Streaming in popular discourse has been the phenomenon of gentrification in which it appears mostly that young, open-minded, aesthetic-seeking white people move into low-income neighborhoods eventually causing the rent prices of these neighborhoods to rise and the blacks and Latinos who had lived in these hitherto-low-income neighborhoods can no longer afford to live there. Soon, these ‘minorities’ no longer belong there since everything eventually becomes expensive and therefore exclusive. This is the basic layperson’s understanding of the gentrification framework in a few words. Twenty-something Caucasian hipsters eating Jamaican beef patties, walking through Brooklyn’s thoroughfares with sunglasses and long faces: this image could represent the most visible changes in these neighborhoods. In reality, the situation is not so black and white. It is an automatic assumption that white youngsters are moving into the low-income neighborhoods while the black and Latino masses are economically forced to leave in dismay before they could even bear witness to all the developments to come. In an address to the public that The Guardian and other media sources chose to call a ‘rant’[i], Spike Lee asked:
“Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?…why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?…Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”
What Spike Lee and many others publicly ignore or overlook is the contribution of some people of color in perpetuating today’s gentrification. White faces and white culture in a low-income black neighborhood attracts all sorts of people, shops, cafés, music venues and more, which then unfortunately justifies a rise in rent prices, (because speculators and real estate people know that the new residents are willing to handle higher rent in an emerging neighborhood). In the twilight of a freshly gentrified area, many of the newcoming residents actually have black and brown skin and yet, socially, they are still sort of exempt from being ‘gentrifiers’ (in the popular sense of the word) since perhaps the black and brown people in this country were not typically recognized as apart of any ‘gentry’. History and wordplay aside, people seldom assume ‘gentrifiers’ to be black or brown people. As an assumption is an assertion of the ignorant, let us briefly consider this deviation in the common trends of how we understand gentrification in at least New York City.
Black people living in a gentrified area descend both from Africa and perhaps an upper middle class socioeconomic status, the latter seldom being a popular classification of a black person in this country. If the latter is not the case, a good education and/or a well-paying career can bring him or her to owning a Park Slope duplex, for example. Their contributions in morphing the neighborhood into a bourgeois-bohemian amusement park is not noticeable since what is most noticeable is their skin color blending into an environment that has historically been linked to having black residents. In this case, let us not think of Park Slope; let us think of Harlem, Crown Heights or Bed Stuy. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, 24 years after the filming of Do the Right Thing, walking from one bodega to the next, one will surely encounter both white people and black people on the sidewalk (including Latino, Middle Eastern and Far East Asian people). However, since Bedford-Stuyvesant has long been understood to be a black neighborhood, any residents there who are black are assumed to have a more rooted connection to the place than the new hipsters on the block. The old ethnic-based notion that Bed Stuy=Black People begins to dissolve as of course the neighborhood demographic changes with gentrification but also as the new gentrifying demographic is increasingly identified more by economics than race. The neighborhood transforms from low-income to affluent rather than from black to white.
Assuming that all ‘gentrifiers’ are white further promotes the old notion of ‘white privilege’. With this privilege comes the power to move into any neighborhood, to cause for the housing prices to rise and then to bring about physical changes to the neighborhood, i.e. more Starbucks’, outdoor cafés, smart and interesting restaurants, bars, improved facilities and services. As the presence of white hipsters in a low-income neighborhood often serves as a catalyst for these changes, they are not the only ones with the privilege to be agents of gentrifying a community. After these initial changes, anyone who can afford it and who resonates with the cultural attitude of the area can move there. Many of these people happen to white but also many happen to be black or brown skinned.
Indeed, there is such a thing as black or brown people who are interested in and can afford to move into a gentrified neighborhood. He or she might feel a bit of shame contributing to gentrification since the process itself transforms an original community into an exclusive fashionable village adorned with aesthetics reflecting some contemporary counter-cultural temperament. A black person moving into a brand new or newly-renovated building next an old building where the original residents still live, surely places economic boundaries between this gentrifier and members of the same race, a race famed for being collectively oppressed yet at the same time resilient and culturally innovative. *(Keep in mind that white, working class neighborhoods can also be gentrified). A person of color living in a gentrified neighborhood could also enjoy the status of having the choice to live where ever he or she pleases, which could be viewed as an advancement or a sign of success in spite of an awful, unforgettable history from which his or her lineage has root in the Western World. Yet still, to contribute to the displacement of those who can no longer afford to live in a certain neighborhood may encourage guilt in the émigré, like supporting the oppressor and ignoring the oppressed. As the black race in America is often considered to be a consolidated block, one could also recognize that actually it consists of individuals stratified all along the socioeconomic scale as day to day social divisions are increasingly conducted by economics – the clothes worn, the bars or clubs frequented, the values held, the groceries bought – creating a strange and destructive schism between members of the same race.
The existence of the ‘black gentrifier’ makes manifest how independent the economic divisions in this country can be, divisions that have an almost mutually exclusive relationship to racial divisions. It might seem that they threaten to overshadow racial divisions given the apparent access that many black people have to things that are popularly considered to be white. But to think that we live in a so-called ‘post-racial society’ is bogus. The very real color-based divisions are measured by events in a long course of history while economic divisions, still based in history, are measured by money, tangible quantities of movable and colorblind resources. Class divisions do not necessarily have a precedence over racial divisions. A black gentrifier can still be profiled by the police and can still be denied decency based on his or her skin color. Still, the black or brown gentrifiers are unique in that with their money, they have access to live in popularly emerging neighborhoods, they have access to better education, grocery stores, all those smart and interesting bars and restaurants. The black gentrifier exists in this ambivalent status of having access to things that we believe white people famously have access to while having the dark skin that carries with it the arbitrary, old-fashioned reasons to be despised.