Elly Czajkowski ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services in Brooklyn, NY. She reflects on how her understanding and perception of gentrification in urban areas has evolved since graduation.
I have learned more than I even knew there was to know about non-profit management, fundraising, foster care, mental health clinics, and electronic records system during my time at Coalition for Hispanic Family Services (CHFS). I still don’t even know how much there is to learn, but I know that I’ve only breached the tip of the ice berg. However, today I am going to write about an equally important and informative aspect of my fellowship year – the experience of living in New York City, and of living in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick in particular.
Before I moved to New York, I had heard that Brooklyn was a hipster kind of place, and I had probably heard of Williamsburg. What I had not heard about is the gentrification that is going on to turn much of Brooklyn from the “Do or Die” neighborhoods that my parents and uncle worried about me moving to, to the complicated land where hole-in-the-wall hipster bars that serve everything in mason jars sit across the street from NYCHA (NYC Housing Authority) projects.
I was introduced abruptly and somewhat painfully to this charged situation while I was sub-letting in Bed-Stuy over the summer when an acquaintance posted a Facebook update cursing out any recent college grads that moved to the “cheap” neighborhoods of Brooklyn because they were causing his father’s rent to skyrocket. I felt guilty and conflicted—I had chosen Bed-Stuy partly due to the more-affordable-than-the-NYC-average-rent, and yet when I considered my spending power as a single and working college graduate to somebody paying the same rent on a lower salary while supporting a family, it was clear that I had the upper financial hand. I talked about the issue with a woman who has spent the majority of her career working for the New York City Department of Homelessness, who told me to try not to feel badly about it. “Gentrification is a nasty thing, but it is always happening somewhere and it is hard to stop. At least you’re there fighting the good fight. And that neighborhood died years ago anyway.”
My boss said the same of Bushwick when a Starbucks opened a few doors down from the agency where I work. “They’ve just opened a Starbucks. This neighborhood is officially dead.”
It is hard for me to think of Bushwick as anything near dead. I moved to Bushwick in September, and when I walk home on Friday nights, the sidewalks are crowded with people and children walking. People roast corn and pinchos, sometimes over charcoal in metal shopping carts. There are food trucks selling empanadas and when it’s warm, women push around flavored ice carts. The shops are crowded, few brand names in sight, sometimes blasting music, usually with some of the stock out on the sidewalks, often with someone waiting in the doorway to talk to passersby. The majority of the people walking by have small children attached to them. There is one hipster coffee bar between my apartment and my office. It wasn’t until I had been living in Bushwick for a few months that I realized that if you walk down the same street but in the other direction past my apartment, the neighborhood is completely different.
The sidewalks are cleaner, the stores are quieter, the people are whiter.
One of the women that I work with spoke to me about gentrification one time, positing that gentrification should have some positive aspects to it. It can bring money, business, and jobs into the neighborhood. The problem, she said, is that everything stays separate. And the people moving in now don’t have kids, so they don’t worry about a lack of parks or about bad schools. So it stays separate.
Another woman I work with had her building sold in the fall. She worked with a consultant and brokered a deal with the new landlords who weren’t offering her a lease renewal because they were tearing down the building. She got a lot of money out of it. But she told me of another family in the building, a family of much more recent immigrants than herself, who she talked to about getting a settlement for having to leave the building. In the end though, they got hardly anything. “Why do Spanish people always have to be the ones who get ripped off like this?” she asked.
CHFS doesn’t offer housing services other than help filling out NYCHA forms, but housing scarcity certainly affects our work, particularly in foster care. Frequently, the biggest obstacle to a child going home with their parent is lack of stable housing. Gentrification also comes up in conversations about how a community based organization dependent on state funding needs to change if either most of the community or most of the state funding move to another neighborhood.
I read at some point that gentrification could actually alleviate the housing crisis, because it can allow for developers build and increase the amount of available housing, thereby easing the current scarcity. However, in order for that to help the majority of low-income communities affected by gentrification, landlords have to allow for low-income or subsidized units alongside regularly priced units. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because at least for now, everything stays separate.