What goes around comes around, I guess.
My wife and I spent this week visiting our youngest daughter at her home in Brooklyn, New York City, where we rubbed shoulders with the beautiful people on the borough’s trendy Bedford Avenue. How times have changed.
When we first came to New York City in the early nineties we stayed safe and sound in an uptown Manhattan hotel, and rarely strayed south of Union Square. To middle-class white tourists like us Brooklyn was strictly out-of-bounds, never mind Harlem or the Bronx. But as always the winds of change are blustering through the streets of the Big Apple.
Gentrification has hit many of the previously low-rent neighborhoods in the Five Boroughs, radically changing the socio-economic landscape of the city in the past twenty years or so. According to the latest report by New York University’s Furman Center on the state of NYC’s housing and neighborhoods, released earlier this year, the city has seen alarming increases in rent, stagnating incomes, a rise in the number of people paying more for housing than they can afford, and other major demographic shifts in the 21st century. In 1990, 22 of the city’s 55 sub-borough neighborhoods were classified low-income areas. Since then, 15 of the 22 have experienced rent growth above the neighborhood median, leaving only seven low-income neighborhoods along with the 33 neighborhoods where rents and incomes were already high.
Earlier this week I got talking to a guy who grew up in Little Italy in a home his family had occupied for more than seventy years. Like most of his old pals raised on the mean streets of the lower east side, an area that once housed over 240,000 Italian-Americans, he had moved up and out of the old neighborhood in recent years. “It’s not the same no more,” he lamented. “All the old families have been pushed out, even the wise-guys.” The sprawling neighborhood once known as Little Italy has now been reduced to four streets, and nowadays Italians in this part of Manhattan are numbered in the mere hundreds.
When the celebrated black film director Spike Lee addressed a public meeting at Pratt Institute a couple of years back he echoed much of the same frustration, in reference to his old neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In typically colourful style, Lee took aim at the new influx of white New Yorkers moving into South Brooklyn.
“Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning?” he responded to an audience member’s suggestion there may be a positive side to gentrification. “It’s like the mother%#@*ing Westminster Dog Show! I mean, they just move into the neighborhood. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gonna change because you’re here. Can’t do that!”
Tell it to the wise-guys who once ruled the streets of Little Italy, or the poor Irish immigrants who preceded them. Given America’s colourful and often turbulent history some will see a bitter irony in Italians complaining about new money on the streets and black Americans turning up their nose to white folk moving in next door. But however anybody feels about it, one thing seems inevitable. Change is gonna come, as always.
Chris Nyst- Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker