September 7, 2008

When outsiders change a neighborhood

As a traveller, it's hard to complain that there are "too many tourists" someplace, since by definition, you're on of those outsiders. Nevertheless, if you're travelling to see a specifically authentic place, it can be disappointing to see it overrun by mobs from tour buses or cruise chips, along with tacky souvenir shops and others signs that a place is geared toward outsiders instead of being itself. If you have a right to visit, doesn't everyone else? What steps are reasonable for a community to take to preserve its character?

This is extremely complicated when a community starts changing due to an influx of newcomers, especially if the recent arrivals are demographically different from longer time residents. Here in New England, there are communities where you're still a "newcomer" if your family's been around for less than 3 or more generations. That's rather extreme; but what about when a neighborhood gentrifies, pushing out long-time lower income residents? What about when newcomers threaten to dilute an ethnic flavor that makes a place special, such as Boston's North End? And the New York Times today takes a look at "evolving Harlem," where great architecture, relatively attractive real estate prices and a cool/historic address is attracting a higher-than-usual amount of non African Americans.

"It's particularly wrong in Harlem, where you have the black cultural capital being devoid of black people," community activist Michael Henry Adams told the Times. "I don’t think tourists will continue to come to the neighborhood if it is entirely white."

Tourism is an economic issue for businesses who depend on them. But it's somewhat ironic that a historic preservationist is citing vacationers as a reason to protect a community from outsiders.

So do we discourage people from settling in a neighborhood because of their race?

Particularly in New York, neighborhoods change, especially ethnically oriented ones, as one immigrant group gets more established and moves on, and another takes its place. Harlem does indeed hold a special historical place, and I certainly wouldn't want to see the plaze razed for skyscrapers and an urban shopping mall. But it's a dicey position to take to find fault with newcomers who want to heop restore the neighborhood's grand architecture and fit in with the prevailing cultural norms, just because of their race.


  1. Yea I must say this has happened many times throughout history. Here in Milwaukee areas that were once thought of as Polish are now Mexican. Areas that were German are now African-American. It happens, can you stop it not really and I'm not sure if it would be good to freeze a neighborhood in time anyhow.

  2. michael henry adamsOctober 17, 2008 at 4:59 PM

    Race, alas matters. How funny it would be, if it were'nt so tragic, to hear well off folk speaking of unstopable, irresistable, inevitable change: as if were perfectly ok whenever they get priced out, to then turn around and tell some old lady, "times up. we have more money, get out." Oh sure, usually they add please and sometime even give a modest cash inducement. But, displacing people from their home, esspecially when they've no where else to go, is immoral, irrespective of race. Here it's happening from Harlem, to China town. It's wrong everywhere to use my tax dollars to enact goverment policy to compound this kind of trickle down, social-Darwinist class warfare. Wrong!