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Commentary By Seth Barron

The Left Lies About Gentrification

Cities, Cities New York City, Housing

Inconvenient truths about our city's history explode liberal mythology

New York City is changing, and critics of development aren’t wrong when they say that many neighborhoods have changed more profoundly and more rapidly than ever before. In certain places, the accelerating rate of transformation has made long-term residents — and even relative newcomers — dizzy. What made this happen, and when will it stop, or at least slow down?

What extremists cast as a nefarious plot to steal the city from its rightful, largely minority owners is in fact something far more salutary: The growing popularity and livability of New York City, among people of all races and backgrounds — a phenomenon that creates real economic pressures, but also tremendous opportunities.

One term that is often bandied about in discussions of housing, affordability and culture is “gentrification,” which in many circles is a synonym for “genocide.” Recall Spike Lee's 2014 mostly unprintable rant against white people who “just move into the neighborhood” (Fort Greene, where Lee grew up, though he was born in Georgia) and “bogart” the place like they discovered it, “like mother-effin’ Christopher Columbus.” Or consider the broad and positive reception of Jeremiah Moss’s new book “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul,” based on his popular blog.

Moss, who painstakingly reports on the closing of every old-timey coffee shop or stationery store below 42nd St., presents in his book an intriguing history of the last hundred years of development and migration in New York City, and gets most — though not all — of it wrong. But his vision of New York — as a hollowed-out, suburbanized, plastic replica of its original self, which was intentionally made that way over decades of cunning on the part of savvy millionaires and racist urban planners — resonates with many people, including some, like Mayor de Blasio, who should know better.

Gentrification originally referred to working-class neighborhoods in 1960s London where well-off people, attracted by sound Victorian housing stock and the rough charm of mixing it up with one’s social inferiors, moved in, sometimes displacing the original residents.

But in discussing New York City, “gentrification” does not mean displacement in terms of class: When Spike Lee bought an Upper East Side mansion in 2006 for $16 million, and then put it on the market seven years later for double that, he wasn’t “gentrifying” anything, at least not the way most people use the term.

When Chinese investors pay in cash for Sunset Park properties, that isn’t thought of as gentrification, either, nor was it gentrification when Mexicans poured into Corona, or when West Africans moved into the Bronx and Harlem, though the demand for space drove rents up there too, and changed the local culture.

No, gentrification, in the context of New York City, means specifically and uniquely the movement of white people into areas where non-white people currently reside — and this movement is always presented as a problem.

Leftist critics of New York City's current vector of development believe that wealthy elites, in league with a federal government that has always been hostile to cities, have been working to destroy and disperse minority and working-class communities, in order to seize them on behalf of financial and real-estate interests.

This project was embraced by Ed Koch, expanded by Rudy Giuliani, and reached its apotheosis under Michael Bloomberg, who turned New York City into a “fantasyland of outrageous luxury” for a “privileged group of billionaires,” and “a living hell” for everyone else, according to acclaimed urbanist Alessandro Busà in “The Creative Destruction of New York City.” Moss calls the project a “master plan to take back the city from the poor, people of color, homosexuals, artists, socialists and other undesirables.”

The master plan was allegedly put into effect as early as the 1910s, when African Americans from the South moved to northern industrial cities to work in factories. This Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black people to New York City, which was then a major manufacturing center. By 1950, almost a million New Yorkers — about 30% of the workforce — were employed in manufacturing.

In response to this boom, the “Elites,” writes Moss, “squeezed the working class, reducing the number of industrial jobs.” Black people, who previously lived alongside whites in semi-integrated neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s San Juan Hill, were forced into Harlem ghettoes.

The Regional Plan Association, unhappy with “blue-collar, multiethnic people taking up space,” began scheming in the 1920s to deindustrialize New York City in favor of high finance, which 95 years later has succeeded in populating Manhattan with “basic bros… looking like the preppy villains from a John Hughes movie,” while their girlfriends “vomit Jägermeister onto our doorsteps.”

This cartoonish encapsulation of the history of the decline of manufacturing and the advent of gentrification in New York City takes place in a historical vacuum, as paranoid fantasies often do.

It says nothing about the fact that industrial employment nationally moved south starting in the 1950s, as manufacturers sought cheaper land and labor, and then increasingly overseas, for the same reasons. The advent of containerization made Manhattan and Brooklyn, which lacked open areas for the stacking and processing of containers, unfeasible as major ports, and decreased the need for tens of thousands of dock workers.

In a similar vein, the empty storefronts that increasingly mar many neighborhoods have been widely blamed on hyper-gentrification and real estate speculators, all presumably willing to collect no rent until Apple or Marc Jacobs decide to open a store in their space.

