Gentrifuckation (part 1)

17 Comments

Every morning, this is what my walk to the train station looks like:

Skyline

That thing I circled is The Ludlow. At first, it doesn’t look too obstructive …

The Ludlow Blocks Sunlight

Then, as I start to walk down Houston St., I realize how much it blocks my damn sunlight, the energy I feed off of every morning. It casts this huge and ominous shadow over the street; if the sun even came out that day, people might not know. Whenever I inquire about a price from my fellow LESers, they give me the big eyeroll and a deep breathe. And it’s only getting worse.

As if you didn’t know my stance on the deterioration of the Lower East Side, my neighborhood for more than a quarter-century now, I’m absolutely infuriated with the amount of gentrification that’s swept our neighborhood. When Emperor Guiliani presided over NYC and rid the city of much of NYC’s charm and character in favor of condominiums and Walt Disney, many of us wondered what the hell would happen to us. I first noticed the change when this building came up.

Red Square

I was too young to understand that, as modest as this structure and its accompanying stores were, it would be the precursor for the raising of the rent and the razing of too many structures I’m familiar with. The clocks on top of the Red Square tell the right time if you strictly look at the hands, but the numbers are all switched around, meaning that the LES was now on their time and not ours.

A decade later, 1/2 of the shops, buildings, and people I used to know in this area have either evaporated or gone elsewhere, replaced with boutiques, wine shops, art and architecture showcases, and bars. An overabundance really. There’s nothing wrong with a little renovation. I’m all for getting a little more money into a neighborhood and a little less crime, but let’s look at a case study:

Two Buildings

Building A is a brand new building. Building B’s probably been around since this was a primary Jewish neighborhood. Now, because of Building A, building B can raise its rent. And because of building B, residents of building A can say they live in better conditions, even though they live right next to each other, have to shop at the same groceries, and have the same inglorious view of the changes happening in this neighborhood.

Now, some of these shops changed completely, but others found it cute to basically keep the name of the old establishment just to look semi-authentic. (Click for larger image)

Arlene’s GroceryAlias Restaurant

And whenever gentrification wants to leave its signature, it turns to the boys from Seattle:

Starbucks

Some of my critics who believe that life shouldn’t be fair and blame the victim whenever they get the chance, would probably now say, “But Jose, can’t a community grow? Why does everything have to be negative? Gentrification brings jobs, it cleans up neighborhoods, brings in people, and strengthens the community.” In some ways, they might be right. I don’t have to go very far to have fun. There’s a nice diner here that I can take my friends to, and people look at me in awe whenever I tell them I was born and raised here, a confidence booster for sure.

Yet my response stays the same: what happens to the people who’ve been working here for decades now? Why is it always appropriate for the more affluent to invade a poor person’s space and push out the inhabitants for their own gain while the poor are always ostracized when we make inroads in their communities? Why does redlining and HUD exist if this is a free society and all men are created equal? Will they have us live like on the East River when it’s all said and done?

Chinese Junk

I’m not sure, but the following structure is a hint. Look at it. It’s ugly. Really.

Blue Condo of Death NYC

Need another angle?

Blue Condo of Death NYC 2

Wait, if I look at it clearly, I think I see something …

Blue Condo of Death NYC Fist

A FIST! And there you have it. Symbolic of the struggles of the people, the fist now represents the urban developers’ forceful raping of the delicate culture Loisaida has cultivated over the last few decades. Before Time Out New York had the nerve to advertise “The Lower East Side Is Back” on their covers, people lived here. Before the NYPost and other newspapers had the nerve to mistake where Chico painted the Nixzmary Brown and 2Pac murals, the Lower East Side was here. Before the Nuyorican Poets Cafe had lines full of people trying to act like they understand the art of Pedro Pietri and mimicking each other just to look deep / cute, Pedro Pietri himself gave the people anthems to get by on those open mic nights. Before these yuppies, hipsters, posers, and wannabes giggled and vomited their way through all our neighborhoods, the Lower East Side was cool.

Nixzmary Brown Mural by Chico

2Pac Mural by Chico

Odyssey, the disco band, once sang of native New Yorkers, but those come sparse like the American bald eagle and Babe Ruth rookie cards, and just as valuable. Because we still preserve the secrets, the ups and downs, the grit, and the soul that once made the Lower East Side, and hence NYC, what it was, and what people come here for. I’m not sure, but my LES is officially on its death bed, and we are the eulogizers and pallbearers of that tradition.

jose, l.e.s. for life …

p.s. – I know I linked this a couple of posts ago, but I’ll get into it a little bit later on.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 17

  1. Matt Hanson

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Matt Hanson

  2. Tamara Eden

    Man do I really appreciate and love the LES. I agree with you. I think some gentrification is great. However, I think it should be under the same concept as when a building is built amongst nature. It should be designed to blend with the already existing/natural landscape. That “fist” building is like a lego house I could build.

    Either way, when I come to the LES, I feel a sense of coming home. Even though I’ve never lived there. It’s a Jewish roots thing. In some weird way, the LES is more my “homeland” than Israel is. It’s where my family plopped down in the early 20s while escaping the glorious pograms of Poland. It’s where WE got our start.

    Anyway, thanks for the story.

  3. Post
    Author
    Jose

    NYC, thanks. Took a little work for sure, but it was worth it.

    Tamara, even when there were more Jews here, it was cool, because it had this odd mix of blue-collar workers around here. It was tranquil and just had its own special flavor that you couldn’t get anywhere (not even Williamsburg). Anyways, I’m glad you enjoy this hood; too bad not even Katz’ can provide you will that “at home” feeling since that whole street’s got 3 construction sites.

