New Yorkers Are Moving Into Hot New Neighborhoods—But The Infrastructure Can’t Keep Up

No roads but plenty of kombucha—why neighborhood infrastructure lags so far behind gentrification.

By Annette Barlow November 21, 2016

You can’t swing a cat in any of New York’s up-and-coming neighborhoods without hitting a pressed juicery, a baby-friendly yoga studio or a catalog of independent coffee shops. Along with an army of fixed-gear bikes, limited edition Bugaboos and traditional barbers, these local offerings are key markers of an area on the up, the absolute stamp of gentrification and burgeoning future wealth.

But so often, in these same neighborhoods, it is also common to see streets strewn with litter. Among million-dollar brownstones, decent grocery stores remain an anomaly. Basic services like banks, pharmacies, drug stores and a fully functioning transportation system are notable only by their absence, and even city services such as street sweeping and snow-plowing seem to have fallen by the wayside.

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Gentrification is hardly a new concept. Increasing numbers of NYC neighborhoods have seen their fortunes turn for the better (or worse—depending on your socio-demographic)—Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, Central Harlem. You’d be forgiven for assuming the city would be well-versed in adapting local infrastructure to accommodate these demographic shifts. So, the question begs to be asked: Why does infrastructure lag so far behind gentrification?

According to a recent article on Brick Underground, there are a number of factors behind these neighborhood disparities and (surprise, surprise!) most of them are economic. When it comes to large chain stores, grocery stores and banks, the people making the decisions about future expansions are unlikely to care about an area’s cultural heft or caché. Rather, they quite simply focus on the potential financial gain.

“These companies are looking at density, foot traffic and median household income,” says Michael Cardillo, agent for NYC realtors Corcoran. “All of which can still be very low, even in areas where brownstones are selling for a lot.”

Instead, these companies will seek out “settled” neighborhoods, where the residential population and average income will guarantee them a degree of fiscal security. Even in boroughs such as Brooklyn, where brownstones sell for multiple millions, and which is widely regarded to have undergone decades of gentrification, corporate research numbers show that local residents don’t necessarily flock to large grocery stores or drug stores in sufficient numbers to justify local investment.

In fact, even those businesses synonymous with flourishing gentrified areas—juice bars, coffee shops, raw-vegan cafes—face a significant failure rate. The difference for larger corporate offerings is that while closing a recently opened store might not break the bank, it could damage their brand. So “caution” is, indeed, the corporate byword.

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Similarly, physical space and available real estate inventory play a large part in dictating what retail services spring up in growing neighborhoods. A surplus of existing stores, a lack of inventory and a lack of square footage can all mean corporates will hold off on opening a store. Larger retailers are more likely to wait for new developments to spring up, where plans for retail space and public services are grandfathered into the plans from day one.

But, depressingly, there is a significant human development to the lack of local services, and it’s there that the city really needs to make strides. Historically racist policies such as redlining—when people of color are herded into certain neighborhoods, cut off from local services and forced to live in low-value housing—have resulted in decades of neglect. These areas are often ignored by retailers and city services—until a wealthier demographic has moved in, leaving thousands of residents without basic services.

However, this is where community action can really hold its own, as block associations and community boards can directly impact local neighborhoods. Priorities will, of course, shift from locale to locale, but the action these boards take can often make the difference between having an effective transportation system or an antiquated one. Or, for that matter, between having access to local pharmacies, rather than forcing sick and elderly residents to travel large distances in order to receive affordable care.


Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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