A short while ago, Spike Lee, the celebrated African-American filmmaker, gave a wide-ranging lecture at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Among other things, he discussed the ongoing transformation of Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Fort Greene, where he was raised. At one point, he was asked whether there was an upside to “gentrification,” in which more-affluent residents settle in neighborhoods that once were the preserve of low-income households, and he offered a spirited reply. Lee granted that gentrifying neighborhoods have better schools and police protection than they did in earlier eras. Yet he attributed the improvement in local public services to a kind of racism.
Neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Harlem, and Bedford–Stuyvesant had been plagued by low-quality services when he was young (“the garbage wasn’t picked up . . . the police weren’t around”), Lee recalled. But then, in Lee’s imaginative retelling of recent New York City history, the influx of white residents suddenly led city officials to get their act together. Picture police officers taking naps as black people get mugged, then suddenly springing to life as white Park Slope moms start scolding them. Lee seemed to have forgotten that right-thinking liberals have been attacking the NYPD for being overzealous in poor black neighborhoods since at least the Giuliani years, not underzealous.
“So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” Lee asked. “Why’s there more police protection in Bed–Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”
Like Spike Lee, I grew up in Brooklyn. I’ve been here too! And like Lee, I miss certain things about the Brooklyn of my childhood. Brooklyn wasn’t cool or artisanal when I was a kid. It was rather dangerous, in fact. But I loved it because it was mine, and I share Lee’s sense that some of Brooklyn’s new arrivals don’t seem to appreciate the qualities that make our hometown great.
That said, there are many things wrong with Lee’s anti-gentrification soliloquy. Gentrification is not the product of a racist conspiracy. If it were, you’d think the racists responsible for improved police protection and garbage pick-up would notice that Bed–Stuy and Harlem still have large black majorities. Rather, gentrification is an opportunity, for New York City and for other cities that are home to strong local economies and high-poverty neighborhoods. Capitalizing on this opportunity is easier said than done. But if gentrification is handled the right way, it can benefit poor families striving to get ahead just as much as it benefits gentrifiers.
One of the chief reasons neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Harlem, Bed–Stuy, and Fort Greene are safer than they were in Lee’s day is that since the early 1990s, as Franklin Zimring reports in his book The City That Became Safe, New York City has experienced the sharpest and most prolonged crime drop in modern American history. And though the drop hasn’t been perfectly uniform across New York City’s five boroughs, it comes pretty close. The most violent neighborhoods of the early 1990s are still by and large the most violent neighborhoods in today’s New York. Yet there is no question that they are safer than they were in that era, whether gentrifiers are now present or not. It seems that while crime has continued to decline in Manhattan and the Bronx since 2002, progress has slowed somewhat in Brooklyn and Queens. Given that gentrification is a far more entrenched phenomenon in Brooklyn than it is in the Bronx, it’s not clear that Lee’s thesis sheds much light on why crime has declined more in some neighborhoods than in others.
Improvements in school quality, meanwhile, have been the product of a number of developments. Rudolph Giuliani fought to wrest control of the city’s public schools from an elected school board, and the state government finally granted mayoral control in 2002, when Michael Bloomberg had taken office. The Bloomberg administration embraced a number of reform measures, some of which have proven more successful than others, but which are widely credited with gains in school performance citywide. The expansion of public charter schools has also been a boon, particularly in neighborhoods like Harlem, where charters primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds rather than the children of affluent gentrifiers. Though charter schools serve a relatively small proportion of New York City students, Marcus Winters of the conservative Manhattan Institute has found that competition from charters tends to raise the performance of local public schools.
#page#Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lee sees the gentrification phenomenon through the lens of black–white conflict, with African Americans uprooted from their ancestral neighborhoods as white hipsters arrive from America’s hinterlands. The problem with this view is that the historically black neighborhoods Lee identifies haven’t exactly been black since the days of Sacagawea. Many of them became predominantly black after the First and Second World Wars, as migrants from the South streamed into New York City and middle-income whites left in large numbers for the suburbs and the Sun Belt. And throughout the years these neighborhoods were almost exclusively black, people were moving into them in search of affordable housing and out of them in search of, say, shorter commutes, or a safer and quieter environment. It is the improvement in the quality of local amenities that makes people want to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods. In the absence of this improvement, those who can leave do so at the earliest opportunity. That is why large numbers of middle-income blacks followed middle-income whites out of New York City when crime and disorder were at their worst. The fact that there is better police protection and more reliable garbage pick-up makes people want to stay — and it attracts outsiders. Therein lies the rub.
Lee’s black–white focus also leads him to neglect the fact that New York City is now home to over 3 million immigrants, only 16 percent of whom are from Europe. While Lee is exercised by white gentrifiers, he is curiously indifferent to the Latinos and Asians who’ve settled in New York City in large numbers, and who’ve had a far larger cultural and economic impact than the hipster influx. The largest foreign-born populations hail from the Dominican Republic (380,000), China (350,000), and Mexico (186,000). New York City’s non-Hispanic black population is, at 2 million, notably large. Yet a large and growing share of this population is of foreign origin, from the English-speaking Caribbean, Haiti, and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these black immigrants, who tend to be well educated, have been invisible gentrifiers in historically black neighborhoods across the city and have done just as much to change the city’s cultural tenor as their native-born white counterparts, if not more.
