I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to walk through a city, reading hefty tomes by urban theorists and philosophers to try to get myself in a certain frame of mind. But it didn’t take long for thinking about physical spaces, communities, and streets to segue very naturally to thinking about gentrification. It’s inevitable, in New York.
“You can’t stop a hub from developing in such a place.
You can’t make it develop if you don’t have such a place.”
– Jane Jacobs on corners and crossings.
Just as I was swimming around in these thoughts looking for some direction, I came across an article in the New York Times entitled “In Chelsea, a Great Wealth Divide.” In it, the author identifies the Elliot-Chelsea and Fulton public housing developments in West Chelsea as a sort of ground zero of the gentrification crisis New York is currently experiencing. With the High Line opening six years ago just one avenue to the west, the neighborhood has experienced a dramatic change in wealth in a remarkably short period of time, and longtime lower-income residents have had to deal with rising rents, the loss of nearby mom-and-pop shops, and an influx of tourists and new neighbors occupying huge new developments.
This article linked to a report commissioned by the NYC Housing Authority to study the effects of gentrification on these low-income residents. I was struck by how the community participants identified certain stores as “ours,” and others as “theirs.” The report singled out a Western Beef supermarket on West 16th Street and a bodega on 9th Avenue as “ours.” (Western Beef is a low-cost grocer whose motto is “we know the neighborhood.” Interestingly, its original location was on West 14th, until its building was sold in 2005 to be redeveloped as an Apple Store.)
Following this, I had the privilege of attending the New York premiere of Marc Levin’s Class Divide, a documentary that contrasts the experience of a group of teens growing up in Elliot-Chelsea with another group across the street, attending the ultra-rich private school Avenues: The World School. The movie powerfully captures the infrastructural inequities at play here, as well as the divergent experiences had by these communities inhabiting different worlds in the same physical space.
More than anything, these resources helped me identify that “community” is a relative concept. The ways in which we inhabit and possess public space carry a lot of political baggage along with them. And the way we engage, or disengage, with the people and the spaces around us can make a significant impact on them.
To that end, I spent a couple of weeks working on a hypothesis quiz intended to gather data on the contours of local knowledge — how do neighbors identify their communities, and where do their communities overlap and diverge?
The idea here was to generate a conversation about the way we define and relate to the spaces around us. Where do we draw the borders of our community? When I shared this quiz with participants and colleagues, the results were surprisingly uniform — most of the small retail shops and other storefronts presented by the quiz were unfamiliar to participants, even those who had lived in their neighborhood or in the city for a long time.
As the NYCHA report and the documentary indicated, small businesses play a critical role in the communities they inhabit. When we share these communities but fail to support these businesses, what happens next?