Chelsea, New York C. Photo / Phillip

Whose City Is it? The Promise and Peril of Gentrification

We all want “nicer” neighborhoods, but how can communities engineer change so everyone benefits?

by Barbara Ray

If there is a poster child for gentrification, it is the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City. Once home to struggling artists like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, today it is home to art galleries and bistros, and the four-story townhomes that were once working-class apartments are now luxury dwellings. The nail in the coffin came in 2009, when a little-used elevated rail track suddenly became the hottest new “linear park” in the country, ushering in “hyper-gentrification.” Goodbye laundromats and Chinese restaurants. Hello Apple and Barneys.

“Thank God I have food stamps,” a resident of Chelsea-Elliot Houses, a New York City public housing high-rise in the neighborhood, told researchers. She cannot afford the food in the deli where she now works. Chelsea has become the neighborhood with the highest income inequality in the city, according to NYU’s Furman Center.

Many feel like strangers in their own community. “With them removing a lot of the familiar businesses,” another public housing resident said, “and putting in these new high-end stores, and these useless art galleries, a lot of people in our community feel like there’s less options for them.”

“I’m not a part of the changes in the neighborhood because of my income,” said another resident.

Many just want to “keep what’s left of Chelsea.”

Chelsea, New York City. Photo/ Pablo Pecora

But Chelsea is also a model for the benefits of gentrification when affordable housing is maintained and community groups bring all voices to the table to shape the neighborhood. It has, in some respects, combined the promise of gentrification without the perils of outright displacement.

“All three income groups — poor, working class, and wealthy — are well-represented in the neighborhood,” Ken Jockers says of Chelsea. Jockers is executive director of the Hudson Guild, a community agency that provides health, adult, and youth services to the neighborhood’s lower- and moderate-income residents. “That’s different from gentrification. It’s a big mashup of different income categories.” But getting to where they are today took foresight, and requires ongoing hard work.

Is it possible to find that Goldilocks “just right” mix of investment without too much change?

And that’s good, because the flipside of investment is disinvestment, and no neighborhood wants to be caught in that spiral. Without investment comes the risk of decline, and decline begets more decline. As Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, two urban scholars at City Observatory, put it, “In the absence of gentrification, neighborhoods do not maintain some imagined status quo ante, they continue to change.” Some for the better, some for the worse.

Everyone wants good things for their neighborhood. So is it possible to find that Goldilocks “just right” mix of investment without too much change? As Mark Jacobson, writing in New York Magazine said, “change is the genius of a city,” so how do you make sure everyone benefits from change? Jockers and the residents of Chelsea have some ideas.

Displacement, Physical and Emotional

In Chelsea, the gentrification is accelerating. The avant-garde are priced out, and luxury residences are sprouting up, along with corporate headquarters and high-end retail. The public housing residents, however, remain, along with middle-income residents in cooperatively owned housing like Penn South. They are the eyewitnesses to change. So what have they seen?

Researchers in 2013 interviewed longtime public housing residents in Chelsea and found that on the whole, they liked the changes that had come to the neighborhood. Parks, schools, and safety had improved. As one resident told the research team, “People go bonkers when I tell them I live in Chelsea. You’re in the middle of everything. … I would never move out of here.” The neighborhood has come a long way, Barbara Sanchez, a resident, told The New York Times. From rampant drug dealing and street prostitution, she said, the neighborhood is now safe enough for her 11-year-old to walk to and from school to home without worry.

Photo / Barbara Ray

But the improvements and amenities have come with tradeoffs. Costs, for one. Cheap Chinese restaurants have been replaced with trendy restaurants serving brunch. Whole Foods has replaced many lower-cost shopping options. “People take the bus to New Jersey to go grocery shopping,” says Jockers. In the span of 10 years, he’s seen a dozen laundromats close. “New high-rises have laundry in their apartments, that’s a given now. So there’s no market for street-level laundromats, and the laundry in public housing is very unreliable. People just go farther now to do their laundry.”

This may not be displacement, since the residents are living in their same community, but “it’s emotional displacement,” says Mark Joseph, author of “Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation” and professor at Case Western Reserve University. “You can’t afford anything in the stores anymore, cops hassle you, neighbors are suspicious, your corner bar is now a juice bar.” This is the stuff of “root shock,” psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s term for the stress from the loss of one’s “emotional ecosystem.”