The fundamental question about gentrification is whether it necessarily entails the displacement of existing residents or it can instead lead to more integrated neighborhoods. Ever since the civil-rights era, liberals have called for the integration of schools and neighborhoods, and they have embraced a wide range of tools, from busing to affordable-housing mandates, to help achieve it. Gentrification has been an entirely voluntary, market-driven process in which white (and black and Latino and Asian) middle-income and upper-middle-income families have chosen to settle in poor neighborhoods, some of which are heavily black. If this process ends with poor black residents’ being pushed out to outlying neighborhoods, the potential benefits of integration will never materialize. If, however, cities choose to increase the local housing supply to accommodate rising demand, the promised land of un-coerced integration might not be far away.
The reason integration matters is that long-term joblessness and absent fathers don’t affect all communities equally. Rather, they are concentrated in certain high-poverty neighborhoods. Children raised in these neighborhoods face challenges other children do not, particularly if their parents grew up in similarly deprived environments. This is true even if these children are raised in stable two-parent families with a history of steady employment. In Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Pat Sharkey observes that children raised in poor neighborhoods by parents who were also raised in poor neighborhoods score 16 points lower out of 100 on a test of basic reading skills than children from families that never lived in poor neighborhoods. This gap is comparable to missing as much as eight years of schooling.
According to Sharkey, the cumulative effects of living in high-poverty neighborhoods from one generation to the next are the key source of the gap in life outcomes between white and black Americans. Remarkably, only 10 percent of African Americans are now being raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty. The same is true of 60 percent of whites. Almost a third of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 30 percent or more, while virtually no white children are raised in such environments. Whites raised in middle-income households tend to “stick” to the middle class when blacks raised in middle-income households are far more likely to fall out of it — in part because the middle-income blacks are much more likely to be surrounded by poverty.
#page#After surveying changing conditions in poor neighborhoods from 1980 to 1990, Sharkey found that economic outcomes for black youths improved far more in neighborhoods that experienced an influx of less-poor residents than in those that did not. Most of these neighborhoods were not neighborhoods that saw the large-scale arrival of affluent white gentrifiers, but rather neighborhoods that saw the arrival of middle-income Latinos. Though it is hard to tease out exactly what was going on in these neighborhoods, the fact that economic outcomes improved for the incumbent population makes intuitive sense. When people with jobs move into a neighborhood plagued by joblessness, they bring disposable income that can help boost employment in retail and other service sectors. They also bring with them the norms and habits associated with economic self-reliance, which sometimes prove infectious.
So how can we promote the kind of un-coerced integration that can spread middle-class values? A good first step would be to stop demonizing gentrifiers, who aren’t to blame for the myriad pathologies of urban governance. A second step would be to continue investing time and effort in controlling crime. Though crime levels have fallen in America’s big cities, and particularly in New York, they still have a long way to go in poor neighborhoods. And the third and most important step would be for cities such as New York to accept the importance of building new housing units.
The natural pattern for urban growth is for the homes of the rich to become the homes of the poor as the housing stock ages and deteriorates, a process known as “filtering.” Rich people, meanwhile, flock to new, bigger homes with superior amenities. But in cities that place tight constraints on the construction of new housing units, like New York and San Francisco, to name two of the most egregious examples, this natural filtering process is replaced by gentrification, in which people who are not quite rich enough to buy their way into established neighborhoods move into poor neighborhoods and upgrade the existing housing stock to meet their needs. This upgrading process often involves transforming buildings that housed large numbers of poor people into buildings that house smaller numbers of more affluent people. If the powers-that-be allowed for new high-end construction in established neighborhoods, would-be gentrifiers would be less inclined to venture outside of their comfort zones. Similarly, if cities allowed more construction in gentrifying neighborhoods, they’d help dampen the price increases that drive out incumbent residents.
Why haven’t cities embraced this strategy? This is one instance where demonizing gentrifiers is entirely appropriate. As Stephen Smith, a reporter at The Next City and a market-friendly urban theorist, has argued, gentrifying neighborhoods go through several stages. When the first wave of gentrifiers arrives, the quality of the local amenities tends to be fairly low. Soon entrepreneurs set up shops that cater to the new population, raising the amenity value of the neighborhood. But once the amenity value has increased, further waves of gentrifiers arrive, to the annoyance of the first wave. First-wave gentrifiers thus push for restrictions on development, and because they’re more politically influential than the poor incumbents who came before them, they tend to succeed in their efforts. Now that the amenity value of the neighborhood has improved in a durable way, restrictions on supply lead to big increases in housing prices.
If Spike Lee is going to bash gentrifiers, he can — but he ought to be bashing them when they try to restrict development. When they allow and encourage it, as the more enlightened among them really should, they’re doing the right thing.