Tim Wu, erstwhile running mate of Zephyr Teachout, fretted in The New Yorker that the West Village — home to a store that sells only meringues — is now “blighted” by the demand for high rents. But this analysis ignores the fact that the Internet has cratered retail nationwide, and malls and main streets sit empty everywhere.

Jeremiah Moss’s version of this general narrative is particularly extreme, but the basic elements of the story are commonly repeated by the left as fact, despite their many contradictions. For example, it is received wisdom that “white flight” from urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s was engineered through the construction of expressways, the imposition of car culture and the availability of cheap land and credit to white people in new suburbs.

This resulted in the hollowing out of the municipal tax base and led to the budget crunch of the early 1970s, which was used as a cynical excuse to dismantle the city’s “social democracy” in favor of a neoliberal, austerity-based regime.

At the same time, it is an accepted fact that “urban renewal,” beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the 1970s, was a scheme to push minorities out of cities in order to seize their land for developers, who are now “promoting a massive back-to-the-city movement among affluent whites,” according to Juan González in his new book “Reclaiming Gotham.”

Can both threads in this story be true at the same time, and is it credible to imagine — as we are asked to — that this was all a master plan hatched by the Regional Plan Association in 1922?

A key villain in this narrative is the legendary “master builder” of New York, Robert Moses, who probably did more to shape the physical city than any other individual. Moses built the Triborough Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the parkway system and Jones Beach; he also destroyed the Tremont section of the Bronx in order to ram through the Cross Bronx Expressway, and bulldozed entire neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance.”

Moses was an imperious figure who had zero regard for neighborhood-level input on planning or zoning questions. But he has become an easy target for anyone who wants to criticize anything they don’t like about how New York City functions.

Even Mayor de Blasio takes swipes at Moses, calling him “classist and racist.” It is a valid point that Moses destroyed entire neighborhoods, but he did so with the enthusiastic support of liberal hero Fiorello LaGuardia, under the aegis of the New Deal, and in many cases he did it in order to build public housing, which shelters roughly a half-million New Yorkers today, most of whom are black or Latino. It is unclear how Moses contributed significantly to hyper-gentrification, though its critics never fail to blame him.

Evidence of Moses’ racism is testified to by his supposed belief that it was possible to segregate city pools by keeping the water cold, because, he thought, black people could not tolerate cold water. Whether or not Moses made this outlandish statement, the fact is that he built dozens of pools in neighborhoods across the city, they were all built the same way, they were open to all, and there is no evidence of a Parks Department protocol to regulate water temperature by the race of the swimmers.

It can be argued, in fact, that Moses did more to encourage black kids to swim than anyone in American history. But the allegation — which is made by Robert Caro in “The Power Broker” — is preposterous in any case: Does it make sense that, in order to keep the Jefferson Pool in East Harlem all-white, it was kept uncomfortably cold (under 70 degrees, says Caro), while the Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson) pool farther uptown was heated to a pleasant temperature, in order to keep the black and Puerto Rican swimmers there happy, because Robert Moses hated them so much?

The most pernicious claim about gentrification and the plot to destroy minority communities concerns law enforcement and the war on drugs. Anyone who has read a page of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Michelle Alexander, or listened to a Black Lives Matter supporter, is familiar with the idea that the war on drugs was a plot hatched by white supremacists to re-enslave black men.

According to Jeremiah Moss, “as New York entered the 1970s, the Elites had not yet succeeded in taking the city back,” so they invented the drug crisis in order to disrupt the black community and jail their leaders. The whole thing was a racist scam.

Except, as historians all know, the drug crisis in black communities in the late 1960s was a massive and very real problem, with heroin use in Harlem at epidemic levels. Charles Rangel, a newly elected congressman, can be heard on Nixon’s tapes from the Oval Office pleading with the President to use his “power . . . as you would if this were a national crisis, and I think we've reached that.”

The Congressional Black Caucus concurred, and Nixon, with the support of the nation’s black leadership, launched the war on drugs. Rangel and the CBC strongly supported the notorious 1986 law, often cited as egregiously racist, making penalties for crack much harsher than for powdered cocaine. In 1991, in a televised debate with William F. Buckley, Rangel argued against legalizing drugs, and called for street-level drug dealers to be imprisoned for life.

New York City today is more racially diverse than it has ever been, and its non-Hispanic white population, at a historic low, comprises less than one-third of the population. Efforts to force out minority New Yorkers, if they ever existed, failed miserably.

It is true that the city has wide income inequality, but that is true of every dynamic economy in history, and is the reason why so many people want to come here. Rapid development without regard for community integrity can be unpleasant, and in some cases inhumane. But imaginary narratives about how we arrived at our current position only stoke resentments and grievances, and do not serve New Yorkers as we try to plan for our future together.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


Seth Barron is associate edtior of City Journal and project director of the Manhattan Institute’s NYC Initiative.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News