  4. Corey

    Man, I know what you’re talkin about. I have nothing against Caucasians or anything (I do go to Villanova, aka Vanillanova, after all), but I’ll never get used to seeing white faces walking what I still consider MY streets…but yeah, gentrication is a double-edged sword. There are definitely benefits, but at the same time, we’re losing the aspects that made it feel like home.

    Long live the days of playin’ ball on the little rim on Forsyth and of the nickname “Shorty 140″

    PEACE

  5. pre_k

    gentrification. sometimes it sounds like a very ugly word. and most times it proves itself to be destroyer of culture and tradition. Most people tend to look at gentrification as a matter of a rising tide raises all ships but the truth of the matter is that all ships are not made for all currents and therein lies the problem.

  6. Ensayn

    Jose,
    When I read this my heart sank. Though I’m not from NY, I see this happening in my native Southern Cali hometown. I live in the ATL now and see this happening here as well. But, when you return to your homeland, the streets you played baseball and football on, the houses you spent many hours with friends just like it was your home, and see them gone all gone, new faces and building, or changed in such a way you alomst don’t recognize the place it really feels sad, a melancoly feeling I guess.
    Great post!

  7. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Corey, shorty 140 was the modus operandi back in my elementary school because it was PS 140. Glad you brought it back.

    AAPP, maybe you can help a little with the project we discussed on the Afrospear.

    pre_k, that’s as abstract as it gets. that’s the problem in general. there’s no sense of equity.

    ensayn, i’d like to hear more about SoCal and ATL. I can always ask around, but it just intrigues me …

  8. Frumteacher

    Thanks for giving us a tour through your neighbourhood. It’s sad how architects and city planners design their neighbourhoods at the drawing table, and destroy the character of a neighbourhood they didn’t even know existed.

  9. Amauri T.

    Jose great post. I’m on the oppossite end of the island in the Heights, and facing much of the same. Since Giuliani’s day it has been snowballing but in 2007 it took off into the stratosphere. I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that there is a moving truck on my block or an adjacent one just about every day bringing in more ‘young, urban professionals’ to use the euphemism. There are no new buildings directly by me, however apparently someone in my own building just bought a apartment for 600k, giving the management company license to demand outrageous rent hikes.

    Even for someone knee-deep in finance it is difficult to tell where things are going economically, but guys like you and me know what NYC looks like when Wall Street & Midtown stop handing out fat bonuses or building fancy new HQ towers. It will be interesting to see if the trend reverses once crime & grime return, but somehow I doubt it.

  10. bonnie

    My favorite Cuban hole-in-the-wall in SoHo, Las Brisas del Caribe, got shut down a while back.

    The replacement has just opened.

    Guess what, it’s a shiny trendy deli. With glass cases. Pastries. Panini. JUST LIKE TEN OTHER FRICKIN’ TRENDY DELIS IN THE ADJACENT 5 FRICKIN’ BLOCKS.

    I miss that pernil…

  11. Mes Deux Cents

    Hi Jose,

    I was raised in N.Y., (Queens) so I am really saddened to see what’s going on. I have been reading about the gentrification going on in Harlem. A lot of people are saying the Bill Clinton choosing Harlem for his office started a second wave of gentrification there.

    The interesting thing is that in Harlem many of the new people are Black. It appears that what used to be an issue of race has become more about economics.

    With that said the result is the same. People are displaced. Where do they go?

    Another interesting case of gentrification happened in the late 90’s in Columbus, Ohio. There, it was gay White men moving into a historically Black area. The city even got involved by declaring the neighborhood a historic zone. This meant that the homes had to meet a certain standard. Of course many of the poor Black residents could not afford to do the work to their homes to satisfy the strict historic codes. So as you can guess they were fined and many eventually lost homes that had been in their families for generations.

    Only when people in these areas that are ripe for gentrification hold their Politicians accountable will this process become more humane.

  12. mzvirgo

    I found your site and think that your gentrification blog is great. My ex keeps talking about how great gentrification is in Brooklyn, but I don’t really agree with the whole gentrification. I live in Harlem and I just feel like it’s not Harlem anymore. I thought I was alone in my thoughts but your blog proved me wrong. Thank you so much.

  13. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Frum, this is probably one of the few issues that I’m conservative about.

    Amauri, how does it feel to live in WaHi? I caught wind of that abbreviation last year, and my stomach almost literally fell to the floor. It’s gross, and there’s no alibi for that kind of dumb renaming. It was one thing for Wall St. to hand out these fat bonuses to yuppies, and it’s quite another when it comes at the expense of “the people.”

    bonnie, I think I know the place you’re talking about, and I agree. It’s getting worse than Starbucks, even, and that’s a hard thing to say.

    MDC, I saw that happening when Bill came in, but even with that movement, Harlem still hasn’t been completely transformed the way the LES has, or the Upper East Side has for that matter, and that is a hat tip to the people exerting their will upon that neighborhood. They don’t want Harlem to become the next Seneca Village.

    mzvirgo, check the blogroll under “Save New York City”. You’re definitely not alone.

  14. Amauri T.

    Not just ‘WaHi’, but now also ‘Hudson Heights’. That used to be only a particular (and insular) nice strip of the neighborhood, however now ‘Hudson Heights’ is magically growing into the blocks around it as the ‘WaHi’ in general improves.

    I’m fighting tooth and nail to stay, however my girl and roommates are quite ready to throw in the towel. I won’t lie, it has brought a whole lot that I like; there are more and more enjoyable cafes & restaurants, the quality of groceries available has improved, and it is cleaner and safer each day. My thing is that if I suffered through the crack vials then I insist on enjoying the good times. Also if those of us who have made it into the professional class just take off it will be that much easier for the new residents to trample all over the natives if things ever get heated.

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