The Downsides of Gentrification: Displacement, Cultural Dismemberment, Death

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Sinatra's Hoboken is gone. The working-class port city where the blue-eyed Jersey crooner was born is now a costly example of gentrification in America. The one square-mile city of Hoboken, New Jersey peers across the Hudson River to Midtown Manhattan. From the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, Hoboken was a multiracial urban community with tenement-style housing. Today, however, Hoboken's home prices and rents compete with the astronomical costs of the city across the river. In most affected neighborhoods, gentrification results in displacement of longtime residents and dismemberment of deeply-rooted cultures. But in Hoboken, gentrification allegedly resulted in death.

In the late '70s and early '80s, Hoboken experienced a government-sponsored renaissance. Using state funds, developers revitalized the town's decaying infrastructure by renovating its historic brownstones and tenement buildings. Though the development efforts intended to upgrade affordable housing options for the working class, they instead attracted wealthy professionals lured by the city's historic structures and proximity to New York.

As demand grew and developers eyed remaining unrenovated tenements, several of the complexes mysteriously went up in flames. A 1981 New York Times article reported that "since March 1978, 41 persons, including 30 children, have died in arson-related fires." To this day, Jersey residents speculate that greedy developers ignited the deadly flames to forcibly evict tenants. "Is this the price we have to pay for renaissance?'' asked Sister Norberta, a nun who organized Por La Gente, a collective of tenants united to fight arson. She observed that "many deteriorating tenements were 'standing in the way' of the gentrification movement."

Today's Hoboken starkly contrasts the city's gritty history. Decaying tenements are long gone, replaced by luxury condominiums and hotels. Historic townhouses are coveted by Wall Street tycoons and celebrities, with one residence recently selling for $6.5 million. The waterfront, which was once industrial, is now the hub of Hoboken's nightlife. With clubs and restaurants overtaking Sinatra Drive and parks built atop the Hudson River, Hoboken's shipping industry has been replaced by entertainment.

Gentrification often occurs during a revitalization of city living. As plentiful job opportunities emerge in urban districts, white professionals flock to once undesirable neighborhoods due to their proximity and convenience. While the process often sparks increases in home values, rehabilitation of old structures, and attracts new businesses, the benefits of gentrification come at a cost. In Hoboken, the cost included the lives of 41 individuals. In most American cities, gentrification displaces existing low-income residents. As a neighborhood's demand increases, so do home prices and rents. Existing homeowners may become unable to afford escalating property taxes, often leading them to sell and take advantage of increases in the values of their homes. Established tenants struggle to afford rising rents, forcing them to move or face eviction. As residents scatter, long-established cultures fade.

The displaced are disproportionately minority groups. As increasing costs fuel pressure to flee, neighborhood demographics become homogenized, heightening racial tension. Minority residents may feel resentment toward the white newcomers who have desecrated the place they call home. Divisions sometimes emerge between the existing inhabitants and new residents, sparking segregation instead of coexistence.

American Homeowner Preservation strives to strengthen communities and make them more resilient to the ill effects of gentrification. By working with struggling homeowners to lower mortgage costs, AHP is able to help families avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes. Foreclosures present a ripe opportunity for gentrification to occur. As homeowners are forced to relinquish their properties, developers may renovate homes or even demolish them altogether, establishing newly constructed houses and condos, typically with price tags former residents are unable to afford.

Across the country, gentrification is changing the long histories of urban neighborhoods. From the Mission District in San Francisco to El Barrio in Harlem, established communities face upheaval as new occupants hike the costs and change the culture. But why does it take an influx of wealthy white professionals to prompt improvement in urban neighborhoods? Gentrification exposes unresolved racial discord in America. While it's hard to argue against the excitement of Hoboken's new restaurants, fancy condos, and restoration of historic buildings, the benefits of gentrification come at the expense of the homes, cultures, and lives of marginalized minorities.

Jorge Newbery will participate in the "If We Don't Want Gentrification We Need To..." panel at SoCap16 on September 15 in San Francisco, California.