How the Recession Made Me a Gentrifier in My Home Town

Downwardly mobile Millennials—especially the ones who are natives of increasingly expensive cities—are rewriting the rules of gentrification.

Image
Aaron Cassara

In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Hannah, the character played by show creator Lena Dunham, has a late night phone chat with her sorta-boyfriend during a pilgrimage to her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan. The most notable thing about her trip isn’t that she’d just had sex with another dude, but that said dude had a giant apartment. "Why doesn't everyone who's struggling in New York move back here and start the revolution?” she muses. “It’s like we're slaves to this place that doesn't even really want us."

Hannah, like every New Yorker, is alternately obsessed with and crushed by real estate. Craigslist ads for luxury apartments with laughable rents really do amount to the city giving young, broke people the finger.

But to me, this throwaway line is less funny than heartbreaking. I grew up in New York. When I tell new friends I was a kid in Park Slope and a teen in Greenwich Village, people assume I’m rich. When I tell them I live in Harlem, the most famous black neighborhood in the country, they look at my white skin and label me the worst kind of gentrifier.

Only a decade ago, that last assumption would have been right. The rules of gentrification used to be simple: There were the yuppies, and there were the working-class heroes. While the artists, bankers, graphic designers, or doctors regarded the neighborhood as a blank slate, the working class and poor people got pushed farther to the margins. But for middle-class kids coming of age in the worst recession since the Great Depression, the dynamic is far more complicated. Downwardly mobile Millennials—especially the ones who are natives of increasingly expensive cities like New York or D.C. or San Francisco—are rewriting the rules of gentrification.

When these natives rent apartments in low-income neighborhoods because they're priced out of their childhood ones, are they the gentrifiers? Or are they victims of gentrification? Am I a gentrifier of Harlem if it's one of the few New York neighborhoods I can afford? It's not as if I can move back to my old stomping grounds, now populated by six- and seven-figure earners. Yet in my current location, I'm still pushing out even lower-income residents.

Young city natives who were raised middle class and are now struggling financially have upper-middle class tastes but working-class or poverty-level incomes. When I moved back home from Chicago in 2010, I had a contingent position as a public radio producer and my husband worked at Trader Joe’s. We could afford a cup of nice coffee and the occasional cut of grass-fed meat, but we couldn’t afford an apartment in Fort Greene or Carroll Gardens. So we moved to Harlem to a $1500 one-bedroom. A year and a half later, in seemingly direct response, enterprising storeowners are serving salted caramel lattes and selling dry-aged picanha around the corner from us, ignoring the huge chunk of Harlem residents living in subsidized housing and making new residents like us look like jerks.

Emily Douglas, writing in the L.A. Review of Books last week, asserted that for young professionals new to New York, choosing where to live is a political choice. She wrote of a peer who paid more than she could really afford to live in an already-gentrified neighborhood, so she wouldn't be contributing to the displacement of low-income, black, and Latino New Yorkers.

When you’re a New York native, though, paying market rate in your own childhood neighborhood is a new level of insult. I’d be paying around $2,500 for a tiny one-bedroom on my childhood block in Park Slope if I were to decide to move back—closer to $3,000 if I rented a one-bedroom near NYU at market rate. Both are financial impossibilities. If I moved to an upper-class neighborhood, I would slow down gentrification in lower-income communities. But I’d also be actively participating in my own displacement. For my middle-class friends of color, this dynamic is all the more painful. Young urban natives with safety nets and resources but pathetic paychecks and zero savings may be enablers of cultural gentrification, but they’re also casualties of American cities' growing income gap and shrinking middle class.

My childhood, after all, was pure middle-class New York. My family lived in a cheap Greenwich Village apartment subsidized by NYU, where my mother taught. The lion’s share of my Manhattan friends had a similar deal. They lived in one of the Mitchell Lama co-ops for middle-income people, or their parents had bought a loft in bombed-out '70s SoHo, or they lived in a then-ubiquitous, now-elusive rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment. Many of my Brooklyn friend’s parents just bought or rented at market rate in downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, or Windsor Terrace, neighborhoods well within reach of middle-class families at the time. Like '80s Park Slope and '90s Greenwich Village, my friends came from a range of racial and economic backgrounds. That city doesn’t exist anymore.

So why should the rest of the country care about the rarefied plight of young, middle-class New Yorkers? Because what has already happened in New York is starting to happening all over, especially as more and more educated Millennials settle in large cities. Young adults with a four-year degree are about 94 percent more likely to live in close-in urban neighborhoods than their less-educated counterparts (up from 61 percent in 2000). Yet many of those same young, educated people are living on the poverty line. Half of recent graduates are either jobless or underemployed. A good portion of the urban economy relies on precarious young people with sophisticated palates and dismal job prospects.

Hannah does have a point about East Lansing. The jobs crisis has caused young people to thumb their noses at the biggest cities and move to places like New Orleans, Austin, or the Rust Belt to save money, help with revitalization efforts, or become a big fish in a small pond—a far more aggressive (though perhaps more constructive) form of gentrification than my move up to Harlem.

Many people who move to cheaper cities have no sympathy for those of us who can’t afford decent lives in places like D.C. or San Francisco or Boston. A commenter on a recent piece about a young, privileged woman applying for food stamps suggested the writer move out of the "hyper-saturated market" of New York. "I think society should subsidize people's lives, but not their dreams," he wrote. "Maybe you should just move to Omaha and sell real estate."

To natives, this advice misses the point. Some of us aren’t in our home cities just because we want to be near the action. We also want to be near our friends and aging parents. This dilemma will only magnify as more of us stay in the city to raise our kids.

So unless we want to sacrifice our cities to the ultra-rich, we're going to have to start Hannah's "revolution" not just in East Lansing, but in all of our own home towns.

About the Author

  • Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and cofounder of Tomorrow magazine.