Gentrification & Me:
Mobility and Moral Obligation
People my age, in my social groups, often talk about cities. They pick and prod at these places — New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin — discussing the merits and drawbacks of each. They do this perhaps because I fall into that certain demographic that’s mobile and able, tied down to little, beset with wings that are eager to fly and instilled with a sense of escape and wonderment.
In these discussions I hear comparisons both abstract and concrete. These kids, they discuss vibes and energies — San Francisco: is it mellow and hippie or uptight and yuppie? — and they discuss costs, rising costs, and the way these cities have changed and are changing. The conversation, inevitably, touches on one certain subject: gentrification.
In San Francisco we see it in the Mission District and down near Market Street; in New York we see gentrification all through Brooklyn and Harlem; in Seattle we see it in Ballard, the Central District, maybe Beacon Hill too. This phenomenon typically involves an influx of college-educated, mostly white twentysomethings. They come for the cheap rent, and with them they bring coffee shops that grind their own beans, boutiques that sell cashmere sweatpants, bars with exposed brick walls that pour craft beer and mix artisanal cocktails, grocery stores with emphases on ‘fresh,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘local’ and restaurants that serve kale and gluten free pita. And ice cream shops that always, without fail, offer salted caramel and some sort of spicy flavor — jalapeno or sriracha — that nobody buys but everyone tries.
The problems with gentrification, though, have not to do with artisanal goods or bougie boutiques but with displacement and structural racism; with community disruption and histories of oppression; with redlining and blunt insensitivity. The problems have to do with terms like ‘urban renewal’ and ‘inner city’ and the fetishization — the “hipness” — of minority neighborhoods. The problems have to do with ownership, property and communal sovereignty.
I happen to be a college educated, white twentysomething. One that enjoys coffee shops and good beer and whatnot. And I happen to be entering a specific phase of my life where my obligations are minimal, where, if I want to move and live somewhere else, I am most able — I have nothing forcefully tying me to a specific location, no long-term job, no serious relationship, no children, no dog, no car. I don’t have the money right now, I’m working at a bar and saving and saving, but in due time I will have enough and I want to move to New York.
I recently visited. My older sister took me on a graduation trip of sorts. I slept on friends’ couches and floors, sweated my way through hot and humid days, rode the subway from Harlem to FiDi, from the Lower East Side to the Brooklyn Botanic and I fell in love. Not with a girl — though I did make out with a young Sharon Stone type in a Williamsburg dive bar. But no, not with a girl, with a city.
It’s clichéd, it’s beating a dead horse, but there’s a reason people flock far and wide to New York. There’s energy, there’s motion, there’s opportunity, people walk faster, with more to do, there’s more going on, there is expression on every sidewalk square, on every body, every face, on the sides of each building, and there are spots selling slices of ‘za for 99¢ that are always open and never more than a few feet away.
But I’m aware, so I’m conflicted. I’m not ignorant, I’m not avoiding moral and systemic issues. I know whether or not I move to New York will, in the grander sense, have little to no impact on the phenomenon of gentrification: if I don’t move into whatever place I might move into I’m sure there are twenty other white twentysomethings to replace me. But I know that if I do, and I think I might, I will become one more in the avalanche that is the problem.
I won’t have enough money to move to too many neighborhoods in the city; I’ll probably end up in Brooklyn, ground zero of gentrification, probably in Crown Heights or somewhere thereabouts. And while I’ll be working, contributing to the city, I’ll be a symbol, a manifestation of this. I know I have been bestowed certain privileges in this life and I’m hesitant to become part of something that I think to be harmful.
Where, I wonder, does my moral obligation fall on this issue? I’m unsure and I haven’t made up my mind. This piece is less of an argument and more of a question, a confession of confusion. I want to move to New York, I think I’ll thrive there and I think it’s an environment in which I will become more, better, different, than I could in any other place in the world. And I think I’m going to do it — make the jump — because I know I’d regret it if I didn't but my conscious remains unsettled, confused and searching.