Invisibility to the needs of lower-income residents is another form of shock, says Jockers. “Everyone thinks Chelsea is all models and movie stars, so the poor person living in Chelsea has to deal with the perception that if you are not making it, you’re choosing not to make it because after all, you’re living in Oz.”

This may not be displacement, since the residents are living in their same community, but “it’s emotional displacement.”

That trickles down to government perceptions as well, says Jockers. Suddenly Chelsea looks wealthy, and government programs that support low-income families are at risk. During the Bloomberg administration, “our funding for early childhood programs was cut in half,” says Jockers. “They looked at our ZIP codes and income was too high, so they said this is no longer a good use of resources to fund early childhood there. We fought back, and fixed it, but that perception is there.”

The even bigger peril of gentrification is outright displacement. In some ways, the public housing tenants of Chelsea are lucky because the housing is permanent, and as public housing, it will always be affordable. Other neighborhoods are not so lucky.

“It breaks my heart what has happened,” Lucy Gomez, a resident of Logan Square in Chicago said.

Chicago’s Logan Square. Photo / Barbara Ray

Logan Square is a largely working-class Latino neighborhood about six miles north and west of downtown. It has been feeling the pressures of gentrification as neighboring Wicker Park and Bucktown become unaffordable, having gentrified in the 1980s and 1990s. The housing crisis added another wrinkle, say housing experts, as developers snapped up foreclosed two-flats and tore them down to build condos. When 606 Trail, a High Line–like “linear park,” opened in 2015, developers started snapping up properties along the trail with visions of ample profits.

The result has been displacement as rents have skyrocketed. As a DNAInfo reported in March, renters’ costs have nearly doubled in some areas. One developer who owns several buildings in the neighborhood is particularly aggressive. Local advocacy and community groups call it “mass eviction.”

“People can retire and leave — good for them,” says Gomez. “They deserve that. But others are raising their kids here. I’ve been here 20 years, this is home. I know my neighbors. My kids go to school here. My daughter was baptized here. What are we supposed to do?” Homeowners like Gomez are bracing for the rising property taxes. Property values in Logan Square have increased by 41 percent. The city’s median increase was 17 percent.

People can retire and leave — good for them. But others are raising their kids here. I’ve been here 20 years, this is home.

These are but two examples. Portland, San Francisco, Boston, and others have similar stories. So what can be done? Is it possible for residents to benefit from economic investment without displacement, either emotional or physical?

Community Development’s Role

The question many ask is, how can we make gentrification equitable? Given that money talks, how do you inject all voices into plans for change? The question, says Rick Jacobus of Street Level Advisors, an expert on preserving mixed-income communities, is not an idle one. “It’s not enough to just stop displacement,” he says. “It’s about keeping cities diverse, in both people and incomes.”

“Community-building cannot end with the last hammer strike. You have to social engineer it to have a successful mixed-income neighborhood.”

The struggle in any integration of newcomers and longtimers is to avoid an “us versus them” mentality and make the changes truly equitable. Mixed-income housing developments may have lessons to share. Mark Joseph, professor at Case Western Reserve University, was on the front line of the “Plan for Transformation” in Chicago — an effort to break up concentrated poverty and replace public housing high-rises with mixed-income neighborhoods. Joseph, Robert Chaskin, professor at the University of Chicago, and their team of researchers spent countless hours interviewing residents, new and old, in the new developments. In many ways, the struggles to integrate families of different means resemble what happens naturally in gentrifying neighborhoods: higher-income newcomers move in, and longtime, poorer residents feel marginalized.

Joseph sees a central role for community building. What the planners realized too late, he said, was that “community building” cannot end with the last hammer strike.

“You’re bringing in a whole set of players and now they have to share that new turf together. It takes real support and nurturing to do that. You have to social engineer it to have a successful mixed-income neighborhood.”

The same could easily be said for gentrifying neighborhoods. “Everyone wants the same thing,” Joseph says, “a peaceful stable community and a comfortable place to live, for the long term. There’s real potential there for common ground around, which is under-leveraged.”

