Faces of Gentrification

Image: Collage of participants by Eileen Murray

Image: Collage of participants by Eileen Murray

Recently, I had an article published in this magazine about the basics of what gentrification is. There I established that gentrification is essentially when a working class neighborhood is made appealing to upper middle class persons, which then prompts  upper middle class persons to move into the neighborhood. This shift from working class to upper middle class often causes a massive change in the fabric of the neighborhood and raises rents forcing the working class residents to leave their communities and homes. This type of situation is experienced across the United States and across the world, and it affects many different types of people. So as a follow-up to my previous article, I have decided to interview four young women that live in neighborhoods and cities that are experiencing gentrification for their take on the issue. 

Meet some of the faces behind gentrification:

Michelle Rouse is a 17 year old young woman from Durham, North Carolina.

Kristy Ye-Ling is an 18 year old young woman from the Lower East Side in New York City. 

Amarrah Woo is a 16 year old young woman from Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Laura is a 16 year old young woman from Washington Heights in New York City. 

Describe your neighborhood/city/town prior to gentrification 

Mich: Before gentrification, the majority of the population was African American or Hispanic/Latinx. 10 years ago, my neighborhood was relatively peaceful and quiet. My parents enjoyed bonding with the neighbors and were more comfortable with me playing outside. 5 years ago, there was an increase in violence (nightly gunshots), constant motorcycle riding, and loud altercations between estranged couples; I was not comfortable going outside nor even living here. Within the past 2 years, these actions have subsided, but I have noticed a shift in my surroundings, a shift in population and the presence of local shops.

Kristy: My neighborhood, prior to gentrification, looked pretty simple. Nothing looked modern or super colorful but everything everyone needed was there (for example, a deli, laundromat, schools, etc.)

Laura: Washington Heights had many diverse small businesses. There were bodegas in every corner, dry cleaners, small cafés, etc. On the other hand, the neighborhood’s crime rate was higher than that of many other neighborhoods. 

What do you believe causes gentrification? 

Amarrah: I believe it’s a system of wealth that causes gentrification. You know, like the wealthy come in and take over so the poor move and it’s just a cycle. It doesn’t end and it’s going to take a lot of work to stop that cycle.  

Laura: It is difficult to pin-point the exact cause of gentrification. One of the overarching causes, in my opinion, lies within the market forces of our capitalist system as well as lack of proper legislation to protect tenants. 

How has gentrification affected your neighborhood/city/town? What does it look like?

Mich:  I noticed homes were being built down the street from me; most were nice, but several were piled into an area, utilizing all of the land’s space. I don’t think it matches the aesthetic of the older homes in the area. My house is  nearly 110 years old; it’s surely not the most modern of the bunch, and you can tell the newer homes seem... out of place. Last year, a bakeshop opened in the heart of our neighborhood, and this gained different attraction. Gradually, more and more white people  came. I have several white neighbors now, something I never grew up with. However, with this, I noticed some of the long-time residents have left.

Kristy: Right now, it’s clear that my neighborhood is being gentrified. Essex Market, the bowling alley and movie theater, the tall apartments, the ones still under construction, and the new cafes down every street makes it pretty apparent. I’ve lived in the area for my entire life and soon, it’ll be unrecognizable to me. Even now, telling people that I live in the LES [Lower East Side] doesn’t mean the same thing as when I say it now. 

Amarrah: Cambridge is doing alright trying to stop gentrification but obviously it still happens especially with such wealthy big schools nearby. You could drive like ten minutes here and go from the richest neighborhood to the poorest and not know in the slightest how it changed. 

Laura: As of right now Washington Heights is in the process of being gentrified. I’ve seen my former neighbors move to places in or outside the state where rents are lower. There is even a block in 181st street in which most of the stores are going out of business. The entire neighborhood is starting to look very much like midtown Manhattan in the sense that it is starting to lose its essence. Not to mention, that we are losing the people that gave the neighborhood its essence

How has gentrification personally affected you, your loved ones, and/or your neighbors?

Kristy: While it is easier for me to adapt to the change, people in my area and further down in Chinatown may not be able to keep up, especially the older people who have been here longer than I have. I assume the delis around us that are supposed to be quick, affordable, and reliable will raise their prices because they have to keep up. Furthermore, the new apartment buildings and hotels have huge negative effects on the old ones that are right next to them, and have been there for decades. I know residents who are about to be kicked out because of all this gentrification. Sure, it looks nice but I really don’t think it’s worth it for the price it takes. 

Laura: Some people may argue that I have not been directly affected by this-yet.  But, as mentioned before, I have seen numerous former neighbors leave as a result of rent increase and seeing the essence of my neighborhood eroded. 

Cities and neighborhoods change constantly. What are your thoughts on how gentrification can be slowed down, stopped, or perhaps made less harmful?

Amarrah: I don’t necessarily think gentrification can be stopped. I wish I could say I did, but I don’t. I think it can be made less harmful by taking those people we’re putting out of business and homes and giving them jobs at these new establishments. Society takes out the “little guys” and leaves them with nothing and that in itself is why gentrification has hurt so many individuals. 

Laura: Proper legislation should be enforced to allow people of different economic backgrounds to have the same housing opportunities, to protect the rights of tenants and to demand that new housing has reserved affordable space for lower income people. 

Eileen MurrayComment