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The New Battle Against Gentrification

by Allison Lirish Dean, Aug 24, 2007
 

The battle between Robert Moses and the West Village activists led by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s set the tone for how struggles over development in New York City are played out today. But if Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff's Moses-style mega-building threatens many poor and working-class communities, Jacobs' small-scale neighborhood sensibility poses the danger of a different sort of gentrification. The former benefits large developers and big business, while the latter, with its focus on block-by-block preservation, does little to promote class and race diversity.

Both the Jacobs and Moses approaches favor a narrow range of stakeholders—primarily property and business owners—and exclude other groups that have a vital interest in the neighborhood.

Several innovative advocacy groups in New York City are seeking another way. They are resisting conversion of still more neighborhoods into affluent enclaves through a combination of grassroots organizing, political education, and leadership development with their members. Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) and Organizing Asian Communities are among a larger band of organizations that in 2006 formed the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network with technical support from the Urban Justice Center. The organizations formed the network to share experiences, strategies and resources and so strengthen their efforts..

FIERCE Work in the Village

Many of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth of color who congregate on the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village aren’t residents of the neighborhood. But the pier has long provided a safe haven for such young people from throughout the city, many of whom have nowhere else to go. The experiences of these youth provide the motivation for FIERCE’s work.

The group organized to preserve access to the Christopher Street Pier. The pier was run down for deacdes until the Hudson River Park Trust stepped in and developed it in 2001. Redevelopment brought manicured lawns, jazz concerts and high-priced amenities, as well as increased harassment of the youth by residents and the police. A 9 p.m. curfew was imposed. Bathroom facilities now close at 8 p.m., discouraging young people who want to use the space later into the evening.

To confront this, FIERCE had to figure out how to bring people who did not live in the area into land use decisions. While FIERCE youth do not own property or businesses in the West Village, the changes there have had a major impact on them. For instance, after the pier was redeveloped, the trust wanted to charge medical vans serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth $25,000 a year to be in the space. FIERCE successfully fought this proposal, and the medical vans continue to have access for free.

" Our strategy is, how can we be considered a stakeholder when we can't afford to live in the neighborhood, but in a lot of ways still identify as residents," said Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE’s co-director. "It's not like this is affecting a handful of people—it's thousands of people."

Preserving Culture

FUREE has also had to confront entrenched notions of who has a say in neighborhood decisions. One goal of its Downtown Brooklyn Organizing Campaign is to preserve the Fulton Mall as a shopping, social and cultural destination for black and Latino families who have historically flocked to the area from other parts of New York City. Since Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004, luxury condos have been popping up and upscale retail has replaced mom-and-pop stores.

Like FIERCE, FUREE pressures the city to consider what defines community and how culture should be preserved.

The city recently announced, for instance, that it plans to spend $2 million commemorating the abolitionist history of Downtown Brooklyn. This marked a success for FUREE. Prior to its organizing efforts there was little public awareness of this history and no effort to incorporate it into the redevelopment.

The city does not, however, plan to preserve the houses on Duffield Street in the area that many locals and scholars believe were part of the Underground Railroad. But commemorating history will mean little if Fulton Mall's black community gets pushed out, and the cultural significance of the Duffield Street homes is ignored.

In the West Village, institutions such as the Stonewall Inn will be reduced to hollow landmarks without a thriving lesbian and gay community. "The West Village has a history of being a haven for artists and marginalized people. We're being told to let go of that history," said Mananzala.

The same is true of Manhattan's Chinatown, where redevelopment has focused on making the enclave more attractive to tourists and the affluent, while longstanding Asian communities are displaced. Through its Chinatown Justice Project, which was launched in 1999, Organizing Asian Communities is fighting to ensure that the area continues to serve poor and working-class immigrants who have historically settled there. Although many new immigrants now live in Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Chinatown functions as a hub to which people travel for work, to do business, and to shop and participate in cultural activities.

Currently, Organizing Asian Communities is focused on the potential impacts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for development of the East River waterfront. According to the city, displacement would be minimal, but the group is concerned that once this area gets developed, the businesses there might not serve the current Asian community. In addition, a rezoning plan is being considered by community board 3, which includes part of Chinatown but has little Asian involvement.

Countering the BIDs

In their work, the three groups hope to offset the power of Business Improvement Districts. The districts collect a tax from property and business owners and so are accountable to them rather than to the broader public. The NYC Anti-Gentrification Network views BIDs as tools of gentrification that rid neighborhoods of anything that is anathema to middle-class consumers, tourists, affluent residents, or business and property owners.

"From a policy perspective, our position is, no more BIDs," said Mananzala.

Winning Battles

New Yorkers who feel that gentrification is inevitable may be inspired by the successes of the groups in the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network. For instance, members of FIERCE convinced West Village residents that the youth who frequent the pier are a valuable part of the community. They argued that the neighborhood would benefit from keeping the pier’s bathrooms open longer, and from the availability of reasonably priced food, since this would prevent the young people from filtering into residential areas to fulfill basic needs. In addition, extending the curfew from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. would make it less likely that everyone on the pier would leave at once, which tends to create more noise than if people leave in stages. Community Board 2 passed a resolution to implement these measures. FIERCE is also working on an innovative proposal to allow youth to run vending services on the pier.

FUREE's work on the redevelopment of the Albee Square Mall helped push the debate on who will benefit from development in Downtown Brooklyn to a new level. Even though the group did not stop the project, they emphasized the importance of the economic, social and cultural character of Downtown Brooklyn and made it clear they would fight to preserve it.

" FUREE has been very much in the forefront of making the politicians wake up and realize that there are people out there paying attention," said FUREE co-chair and board member Beverly Corbin. "Most of our members are people of color. We have become an entity to be reckoned with. That's the only way we're going to get respect."

Members of the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network recognize that gentrification is a national and even international issue, with common characteristics across locales. The network is affiliated with the Right to the City Alliance, a national organization formed in 2007 “to build a united response to gentrification and the drastic changes imposed on our cities.” But the groups agree that local communities must lead the fight. The extent to which that happens is a critical marker of success.

" Our job is to get people to fight for their own self-determination," said Helena Wong, program director of Organizing Asian Communities’ Chinatown Justice Project. "If we can bring people into a process where they feel like they're entitled to have a say in what happens, that's more important than some measure of whether or not we're winning in a larger sense."

Allison Lirish Dean is a journalist and urban planner, and is currently producing and co-directing, with Kelly Anderson, a documentary film about the effects of the 2004 rezoning on Fulton Mall. 

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