each of these homes formed one locus in the triad of sacred places that defined my family’s mythology. Like their loud voices and Yiddish sayings, their history formed part of my identity: No matter how little I really knew about New York for the one year I lived there, I could always say that “my family is from here.”

Relocation is always some part escape (push) and some part moving up in the world (pull). Terms such as "white flight" are divorced from the migrant experience. Gentrification is upward mobility in the wrong direction. The tension between the mobile and the stuck is immortal. New York is dead. Long live New York.