Are you relatively new to this fine metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York at one time... except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and currently resides in Brooklyn Heights. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes to us from Harlem:

Dear Native New Yorker,

I live in Hamilton Heights in West Harlem. Recently, a number of bars and restaurants have been opening that don't exactly cater toward the traditional residents of the area. They have that "hipster Williamsburg" or even "Village" vibe to them: Delicious craft beers, swanky cocktails and gourmet entrees. Near these places developers are snatching up properties and building barely-affordable door-man condos and chains such as Starbucks.

To be honest, I welcome these developments. I think it's good to have some economic vitality and choice in a neighborhood. I wonder, though, if as a white man from Minnesota if I'm not just another cog in the wheel of gentrification in Manhattan and elsewhere in the City? Is it wrong to celebrate gentrification, especially as a transplant?

Gerald G. Gentrifier

A Native New Yorker responds:

Dear Gerald,

Please forgive the length of this reply, but this is a serious issue and I do not want to be glib.

If you ask most of my native New Yorker friends this question, they're going to tell you that you should feel guilty about gentrifying your neighborhood, and the best thing that you could do is ship yourself back home to St. Paul or wherever "the fuck" it is that you're from. But they are wrong about this.

First, you need to understand why they're angry. When people like you move into the neighborhood, you drive up the costs of just about everything. The rent, the price of food, car service— you name it. A cup of coffee that cost $1.50 at the local bodega is now $5 at the Blue Bottle that replaced it. For many, this inflation is terrifying: almost half of our neighbors live paycheck to paycheck, and two-thirds rent—increases like this mean they face the very real possibility of getting priced right out of the neighborhood, or maybe even out of the whole city.

Sure, your arrival also heralds a reduction in crime, better restaurants, and plentiful bike share docks, but they were getting along fine without that stuff- and they feel these are amenities for people like you, not for people like them. And even if they do enjoy them secretly, they still resent you just for being different (racewise, classwise, whatever)— change makes them nervous. This is true even for the homeowners. Sure, grandma bought her house in 1960 and is sitting on a huge paper profit, but she knows that if she ever sells, she will have to move to a tiny apartment or to Florida. And even if she wanted to do that, she still worries about her kids, who can't afford to live in the old neighborhood anymore. So grandma also hates you.

I get where they're coming from—but I want to explain why their feelings are mistaken. Norman Mailer once said that there is a law of life "so cruel and so just" which demands "that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same." What he meant is that all life is change, especially in New York. In the sage words of Arcade Fire, a great gentrification band: "This town's so strange they built it to change / And while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged." I am not the only native to feel this way. Here's an old native New Yorker joke— Q: what's the definition of a gentrifier? A: someone who arrived five minutes after you did.

This stupid joke is getting at something very deep and disturbing: All New Yorkers are gentrifiers. Say you're of Jewish extraction: your forebears gentrified some Irish right out of L.E.S. around the turn of the century. Or maybe you're Irish, and your ancestors were responsible for gentrifying the marginal land around the Collect Pond in Five Points. Or maybe your family goes all the way back to New Amsterdam and Peter Minuit, the original gentrifier, who gentrified the poor Native Americans right off Manhattan island. No New Yorker, no matter how long their tenure, has the right to point fingers and say to anyone else "the problem started when you arrived here."

That doesn't mean they won't try. When Jane Jacobs saw rich kids moving into her patch of the West Village in the 60s, she wrote:

The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how. A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer.

But Jane Jacobs wasn't a native New Yorker—she'd lived in the city for about 25 years when she wrote that. And she left a few years later for Toronto, where she lived for the rest of her life. Now Jane Jacobs was a very wise woman, and we owe her a great debt for encouraging the school of humane urbanism that has shaped the city for the last 25 years. She was right to point out the essential restlessness of gentrification, and warn us about the monoculture that can result from uncontrolled redevelopment. But the idea that any version of the city, even one as quaint as the 1960s West Village, is the "true New York", and that everyone who comes after you is a destructive transient— well, that's fundamentally unzen.

As long as people want to live in good neighborhoods and pay cheap rents, and as long as there are artists and gays and bohemians, and as long as we keep producing young people who crave newness and a place of their own, gentrification will continue. Our neighborhoods will continue to be reshaped. Policy changes, like inclusive zoning and strong rent control, can help reduce the amplitude and pace of these changes, but the process itself can never be stopped, until New York sinks under the last wave or the final heap of ash. Us natives must make our peace with this however we can: Buying an unreasonably tiny place somewhere, or finding a rent-stabilized apartment, or riding the wave as it sweeps through new neighborhoods, from Bushwick to Ridgewood to East New York and finally out to the Rockaways. But vilifying the newcomers won't help.

And what about the newcomers? How should they feel? First, they must wake up, like Gerald has, and recognize that they each play a small but important role in the gentrification cycle, and this cycle does have real victims, who they should recognize and empathize with. Second, they should acknowledge that while gentrification is inevitable, its character is not. Small, personal decisions, like buying your coffee at the local place instead of at Starbucks, can give gentrification in your neighborhood a more organic, human character. So will voting for liberal candidates, who support subsidies for the poor and the elderly, and also donating to and volunteering with charities that support these groups. Don't be a destructive transient: the future of your neighborhood, and your city, is in your hands.

NB. If it's any consolation, like Autumn following Summer, degentrification ("urban decay") is the inevitable second stroke of the urban cycle. Some neighborhoods, like Fort Greene, have been gentrified, degentrified, and regentrified, and will be again at some point in the future. It may take 25 or 50 years, but wait long enough and you too may get to experience falling rents and street crime!

[UPDATE: A lifelong Bushwick resident has written a passionate response to this entry.]

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