“Gentrification” has become a buzzword associated with the reversal of white flight, exorbitant rent prices, and a proliferation of Whole Foods in neighborhoods previously considered “sketchy” but which in reality are usually thriving working class communities. The NYU Furman Center gives a technical definition of gentrification as “rapid rent growth in low-income neighborhoods”; their report on New York’s housing also names shifts in the demographics of a neighborhood as a key identifier of encroaching gentrification trends. The large-scale displacement of lower income groups in neighborhoods suddenly deemed desirable by gentrifiers (young professionals, real estate speculators, and new families) has erased the textured societies and cultures that were already in place. However, the progress achieved in public works of architecture through re-investment in poorer districts has at times been successful in preserving and beautifying the city. Positive interventions in the fabric of these neighborhoods is a way for architecture and urban planning to engage in an empathetic way with the communities affected.
Dramatic increases in rent prices in central Manhattan neighborhoods have been driving young professionals to the fringes of the island and to outer boroughs. From 1990 to 2014, the average change in rent in the traditionally immigrant Lower East Side/Chinatown area was +50.3%; Central Harlem, historically the hub of black culture in the Northeast, saw rent averages increase +53.2%. Most startling, though perhaps least surprising, is the +78.7% change in the original hipster headquarters of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhood. As residents that can no longer afford the rent increase are displaced, it removes the community ties of the neighborhood unit. The bodega, the church on the corner - culture is lost, and the community suffers as a whole.
In looking at this significant change in the fabric of the city, we have to ask if urban development planning and policy contribute to gentrification. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, an affordable housing plan was implemented with the goal of maintaining existing buildings as well as creating 200,000 social housing units; however, the plan has faced criticism for not making the rentals affordable enough for the lowest income brackets in poor neighborhoods, a demographic that has suffered the most from gentrification. It is the responsibility of policy makers, urban planners, and developers involved in this wide-scale construction to maintain an empathetic attitude toward the individuals they will either end up displacing or helping.
Buildings with more than 50 living units spiked significantly in the last 5 years, replacing the walk-ups and semi-detached houses that defined the built environment of many of these gentrifying neighborhoods. Indifference to the history embedded in these existing structures is antithetical to improving the quality of inter-community cultural life in areas of development. In the process of making room for large-scale apartment developments, local landmarks are lost as well. Perhaps the most poignant example of this was the whitewashing of the site known as 5Pointz. In 2013 the famous graffiti art landmark, recognized as an artistic attraction and considered a source of local pride in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, was finally painted over after months of petitions hoping to get it acknowledged as a city landmark. The former street art site is set to be replaced by condominiums.
With all of the negative connotations of the term gentrification, it is easy to overlook the progress made in improving conditions of the built environment in low-income neighborhoods in past years, made possible by empathetic design. Refurbishing of existing historic brownstones in Brooklyn was possible through renovation efforts, and the commercial life of neighborhoods is often diversified by gentrification trends. Urban renewal projects, though often accompanied by rent hikes, have sometimes been successful in creating interest in formerly forgotten areas of the city. The most famous example of this is the High Line, a public park built on what used to be a disused subway track in the then-fading Meatpacking District. The design intent of the High Line was to beautify something that was genuinely dilapidated, so that residents would be able to enjoy it. The park is free, open to the public, and incorporates landscape elements that create an enjoyable experience for people within the park as well as observing it from below. The park led to a wave of investment in the infrastructure and commercial life of the neighborhood - an outcome that is possible if empathetic aspects of design are brought into consideration during urban renewal efforts.
Revitalization of a city’s urban fabric is a delicate process that requires sensitivity and careful thought concerning original residents if it is to be successful. Rapid re-development that ignores existing residents only serves to diminish the richness of a city’s urban landscape both culturally and architecturally. As students of the built environment, awareness of this trend of displacement and exclusion can aid efforts to secure the communities under threat.