The Ugly Side of Restoration

Two weeks ago, council member Mark Levine came to our Colin Powell seminar at The City College of New York. He led a discussion centered on the various issues that affect the upper Manhattan community, as well as the ways in which they intersect and conflict with each other. As an example, the issues that affect the Upper West Side–a predominantly white, and affluent community–are not the same as those plaguing Harlem and Washington Heights, two predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of low economic status.

Throughout the discussion, many important questions were raised. Including questions of racial inequality, environmental health, and discrimination in policy affecting neighborhoods populated by a majority of minorities of low socio-economic status.

One of the council member’s primary platform issues and one which has become an increasingly detrimental situation in New York City is gentrification. As of late, landlords all across the upper Manhattan area have been forcibly pushing out current residents in order to bring in what they project will be a wealthier group of people. The council member and other prominent public officials have been working on a bill which would guarantee adequate legal representation for low-income tenants in housing court. But before we get into that, let’s talk about what is actually happening and what it looks like for real people living in these neighborhoods today.

Gentrification is the name of the game, and it is not an alternative fact of the current housing market in New York City.

As low-income neighborhoods begin to develop, more resources become available to the community. Neighborhoods that had once been food and transportation deserts, will begin to have access to more resources. (If you’ve never heard of the term “food desert” I encourage you to take a trip on the 2 train to 219th street in the Bronx where finding any kind of juice at the local bodega, is a struggle.) This process drives an influx of affluent residents, jacking up renting and property prices and pushing out the current residents, most of whom are minorities of low socio-economic status. Before you know it, you look left and there’s another Williamsburg. (Readers, be wary the next time you see a trendy juice press shop in the South Bronx.)

Given these facts, you all can see how I would be hesitant to be excited about the council member’s plans to beautify and restore the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods. Yes, restoration is wonderful, access to better resources, better access to adequate healthcare, environmental preservation, and conservation. These are all wonderful things, but we’ve seen what happens when a low-income neighborhood is gentrified, and that’s a scary prospect.

Some of the proposals that the council member made were beautiful pieces of active change and progress for these two communities. Removing the bus depot from 179th street would be a great stride in cleaning up the air for the surrounding residents. Just as well, congestion pricing to deter high truck traffic from passing through that area could reduce air pollution. What I’m worried about is what happens when the mug is cleared away and the fresh, artisanal, organic food markets are open. Will they still be serving the same people that have built homes and legacies in these streets? Or will they be replaced by people who have never known what it’s like when trucks are flying by your window on a hot summer night, and your landlord wouldn’t bother to fix the ceiling that’s been leaking in your apartment since the beginning of winter?

Council Member, you’ve put forth some great options for reform. You’ve given us wonderful options for progress. What are you going to do to make sure that we are the ones who get to see it?

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