The Pain Of Gentrification Knows No Borders

By Mechi Annaís Estévez Cruz

global_geographer/Flickr

When I think about the history of my family, it seems displacement is coded into our DNA. For centuries my people have been moving — the Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition who then ended up colonizing the Dominican Republic, the indigenous Taíno displaced and almost eradicated, the African slaves brought over to work the sugar plantations. I am a genetic cocktail of dispossessed people. Time and time again, we make homes in hostile territories, only to find ourselves pushed out, stolen, or stolen from. It’s a pattern that has continued: Where once we faced religious persecution, colonialism, and the transatlantic slave trade, today my family finds itself facing gentrification.

The dictionary definition of gentrification is neat, clean, striving to be apolitical: “The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people in deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” But this idea that movement into our neighborhoods “renews” or “rebuilds” a “deteriorating area” is how the seemingly apolitical act of gentrification actually tears down our communities. And it’s not a phenomenon that is restricted to the urban areas of the United States. When I left New York to move to the Dominican Republic in 2012, I thought I was leaving that struggle behind.

Instead, I found that gentrification had followed me there.

My parents moved to New York in the late ’80s after finishing medical school and realizing that the Dominican Republic no longer held much economic opportunity for them. My mom was seven months pregnant with me, and neither of them spoke English. We crammed into my grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights. My dad found a job working the graveyard shift at an upscale supermarket; hands that had once performed surgery now carefully polished and stocked produce we couldn’t even afford.

Some of my neighbors, like my parents, were college-educated, had been engineers, doctors, professors. Others hadn’t finished secondary school, many were undocumented. Yet here we were — living in a neighborhood where burned out buildings stayed shuttered for years, where our landlords shut off our heat and hot water in the dead of winter to cut down on costs, and where gunshots mingled with old country bachatas at night.

It may have been dangerous but it was home: a place with an old-school butcher, where everyone spoke our language, where the neighborhood supermarket was stocked with all of the foods from the country my family had left behind. There was always music, old men playing dominos in front of their apartment buildings, block parties, and open fire hydrants in the summertime to kill the heat when no one was trying to pay that AC electric bill money.

Eventually it became safer, and we fought our landlords to get our heat and hot water. Gradually, this neighborhood started to change, and it came with a pretty steep price.

First, we lost our biggest supermarket. Newer ones started to put our food in crates outside of the building, no matter how cold it was, and new unfamiliar things filled the shelves — organic vegetables and quinoa, things we simply didn’t eat and couldn’t afford. We lost the butcher and gained a Starbucks. We lost Punta Cana, the buffet-style Dominican restaurant where I had been buying a dollar cups of strong Dominican coffee on my way to class for over ten years, and gained a Planet Fitness. We lost Margot’s, a mom-and-pop shop where you could get a heaping plate of Dominican food for five dollars, and gained increased property values and police presence. We watched as the community we had built was slowly handed to newcomers who hadn’t dreamed of living here in the days of no hot water or heat, and were now reaping the benefits of our labor without having any of the battle scars to show for the work that had been done.

By 2012, I had grown tired of American politics and of the slow, white death of my neighborhood. Faced with declining psychological and physical health, and a strong bout of “diaspora blues,” I set my sights on repatriating to the Dominican Republic. I found a job at a NGO in a town called Cabarete, and the more my family joked about it being a 20-house village, the more determined I became to get the fuck out of New York.

Cabarete ended up being far from the small town my parents remembered it as. Ten to 15 years of water sports-fueled tourism had turned Cabarete into something different — the kind of place tourists came to visit and then simply never left.

It’s easy to talk about gentrification or the impact of tourism and expatriation on the Global South in percentages and clinical, apolitical terms, to remove it from its colonial context. It’s easy to talk about how prices and cost of life go up while wages stagnate, or about how foreigners dominate the economy, owning everything from land to tour companies to restaurants while shutting locals out of economic opportunities.

It’s much more difficult to talk about what it looks and feels like.

I can’t stop the flood of tourists coming into my community in Cabarete any more than I could stop new tenants from moving into Washington Heights. With time, I’ve done what I can to push back on false narratives about Cabarete’s “discovery,” to funnel money into local businesses in order to counteract the impacts of tourism and “third world gentrification,” as local people benefit the least economically. I started a company to use Spanish lessons as a vehicle to teach people about our rich history, how to help us preserve our culture and keep as much ownership of our town in local hands, but every time I am barred entry to another restaurant by security staff for being a local, every time I’m followed around a foreign-owned store, I feel as though it’s not enough.

Cabarete is filled with illegal immigrants from Western countries. Unlike the folks I grew up with, they have access to the best jobs, enjoy higher standards of living than native residents, and face little to no fear of immigration police knocking down their doors. It’s a stark contrast to the experiences of many of my Dominican neighbors in Washington Heights and many of my neighbors of Haitian descent here in Cabarete.

In New York, segregation can be more difficult to spot since most travel occurs underground, but in Cabarete it’s glaring since the highway splits the town in two. Foreigners and tourists live or stay on the beach. Locals live on the other side of the road. Beachside, water shortages are incredibly rare, and the power is on 24 hours a day. The rest of us live in three neighborhoods spread out on the other side of the highway.

During the day, locals, expats, and tourists all share the beach, and everything seems fine, until, as has happened to me and many of my local friends, we are denied access to the beach through the properties that line it. Our only public access to the beach was closed years ago, so the only way to get to the beach is by walking through one of the hotels, condo complexes, or restaurants. Now, guards, at the behest of owners and foreign administrators, are selective about whom they grant access. If you look like a tourist, it’s fine, but if you look like a Dominican, a security guard who sees your face every day has to walk up to you to tell you that you can’t come through anymore because this is private property — all while perfectly tanned, blonde surfer types waltz right past you. Then, at the end of the day we all go home, to our separate neighborhoods.

The sector I first lived in when I moved to Cabarete was the most centrally located Dominican neighborhood. I paid about $110 a month for an apartment with a backup power source, hot water, and a big yard. It was a nice place to live, I liked my neighbors, and it was quiet without being eerily so. The owner of the building was a German expat. At the beginning, he was nice, always offering to repair anything in my apartment as soon as it needed to be fixed, until one day, we started to get tourists moving in and out of the building, and the rent went up 20% from one month to the next. My landlord grew increasingly indifferent to me and downright hostile with my Haitian neighbor, edging us out slowly so he could make way for foreigners who would pay between 40% and 50% more than we could.

Now, in that pocket of my old neighborhood, it is becoming harder to find anything to rent for less than $200 a month — only slightly less than the average monthly wage of a Dominican, and a reminder that what is cheap for tourists is often inaccessible to a local.

A year ago, my partner and I moved to the neighborhood where he was raised, a place to which, according to many foreigners, “no one willingly moves.” I pay $75 a month in rent. I may not always have water, let alone hot water, and I don’t always have power, but I have the peace of knowing, that for now, for a little while longer, we’re safe from being displaced by a new tourist project or priced out of our homes.

When I walk through the streets of Washington Heights or along the beaches of Cabarete, I don’t see places that needed renewal or rebuilding, because we residents had already done this work in places no one saw value in but us. Now, I see the scars of gentrification carved into our neighborhoods: restaurants and properties that block our access to our beaches, the supermarkets stocked with kale and organic free-range eggs while our produce is haphazardly stacked in crates outside on the street, and I wonder where I will go next when my landlord decides tourists can pay more rent than me. I wonder where my mother will go when she retires and she can no longer afford the rising rents in New York. After over 20 years, her home, our home will be just another space we fought to build but weren’t deemed worthy of keeping.

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