Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Editorial: Gentrification’s Advance Guard


Editorial: Gentrification’s Advance Guard
Submitted by nyresident on April 24, 2007 - 12:10pm.--
April 24, 2007 - 12:10pm

For Young People On A Budget, The Best Place To Live May Be An Outer Borough
By Ben Muessig

Since I moved to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I’ve fallen in love with my neighborhood. I savor the brownstone blocks, the buzzing Mexican barrio, the borough’s biggest Chinatown and the grassy park with its views of the Manhattan skyline. I feel at home in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, I am destroying it.

My roommate and I discovered Sunset Park after realizing we couldn’t afford to live in any of the neighborhoods we considered cool. In one weekend, we saw eight apartments. Some crawled with roaches and rodents, others had beautiful bay windows and hardwood floors. Late Sunday afternoon, we found it —a cozy two-bedroom in a four-unit row house near the park.

Rent here is cheap, and food is cheaper. Mexican restaurants, bakeries, record stores, ride services and travel agencies line Fifth Avenue, the main drag, and on warm Sundays, vendors clog the sidewalks, hawking tamales and bootleg DVDs. A few avenues away, Chinese groceries, fish markets, karaoke bars and banks stretch for a mile. There are no movie theaters, bookstores or coffee houses —the closest options are in the next neighborhood.

Waiting for the D train, I’m legitimately surprised to hear English. When I go out for dinner (Chinese or Mexican), I pass kids riding their bikes, men playing soccer in a dried-up kiddie pool, families picnicking on park benches and women working in sweatshops. In a New York that grows ever richer and ever poorer, Sunset Park is still a working class neighborhood. But if more people like my roommate and me move in, it won’t stay that way for long.

With the money my roommate earns lifeguarding, and the cash I saved interning, we can hardly cover rent and utilities, even with help from our parents. But as students seeking inexpensive living, our economic status differs greatly from that of our neighbors.
College students are the best gentrifiers. We move to neighborhoods with low rent and high crime rates. We feed the local economy with our parents’ money, but frequent bodegas only until a CVS opens.
The businesses we close make room for bars, coffee shops and ethnic restaurants that better fit our demographic. We invite our friends and our friends’ friends for parties; the next year, our friends and our friends’ friends move in.

Many of us relocate every year. Whenever one of us moves out, our landlords increase rent by more than 4 percent – the typical inflation rate. After a couple of years of collegiate immigration, longtime residents can’t afford to stay.
We pay half as much rent as our friends in Greenwich Village do. Our neighbors probably pay about half what we do. When we moved in, our building was the only space on the block that catered to college students. In the last eight months, three new condo buildings have sprouted from vacant lots, all inhabited by gentrifying students and expats from the nearest gentrified neighborhood, Park Slope.

Sunset Park is calm compared to how it was 20 years ago, when it earned its rough reputation. It still has its problems. Coming home from class, I pass rows of cars with smashed windows and missing stereos. I’d play more basketball in the park if the kids weren’t wearing gang colors.
These are the times when I’d like to see Sunset Park change. I want the drugs out of the park, the gangs off the streets and the sweatshops closed. If that makes me a gentrifier, I don’t feel bad about it.

Other times, I regret killing Sunset Park. I should support the community, but most local businesses don’t fulfill my needs. The movie rental shops don’t carry anything I want to see, so I rely on Netflix. I’ve tried to get my groceries from only local shops, but the two nearest bodegas don’t carry cheese or bread. I used to walk four blocks every morning to get the Times, but delivery is so much easier. A few times a week, I grab a torta or a banh mi, but giving service to restaurants isn’t the same as giving back to the community.

It’s easy to criticize the knockout punches of gentrification, like Whole Foods or Starbucks moving in. But the baby steps of gentrification are rarely criticized – often, they’re praised.

When young people (students) “revitalize” a neighborhood, we force out longtime residents. The new neighborhood becomes a destination. Ten years later, we mourn the death of this trendy, quaint, “authentic” neighborhood. No, gentrification doesn’t begin when big business dominates a neighborhood. Gentrification begins when students arrive.

Ben Muessig is a student at New York University
Brooklyn skyline seen from the FDR. AP Photo.

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