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Is Gentrification All Bad?

That principle forms the foundation of nonprofit community-building groups all over the country and motivates private do-gooder developers like Jonathan Rose. “Can you create models of gentrification in which the benefits are spread out through the community?” Rose asks. The key, he says, is to make sure that residents and shopkeepers in low-income neighborhoods have equity and a political voice—before a real-estate surge. African-American residents of Bed-Stuy who managed to cling to their brownstones through the misery of the sixties, the heroin and crack years, and the devastating epidemic of foreclosures can finally reap the benefit that any longtime homeowner takes for granted: selling the house for a profit. “Development can be a positive force,” Rose says.

Today, Grannum has inherited the dream of healing through business. “I see our job as trying to create a healthy commercial corridor and capture as many retail dollars as we can,” he says. It’s not as if he’s got his eye on Tiffany and Per Se, but he would like the dollar stores and pawnbrokers to be joined by some slightly more genteel options. He mentions Island Salad, a Caribbean-themed place just across Fulton Street from his office, where $6.99 will buy an Asian Rasta (romaine, roasted teriyaki chicken, mandarin oranges, cucumbers, sliced almonds, crispy chow mein noodles, and “island sesame ginger”). It’s the sort of place a couple of young Park Slopers in search of an extra bedroom might wander into and think: Yes! I could live here.

Grannum is unapologetic about trying to bring a better life to Bed-Stuy’s poor by attracting the very outsiders who are supposedly making things worse. “We need affluent and middle-income people,” he insists. “We need a healthy community, and we need services that are first-rate. I just came from a meeting, and someone said, ‘Go to Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and recruit some of those stores!’ And I tell them: Businesses don’t bring affluence; they follow affluence.”

To the residents of East Harlem, a neighborhood ribbed with nycha towers and dotted with new condos, almost any change seems ominous. Andrew Padilla’s 2012 documentary El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem ends with a group of conga players on a patch of sidewalk at Lexington Avenue and East 108th Street, with a tenement building on one corner and the DeWitt Clinton Houses on the other. Padilla’s film traces the creep of generic luxury and residents’ tenacious desire to hang on. The conga players’ impromptu jam session encapsulates both the history and the fragility of East Harlem’s identity: All it takes for it to vaporize is for the musicians to pick up their drums and walk away. And they have. According to the Center for Urban Research, Hispanics made up 52.9 percent of southeastern Harlem’s population in 2000; a decade later, that figure had fallen to 47.5. Whites took their place (11.5 percent before, 17.5 percent after).

But trend lines are not destiny. Who does the gentrifying, how, and how quickly—these variables separate an organically evolving neighborhood from one that is ruthlessly replaced. A trickle of impecunious artists hungry for space and light is one thing; a flood of lawyers with a hankering to renovate is quite another. The difference may be just a matter of time—but when it comes to gentrification, time is all.

Gus Rosado, a deceptively mild-­mannered activist with a brush cut and a graying Clark Gable mustache, runs El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, which rehabs vacant buildings for affordable housing, and his latest undertaking is a huge gothic hulk at the far end of East 99th Street. Surrounded by public housing and the Metropolitan Hospital, it used to be P.S. 109, closed by the Department of Education in 1995 and badly decayed since then. After years of scrounging for some way to convert the school into living space, Rosado teamed up with the nationwide organization Artspace for a $52 million overhaul that will yield PS109 Artspace, 90 affordable live-work studios, half of them set aside for artists who live nearby. “The only way we were able to get this done was because of the arts,” Rosado recently said. “Suddenly, there was a whole other set of funding sources.”

Leveraging the moneyed art world to provide low-cost housing in a creative community seems like the perfect revitalization project. It promotes stability, fosters local culture, recycles unused real estate, and brings in philanthropic dollars rather than predatory investors. Artspace’s website makes the link between creativity and urban improvements plain: “Artists are good for communities. The arts create jobs and draw tourists and visitors. Arts activities make neighborhoods livelier, safer, and more attractive.”

At the same time, Rosado’s P.S. 109 project triggers a spray of explosive hypotheticals. Who should get preference: a white filmmaker from Yale who moved to East Harlem a few years ago and therefore qualifies as a resident, or a Dominican-born muralist who grew up in El Barrio but has since left for cheaper quarters in the South Bronx? Or: If East Harlem’s new Artspace incubates a nascent gallery scene, will its cash and snobbery help the neighborhood or ruin it? Will the Lexington Avenue conga players find a place in the neighborhood’s new arts hub?