I used to teach at a college where the student body was predominantly from low-income communities of color in every single borough of New York City. Many of my classes discussed the history of New York City, Environmental Science, or often a combination of both. Beyond the standard textbook, my subject matter focused on social inequality, political equity, empowerment, racial injustice, environmental justice, and of course, gentrification.
I studied urban planning and community-based planning methods in grad school and am well versed in the mechanics of neighborhood change, the tragedies of displacement, and the cycles of boom and bust in urban communities. I am, however reluctantly, part of the very phenomenon I have been trained to dislike (by educators, activists, my own ethics). I live in the Central Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. The neighborhood is vibrant, and I love it, but it is certainly experiencing pressure from increased costs of goods, services, and housing as the result of new residents moving in.
The first time I ever confronted the issue of gentrification with my students I was honest about all of these things. I was worried that my students wouldn’t trust me, or worse, would outright dislike me because of my impact. The conversation was surprisingly easy — I have come to learn that talking about how neighborhoods change seems an almost distinctly New York pastime. We discussed how it was getting harder and harder to find an affordable apartment in places like Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick. Older students discussed how they would not have been able to afford to stay in their neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, or Fort Greene had they not owned their homes. Younger students casually probed to see if we hung out in the same bars.
Eventually I confessed that I was sometimes worried about my impact on the neighborhood where I live. I am keenly aware that I can pay more than residents who may have lived in my area longer as the result of a higher annual income — this drives up rental prices. I like coffee shops, and bars, and restaurants that might follow people like me into neighborhoods that they may have avoided due to the perception of low profit opportunities (grocery stores are notorious for this). These businesses might not be affordable to the people living in a neighborhood or worse, might edge out long-time local spots and their customers.
The idea that my presence might actually hurt a place that I moved to specifically because I liked its businesses, its diversity, and its history is disheartening. I listened to my students vilify the change that made the places they loved inaccessible.
As it turns out, there are some steps you can take to mitigate the blow your presence has on the people who already live there. I have learned these by paying attention to trends in land use and business, by adhering to a set of values that prioritize community over the individual, and quite frankly, by asking the people I might be impacting.
1. Get to know your neighbors: This might seem like common sense, but the majority of American Adults don’t know their neighbors. You are moving in, and people have noticed. I promise. Do not do the thing where you pretend not to notice the people who notice you. This is not a subway car, this is your new home. Moreover, this is their home already. While it might feel scary/weird, approach your neighbors with a smile and a hello. Find out their names, how long they’ve been in the neighborhood, and then remember this information. Knowing who my neighbors are has been invaluable: from having access to their cute cats when I need a furry snuggle to feeling relief and safety when I see them outside and I’ve been rattled by life. Ignoring your neighbors will set up an instant us vs. them binary and can be painful if anyone is ever in a situation where they need help.
2. Find your common ground: You probably have more in common than you think. Start with your big unifier: you both live in the same place. Maybe you enjoy the architecture, the local businesses, the affordability- whatever it is. Seek to make connections with them based on shared values/hobbies/or traits. You might be surprised what you find, and this is where the you can prevent assumptions being made about your motives in moving to an area while starting to integrate yourself into the existing social fabric.
3. Familiarize yourself with the history of your neighborhood: You don’t need to watch that one Ric Burns documentary. You don’t even need to crack a book really. If you googled your neighborhood you might have gotten some good information and I hope you at least read the Wikipedia page. Not only is it interesting when you find out that the Bronx gets its name from the Dutch farmer Jonas Bronc or that there is a wooden sidewalk in Greenpoint; you might also discover some context about why certain buildings exist, or why different groups of people might be present or missing from your area. Another great way to learn is to bring it up when you’re talking to your neighbors. People love talking about their communities, and sharing stories on your stoop can be a valuable way to bond with your new home.
4. Patronize local businesses and long-time neighborhood establishments: If you have moved into a new neighborhood, you should shop there. I do not care how much you love Trader Joes or Whole Foods or Chipotle. There are many benefits to patronizing local businesses. You get to know your neighbors (see point 1) who often own and operate their own services, shops, restaurants, and bars, and the dollars you spend stay in your community instead of being sent somewhere else. You will often find far more reasonable prices, and the value of face-to-face interaction and general neighborliness has saved me time and money when trying to purchase goods and services in Bed-Stuy.
5. Recommend them: Bring your friends to them, follow them on their social media, and leave them yelp reviews. If you have enjoyed a local place find the owner and let them know. Nearly every time I have left glowing reviews with people who value my business, I am treated exceptionally upon my return. Not only that, but when you encounter these folks in other scenarios you will find that good will has followed you out into the community.
6. Get out of your comfort zone: I have had several encounters where it is very clear that I am unwelcome and perceived as a sign of unwanted change by people in my neighborhood. I don’t blame them- when we feel people are invading our territory we put up defenses. You must be patient and kind, and it is your job to prove that you love where you live and care about other residents and businesses. Often this becomes clear when you shop at a baker instead of a grocery store, at the ‘old school’ food joint instead of the new gastropub, and at the local coffee shop instead of the starbucks.
7. Pay attention to unspoken rules: Figure out what local faux-pas are. This might mean you turn down your stereo. This might mean you deal with loud sidewalk parties all summer long. Acceptable behavior is monitored by citizens themselves. Figure out what flies on your block or in your neighborhood and try your best not to seem like a jerk by trampling all over the unwritten social code.
8. Get active in quality of life issues: Someone in your neighborhood is tackling issues that you think are important. How do I know? Because people, while each their individual snowflake selves, still have basic needs and rally together to hold the City accountable for providing them. Do you care about healthy food? Find a community garden with open work hours. Go to community meetings (You can find out about your local community board on NYC.gov) and check out what is happening at community centers, and with your elected officials. I guarantee you will find a way to be involved in helping your neighborhood become a better place for everyone.
9. Do not demand changes to suit your lifestyle/values/or ethics: If you moved into an industrial or mixed use neighborhood, do not start calling 311 about how large trucks and the businesses that need them are loud or unsightly. If you moved into a middle-income community do not advocate for a Whole Foods that is not affordable to your neighbors. You do not live alone, and you must respect the way a neighborhood worked before you arrived in order to move forward productively once you have settled in.
10. Think about your choices: The average number of people that Americans feel they know very well has declined considerably in recent years, and with it has gone our ability to relate. Conversations about neighborhood change with my students were often charged with a resentment for newcomers perceived as trying to change the area to suit themselves without being involved in community-wide issues. This kind of self-centeredness can underscore differences between groups and generate disinterest and contempt. You have made the choice to move into a new community. It is not already yours, and the things that you do (including the rent you are able to pay, the goods you would like to buy, and the businesses you would like to frequent) can all create massive changes in the structure of an already existing neighborhood. Thinking critically about the choice to be a part of your community or simply have a bedroom in it will save you time wondering why so many New Yorkers bemoan the ‘new people’ on the block.