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Gentrification is Changing the Complexion of New York City

Is New York losing its soul? Gentrification has swept through the brownstone-rich nabes like a flash flood.

By Jeff Vasishta December 6, 2016
Photo courtesy of Mihai Speteanu / Shutterstock.com

If you told many Brooklynites today that Fort Green and Clinton Hill were once predominantly black neighborhoods, they might be surprised. Gentrification has swept through the brownstone-rich nabes like a flash flood.

Three years ago, film maker Spike Lee’s jazz musician father made the news because his band practice was keeping his new neighbor up at night. Lee Sr. had owned the building and played jazz in it since 1969. His music had never been a problem before. However, now it was. The issue raised headlines because it got to the heart of the gentrification issue and the gripe many long time black residents have about their new white neighbors – that they move in and think they can take over.

Now Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights are in the midst of a gentrification war—with brokers, developers and management companies on one side and block associations, community activists and long-term residents on the other. The same thing has happened to Harlem, Bronx and beyond. Whatever side of the debate you fall on, what cannot be denied is that the displacement of black communities is changing the cultural complexion of the city. In short, many people are worried that New York, the onetime home of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, jazz, disco and hip-hop, could be losing its soul.

RelatedWashington Heights Makes A Last Stand Against Gentrification

Between 2000 and 2010, Crown Heights and the two neighborhoods to its south and east, Flatbush and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, all areas with large West Indian immigrant populations, each lost from 10 to 14 percent of their black populations—this according to an analysis of the 2010 census released by the Department of City Planning.

This correlates with other census data that showed 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times. Mark Winston Griffith, a well-known community organizer and journalist of Jamaican ancestry, was born in Crown Heights. His children are the fourth generation to have lived in his house since his grandmother and her siblings began moving to Crown Heights in the late forties. He shares his perspective on the dramatic demographic shift in his neighborhood:

“Black families have lived here for decades, through the violence, crack wars and moments when this neighborhood was considered an undesirable slum,” he says. “Many fully recognize how desirable this neighborhood has become and are committed to staying.”

RelatedDevelopers and Property Owners Bring The Jazz Age Back To Gentrified Harlem

But other homeowners fell victim to predatory mortgages or are simply cashing in on the sudden multi-million dollar values of their homes. Meanwhile, renters are being priced out of the most unaffordable rental market in the country. And as the black people leave, they are being replaced mostly by upper income white people with the means to move here, yet are not rich enough to afford Manhattan or the Brooklyn brownstone communities.

Contrary to popular belief, gentrification does not automatically mean a drop in crime. This is backed up by DNA Info’s crime per capita ranking of New York neighborhoods which places Fort Green, a neighborhood which at this point has surely already gentrified, at a lowly rank of the 64th safest. An analysis on their website points to the prominent housing projects as a possible source of high crime stats. Fort Greene & Clinton Hill rank 55th for violent crimes—murders, rapes, robberies and felony assaults—with 75 incidents per 10,000 residents. Robberies were up 21 percent in 2010, from 196 to 237 incidents, fueled by a rise in muggings and murders doubled that year, from three to six. The neighborhoods rank a dismal 63rd for property crimes — burglary, grand larceny and car theft.

New York’s black exodus also reflects a larger picture in other historically black cities such as Atlanta, Washington DC, Detroit and Chicago. William H. Frey, author of the book Diversity Explosion wrote on the Brookings Institute website that “the magnitude and pervasiveness of black city population losses during the first decade of the 2000’s was unprecedented.” The losses, though, were generally not from the working classes and poor—some who could have stayed with affordable housing and rent stabilization—but the professional middle classes.

Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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