March 20, 2006

Fears of Development, Gentrification

"A few decades after it became a national symbol of urban decay, the Bronx is home to a rash of new construction projects that are changing neighborhoods that have seen little new building in half a century. Many residents are uneasy," the New York Times reported in a front-page story yesterday, Now Booming, Not Burning, the Bronx Fears a Downside.

It's a classic case of pondering the costs as well as benefits of soaring property values, and the impact on local residents who stuck it out through tough times, helped turn their neighborhoods around and then face being priced or forced out -- whether it's struggling artists who make an overlooked area trendy, only to be displaced by wealthier residents, or immigrants who start spiffing up a neighborhood only to see larger scale development displace them. I am often in favor of redevelopment, by the way. Nobody wants to save a crime-ridden ambiance, but it's also important to consider those who are already contributing positively to a community.

In the case of the Bronx, a major issue is "due to the dizzying speed of change," with some complaining not simply about the radical changes in neighborhoods, but how much is being done so quickly.

Many are thrilled that the Bronx is finally seeing the type of development that has long passed it by. "It's a good problem to have when the arguments that people are having are not so much 'Why is nothing happening?' but 'Why is so much happening and how can we absorb it?' " Bronx borough president Adolfo CarriĆ³n Jr. told the Times. And "dozens of residents who are critical of specific projects say they are not generally against new construction, saying their borough has been starved too long for restaurants, brand-name shops, even banks and grocery stores."

But there are definitely costs to a neighborhood for existing residents and businesses, as well as changing character.

The Times yesterday also looked at Hell's Kitchen, Swept Out and Remodeled -- a neighborhood I remember well from a summer working in then "transitional," now gentrified Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Unable to afford nearby pricy restaurants serving Fifth Avenue shopping clientele to the east, I'd often walk several blocks to the west to Hell's Kitchen where I could pick up a salad or sandwich for a fraction of typical Midtown Manhattan prices.

"Even during its worst times Hell's Kitchen was always, well, a neighborhood, made up of blue-collar families in walk-up tenements and theater people who wanted to live close to their jobs," the article notes. "But what the gangs and drugs couldn't do, gentrification is accomplishing — putting pressure to leave on those crusty characters who gave Hell's Kitchen its raffish charm."

Retired commercial artist Kostas Zimarakis, one of the many immigrants living in the neighborhood, was attracted to the areas for its friendliness, he told the Times, but now typically sees newer residents walking solo.

'They like their sense of privacy. I do not think they have an interest in getting to know people.' The change makes him feel lonelier, he said.

'You cannot talk to a building,' he said. 'But a person can make your day. It lights up your soul.'

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