Opinion: Gentrification erodes authentic communities

By Gabby Santana
New York City, NY

In the 1980’s my grandmother emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the South Bronx, carrying her belongings, her wedding photographs, and jewelry passed down through several generations, all packed into three suitcases. She took any job she could, working as a waitress, a home attendant, and a babysitter. It wasn’t much, but she built a comfortable household. The South Bronx was a place where you could build a life for yourself.

But in the last few years, the neighborhood has changed. White gentrifiers have moved in, searching for lower rents and raising the cost of living for the people who have been living there for generations.  

New York City is in a crisis. The threat of homogeneity plagues urban areas densely composed of low-income residents. The people who have long called the South Bronx home are unsettled by the displacement, worrying that their culture is being lost in all of this new development. Residents of the South Bronx thrive on the proximity of local supermarkets and bodegas. Now those are being pushed out by Starbucks and Chipotle and vegetarian restaurants. This is destabilizing an entire ecosystem. Latinos and African Americans have been marginalized in their own community to make room for white grad students.

What does colonization mean in the 21st century? In the 17th century, English settlers moved into spaces occupied by indigenous peoples with the intent to “reshape” and “remodel” these communities in order to impose white European values. They accomplished their goals through exploitation and violence. Arguments made in favor of rehabilitating and remodeling urban areas in the 21st century have parallels with the arguments of colonialists in the 17th century.

Gentrification is an issue that plagues generations of low-income families, especially in urban areas in major cities throughout the United States. Displacement becomes a problem when income remains static and living expenses rise because of the affluent demographic moving in. A 2014 study by Zillow Real Estate Research concluded that between 2000 and 2014, median household income increased by 25 percent while rent increased by 53 percent. The rise of commercial establishments aimed at wealthy consumers jeopardizes the accessibility of resources for longtime residents. The South Bronx has been overrun with commercialized coffee shops and Americanized Mexican food. The rise in rent makes it difficult for minorities making insufficient means to remain stable. The rise in rent keeps my grandmother up at night.

A 2015 study conducted by the Census Bureau’s American Community Service found that 38 percent of residents in the Highbridge/Grand Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx live at or below the poverty line. These are my undocumented, Spanish-speaking neighbors, who wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to go to their underpaying jobs. These residents live in deteriorating brick buildings with limited water access and insufficient heat supplies. These residents are threatened by displacement due to property owners buying and remodelling local business and apartment buildings.

Discontent manifests among my Latino and African American neighbors of the South Bronx, similar to the minorities of colonial America who were disturbed by the arrival of English colonists in the 17th century. The seizing of these areas perpetuates an assertive control of white supremacy that keep down the people of my skin color. The nature of oppression remains as relevant as ever, and now reinvents itself in replacing my grandmother’s nearest pharmacy with an organic vegetarian restaurant.

To be sure, not all development is bad. Recent improvements, like replacing the pipes and improving the heating systems and laundry facilities, have made buildings like my grandmother’s better. But not all progress is positive. The influx of affluent people make it difficult for me to get a seat on the D train. It has made it difficult for me to get breakfast for a dollar at the bodega on the corner. It has watered down the authenticity of the South Bronx.

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