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The Embers of Gentrification

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The seeders are drawn to a neighborhood like Red Hook precisely because it’s not Carroll Gardens or Boerum Hill or whatever Williamsburg has become. They like the idea of a new frontier. The irony of gentrification, though, is that while the seeders drive the cycle, they plant the seeds of their own obsolescence. They arrive to be eventually driven out. The couple who opened the Good Fork, for example, love Red Hook just as it is—that’s what drew them there—but places like the Good Fork are exactly what draws the next wave of people, the harvesters, who are attracted to what Red Hook might become.

Because the harvesters take the opposite view: They’re looking for the next Park Slope or Carroll Gardens. They’re older, and more affluent, and they don’t care so much about character and hipness and quirky beauty; they want safety and lovely housing stock and good schools. They’re seeking bargains, sure, so they’ve traditionally been willing to buy in on the front end of a neighborhood in hopes that those amenities will appear, or improve.

In Red Hook, though, that cycle broke down. Maybe the harvesters decided that the suddenly sky-high housing prices just weren’t worth the arduous commute. Or that with retail landlords asking $3,500 a month, you might as well open a storefront in Prospect Heights instead. Or maybe it’s simply that unlike, say, Williamsburg, where gentrification was driven by low cost and proximity to transportation and not by some preexisting local charm, Red Hook tended to draw a particularly hardy pioneer, lured by precisely the qualities—isolation, the nearby hum of waterfront industry—that would repulse the next wave. "A lot of developers in Red Hook have gotten ahead of themselves by charging gentrified prices without providing any of the services that gentrifiers expect,"says Winifred Curran, a geography professor at DePaul who wrote her thesis on the transformation of Williamsburg. "People who can afford to spend a million dollars on an apartment want to be able to get to work in less than an hour and a half. They want a supermarket. They want a bank. And in my opinion, a lot of the redevelopment in Red Hook is not actually very nice."

There are three ways gentrification can burn itself out. One, an economic downturn douses people’s ability or willingness to relocate—the equivalent of dousing a forest fire in retardant foam. Two, the seeders, in search of cheap new space, get driven out of the city entirely—which means the kindling that keeps the fire going has been consumed. Three, the gap between what the seeders seek out and what the harvesters will accept becomes too wide for the cycle to continue—like digging a ditch around a fire that the flames can’t jump across.

By now, the last of the logical neighborhoods has long since been gentrified: the ones with brownstone blocks and nearby subways and a high density of housing and attractive amenities. If you walk down any block in Fort Greene, you feel the rebirth there makes sense, no matter how downtrodden or dangerous that block may once have been. But if Fort Greene was once thought of by harvesters as an ersatz West Village, now you’re looking at Sunset Park as an ersatz Fort Greene. Or Bushwick as an ersatz Greenpoint. Or Ditmas Park as an ersatz—where? Long Island? Or Red Hook, which isn’t really like anywhere else in New York at all.

Of course, a gentrification slowdown doesn’t mean that no one will ever open another restaurant, or buy another fixer-upper, or seek out another distant corner of a borough, chasing that elusive sense of authenticity. It’s hard to imagine, no matter what economic disaster looms, that New York could slide back into the Abe Beame days of bankrupt coffers and broken neighborhoods. If you bought a $2.5 million house in Cobble Hill, or a million-dollar condo on Avenue D, you’re not going to ditch it at the first sign of trouble; if anything, you’ll hang on, wait it out, hope for the next upswing. And as our dollar shrivels, and the euro and pound and Korean won rise, there may well be an endless stream of foreign investors to fatten up our condo towers and snap up our now slightly less insanely overpriced brownstones.

So the prospect of degentrification doesn’t mean we’re facing down a crisis. In fact, we may be averting one. Because the real apocalyptic forecast is not that gentrification slows down, but that it doesn’t—and that its expanding edge drives out the working-class people and immigrants and artists entirely, sending them to Philadelphia or Baltimore or beyond. This is what the author John Strausbaugh described, somewhat contentiously, as the "benign ethnic cleansing" of the cultural community, at a recent panel on the city’s future. "The way it’s going, New York will turn into a city of rich people and absentee landlords," says Sharon Zukin. "And the creative advantages of the city will be destroyed."


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