Gentrification: New Yorkers can sense it immediately. It plumes out of Darling Coffee, on Broadway and 207th Street, and mingles with the live jazz coming from the Garden Café next door. Down the block, at Dichter Pharmacy, it’s visible on the shelf of Melissa & Doug toys. An algae bloom of affluence is spreading across the city, invading the turf of artists and ironworkers, forming new habitats for wealthy vegans.
It’s an ugly word, a term of outrage. Public Advocate Letitia James sounded the bugle against it in her inauguration speech on New Year’s Day: “We live in a gilded age of inequality where decrepit homeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming multimillion-dollar condos,” she cried, making it clear that she would love to fix up the first two and slam the brakes on the third. In this moral universe, gentrification is the social equivalent of secondhand smoke, drifting across class lines.
Yet gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm. There’s the fast-moving, invasive variety nourished by ever-rising prices per square foot; then there’s a more natural, humane kind that takes decades to mature and lives on a diet of optimism and local pride. It can be difficult to tell the two apart. “The things that low-income people think are nice are the same as what wealthy people want,” says Nancy Biberman, who runs the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation in the Bronx. Communities fight for basic upgrades in quality of life, and when they’re successful, their food options and well-kept streets attract neighbors (and developers). It also works the other way: Richer, more entitled parents can lift up weak schools, says Biberman. “They’re more aggressive, and they empower other parents.”
Gentrification doesn’t need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it’s the result of aspirations everybody shares. All over the city, a small army of the earnest toils away, patiently trying to sluice some of the elitist taint off neighborhoods as they grow richer. When you’re trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy. As the cost of basic city life keeps rising, it’s more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right.
Somewhere, a mournful bugle sounds for every old shoe-repair place that shutters to make way for a gleaming cookie boutique. And yet some old-school businesses, if they’re flexible enough, can do more than survive: They can help nudge a neighborhood into the right kind of change.
“I’m a corner druggist,” says Manny Ramirez, the stocky, genial owner of Dichter Pharmacy. You can feel the pleasure he gets from pronouncing the phrase—the same retro jolt he gets from saying stickball, soda shop, and candy store. But he is hardly living in the past. He’s a canny businessman, Inwood-born and bilingual in English and Spanish, who has known some of his customers from his own childhood and keeps his antennae tuned to the tastes of those he hasn’t even met. Keenly conscious of his low-income neighborhood, he undersells the chain stores on basics like Tylenol and keeps the prices of most items at his lunch counter below $5. But he also stocks expensive lotions, organic moisturizers, and those Melissa & Doug toys. “Now we have people who will buy that stuff,” he says, sounding a little amused. “The idea of a new group of people with disposable income is excellent.”
The drugstore doubles as an ad hoc performance center, where Ramirez hosts chamber-music concerts, “Shakespeare Saturdays,” and poetry slams. “I’m big on social media, and I read the comments,” he says. “Among the people who have migrated here, there’s a large vegetarian and vegan group, so we have veggie chili on Wednesdays and Sundays. If you’re listening, however the neighborhood changes, that’s how you stay in business.”
Ramirez’s optimistic realism contrasts with a common perception of neighborhoods that remain unchanged for generations—at least until the gentrifiers roar in. A few areas where the change is that stark do exist, but far more typical are enclaves that each dominant ethnic group cedes to the next. Of course Inwood is changing; it always was. Right now, it’s a neighborhood of immigrants. Nearly half of its residents were born abroad, most in the Dominican Republic. Yet that “old Inwood” isn’t the one Ramirez grew up in. The year he was born, 1968, a TV station in Ireland aired a documentary, Goodbye to Glocamorra, which chronicled a neighborhood that could have passed for a city in County Mayo. “Five years ago, these apartment buildings were Irish to the last man, woman, and child,” the narrator says mournfully. “Today, their defenses have begun to crumble. The first Puerto Ricans have moved in. The first Negroes have moved in. And more will certainly follow.”