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The City, Infected With Progress

Credit: Odyssey Online
Credit: Odyssey Online

Let’s talk about…gentrification. Did your heart just start racing? The term gentrification and its many implications is such a hot button issue, so complex and layered, that just reading the word may strike dread in your heart. The term was first coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, and she defined it as a trend of middle-class residents moving into predominantly and traditionally lower-class areas, displacing and/or disrupting the usual way of life for earlier residents. In the years since Glass defined the term, gentrification has been discussed ad nauseam by planners, developers, preservationists, community leaders, neighborhood residents, and even gentrifiers themselves. It’s an incredibly dense issue – one dense enough for me to have the good sense not to try to tackle it within the page of this blog post. But gentrification did pop up the other day as I was rereading a section of Luc Sante’s Low Life, and it caught my eye.

If you’ve never read Low Life, I can’t recommend it enough. With curiosity, wit, affection, and sometimes horror, Sante explores seedy, erratic old New York.  In a section entitled “The Arm,” which deals with forces of “order, repression, and profit,” Sante begins discussing the age-old pastime of social rubbernecking. In the late-19th century, middle- and upper-class New Yorkers enjoyed comfortable, socially ordered lives in proper corners of the city. Elsewhere, lower-income residents were eking by – and living it up – in their own neighborhoods. Places like the Bowery were known for their lower-class denizens but also for their vibrant, exciting atmospheres. So middle-class New Yorkers, exoticising lives that were different from their own, would go “slumming” to gawk at, and also enjoy, the rollicking atmospheres of less gentile neighborhoods. They slummed downtown in Chinatown, and they slummed uptown in Harlem, but returned to their “respectable” districts at night.

Patell and Waterman’s History of New York
Credit: Patell and Waterman’s History of New York

But, Sante continues, by the turn of the 20th century a change takes foot. Middle class residents are no longer just curiously visiting some of these lower-class neighborhoods – they’re actually sticking around. They’re buying homes, living side-by-side with a class of New Yorker with whom they have almost nothing in common. And here we see the first instances of gentrification take root, although we wouldn’t have a term for it for another fifty or so years. And where does Sante say that the FIRST cases of the new phenomena took place? Why, Greenwich Village of course! And isn’t that just perfect? The neighborhood that’s been through as many identity changes as Madonna, the neighborhood seen by some as the very pinnacle of modern New York’s gentrification problem, is patient zero for the issue itself.

Bank Street, c. 1940. Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, NYPL.
Bank Street, c. 1940. Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, NYPL.

Sante says it began prior to World War I. Moving into an ungentrified neighborhood can soothe our pioneer spirits, our restless search to do something innovative and exciting. And of course the lure of less expensive real estate can’t be denied. Sante shares excerpts from theater critic Brooks Atkinson’s memoirs as evidence of Greenwich Village’s first brush with gentrification. Bank Street, Atkinson writes, “was infected with progress.” While the predominant culture of the street was “slum,” the gentry were edging in, building upper-class homes side-by-side residents gambling in the streets. And under the proud, strategic eye of real estate professionals, “cold water tenements become artists’ studios within ninety days” and “rooms once rented at $15 a month rented for $100 before the plumbers had finished.”

Sound familiar? The conversation has barely changed! One thing that is (mercifully) missing from Atkinson’s account? Older residents being pushed out of their longtime neighborhood by the encroaching gentry. At least early on, before gentrification needed its own term, it seems the two classes were living side-by-side with less conflict. Newer apartments were being modernized and marketed but the older apartments, with existing residents still living inside, were left well enough alone. That’s not so often the case now, as the forces of gentrification displace lower-income residents and lower-yield local business. It’s often incidental to gentrification, but we also know that far too often developers today make deliberate attempts to oust lower-income residents in favor of higher profits.

Atkinson’s Village was a simpler time – when even something like gentrification was happening at a slower and more gentle pace that it does in today’s breakneck city. But of course these excerpts also remind us that the forces of progress have been influencing our neighborhoods for a long, long time. Just like the myriad declarations, over centuries, that the Village is “dead” or “finished,” (just ask Ada Calhoun, who wrote St. Mark’s is Dead) each generation experiences upheaval and development that seems mind-boggling. That’s the nature of New York, and although I’ll never deny that these forces have accelerated and strengthened in the last couple decades, it’s oddly comforting to share the same worries as New Yorkers from 100 years ago. Some things, good or bad, may never change.


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