Hudson Guild, Chelsea, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein volunteers. Photo / Hudson Guild Facebook

Hudson Guild in Chelsea builds on that common ground. Although its programs are focused on the poor and working poor, they make explicit efforts to create programs that bring all incomes together. Their community-supported agriculture program, for example, is available to everyone, but on a sliding scale of payment. All, however, are required to volunteer. “It really works,” says Jockers, “where people of different circumstances end up in the same place.” They also sponsor a neighborhood advisory committee and housing forums, all designed to get people in the same room to bridge the divide. “We’re clear that these are lower wattage activities,” he says, “but in large urban settings, there’s not a lot of opportunity for casual encounters otherwise across class and race. So getting people into the same room is a good opportunity to get people interacting.”

Hudson Guild is also working to connect residents to new jobs in the area. They approached Google and Tommy Hilfiger, two employers in the neighborhood who were responsive to the Guild’s calls to hire locals. Guild staff asked what skills the businesses were looking for in workers, and in response set up workshops in a new tech center for teens and young adults in public housing to help them prepare. What they wished they had done, however, is work with the city to create “local hire” requirements for all the new building going on, says Jockers.

“It’s delicate, intricate work,” Joseph says of integrating mixed-income neighborhoods. “To think that it is going to happen organically is folly.”

Gentrifiers, too, need to invest more than their money in the community, says Stuart Butler, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing under the first Bush administration, “which could mean sending their kids to the local schools, becoming members of the PTA, creating a neighborhood watch with the original residents.”

“It’s delicate, intricate work,” Joseph says of integrating mixed-income neighborhoods. “To think that it is going to happen organically is folly.”

What Else to Do?

Community building is necessary and important in gentrifying neighborhoods, but displacement is still a real threat when a neighborhood goes the way of Chelsea or the Mission District in San Francisco. Policies are needed to help longtime residents stay in their homes.

Tenant protections are a start, says Butler. Rent control has lost favor in many cities, but is still an important tool. Other options are compensation for displacement, the right to return, relocation benefits, or a cap on condo conversions.

One novel idea is to require a “health impact assessment” (HIA) on all new development. An HIA is akin to an environmental impact scan, but it assesses a development’s impact — for both good and ill — on neighborhood and residential health.

An HIA can also turn neighbors’ attention to gentrification before it happens, something rare today. One example is in Boston, as we wrote last year. In deciding where to build a mixed-income development, the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund (HNEF) used an HIA. The Fund focuses on neighborhoods that have historically seen little investment but show early signs of development. HNEF then helps community developers get ahead of gentrification by providing low-cost capital for building affordable housing and commercial space for local businesses — both important for helping prevent displacement.

“I think, in general, if you want to fight gentrification, people have to own the property.”

Another way to get ahead of gentrification is cooperative housing. “I think, in general, if you want to fight gentrification, people have to own the property,” says Jacobus. New York City does that, including in Chelsea. The Penn South apartments are cooperatively owned by residents. They pay a nominal investment up front, and then are responsible for the monthly assessments for building upkeep. When they leave, they get their initial investment back, no more, no less. There is no flipping or selling a unit to the highest bidder. The board recently voted to extend the co-op agreement another 20 years, even amid growing pressure to go private.

Mixed-income housing, Chicago. Photo / Barbara Ray

Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU, argues for policies that ensure that newcomers are not only high-income earners. Inclusionary zoning and other policies to ensure affordability could help. Inclusionary zoning requires developers of new buildings or developments to set aside a certain percentage of units for lower-income families in exchange for a “density bonus” that allows the developer to build more units than the current zoning allows. Or the developer can pay a fee to the city or municipality in lieu of including the affordable units.

All of these and more efforts are needed if cities are to remain vibrant and varied, home for all comers. The ballet of the street that Jane Jacobs describes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is not just an attractive way to live, writes Hank Webber in the forthcoming “Middle Neighborhoods in America’s Cities and Suburbs” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. “It is a force for upward mobility and economic growth. The mixing of people from different places and social classes is what makes cities the great forces for economic growth.” No mayor, he writes, wants a city of just rich or poor. A successful city needs everyone.


*Natalie Orenstein and Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.

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This article is part of Crosswalk, a gathering place for stories that illustrate the deep connection between health and place, curated by the Build Healthy Places Network.

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