Gentrification is a term past its prime. Until we find a new one, I will use it. The problem is that it is an oversimplification of a complex issue. Millennials, the generation blamed the most for the ills of gentrification, are adept at expressing complexity in other areas, such as the language we use for emerging cultural trends. We need to apply that complexity to our conversations about gentrification.
Gentrification is used both in a positive light, for those who like to see more economic activity and safety in neighbourhoods, and in a negative one by those who see the displacement of populations as a moral failure of contemporary cities. This is a false tension, though. Gentrification does not automatically bring safety, and the moral failure of city housing policy runs much deeper than gentrification.
Millennials, in particular, find themselves in a quandary over gentrification. For those of us who move to cities to work (or attempt to work), what are our options for living in a place without changing the character of the place? Well, in cities these days, it seems there are only two: we can be the sort of gentrifier who revels in changing a neighbourhood from the inside out and couldn’t care less about those changes, or we can be the self-righteous gentrifier who still moves in and partakes in the changing landscape but feels bad about it and constantly talks about how bad gentrification is.
Undoubtedly, millennials face a real set of challenges in moving to a city for work. First, there is simply the struggle to apply for and find a dwelling—a process on par with the complexity of applying for a job. Next, for millennials cobbling together a set of gigs, there is the constant strain of knowing where the next rent payment will come from if you can even find a building that will take you without a guarantee of steady income. Finally, there is the immediate external criticism over being a part of the displacement of a population that inhabited a neighbourhood before you.
What do we do about the guilt? We just stop it. Guilt is not a motivation for fixing any of the issues wrong with our part in changing neighbourhoods. I am over millennial guilt. What do we do about the rest of the problems we cause when we move to a city?
The first thing we must do (aside from collectively boycotting SantaCon) is not think that we can find solutions on our own. Complex problems need complex solutions, and any are going to come with cooperation from existing residents. When moving into a neighbourhood in which you are considered a gentrifier, one should attend community board meetings. Knowing the people around you, their concerns, and their names is the first place to start in mitigating the harm you have already done by moving there. New Yorkers seem to dread talking to their neighbours. We have to do more than talk to them. We have to advocate with them for affordable housing for all—not just a room in a unit but a housing policy that respects one’s right to a decent dwelling and accounts for all income levels.
The conversations that start those policies happen at community board meetings. We should all be showing up to them to listen first. Millennials buy a lot of stuff and attend a lot of events. We can use this, too, in our mitigation process. It might take some more effort, but we should spend our money at existing businesses (choose the decades-old bodega—offlicense for the European readers—over the natural food store). We might also have to take the train to Manhattan to dance at a club and not go to the new venue that caused rents to rise for our neighbours. Hell, stage a protest outside it as well. Let’s also use our massive online presence for advocacy of our neighbourhoods. Promote the longstanding local business and not the new brunch spot.
In my first six months of living in NYC, The Village Voice published a piece titled “The Gentrifier’s Guide to Not being an Asshole.” In it, Neil Demause lists strategies for mitigating the effects of moving into an area in which you are part of changing in character. He makes the point we should remember that wherever one goes in NYC, someone was there first. It is the rental market in NYC and other major cities that enables us to replace someone with less money than us. The real harm in displacement is the destabilisation of a neighbourhood’s “economic ecosystem.”
There are ways of moving in that mitigate the harm done, but it took me a while to realise them. I was living in the East Village at the time of Demause’s article. The area had long been gentrified, and rents were far above the city’s median. I did not feel a part of a movement that was detrimental to the neighbourhood. However, my next move to Bushwick did feel that way. Slate put out a gentrifier calculator in 2015. In the East Village, I was not considered a gentrifier based on my income compared to the median in the area. In Bushwick, I was. I moved back to Manhattan for a set of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to be less a part of the problem than I was in Bushwick. I work in the Bronx but refuse to move there. The Bronx is a borough that has largely staved off the tide of gentrification, but it is coming. I do not plan to be a part of it.
Gentrification does not happen just spatially, though. It is also a process that happens to our minds in thinking that we are the first to discover a neighbourhood or to be the ones to remake it for the better. Knowing the history of our neighbourhoods and how we fit into them can prevent the gentrification of the mind. The way we frame our neighbourhoods and how we see ourselves as part of their long, complex histories is the best guard against thinking our neighbourhoods need us in order to improve.
Millennials should start thinking of themselves as urban preservationists. Let’s move in and fight to keep the things that can be preserved. Lower and middle-income people (super-rich people, I am not talking to you) need to be able to live in the cities where they work, and our options grow fewer by the day. Part of guarding against gentrifying our minds is watching the language we use about the process. If it is a loss of diversity we are concerned about in the movement of millennials to neighbourhoods, we have to acknowledge that millennials are the most diverse adult generation and have increased the diversity of urban cores.
Those vehemently opposed to millennial gentrification can take solace in the fact that it peaked in 2015. Cities are in a housing emergency now. The emergency goes far deeper than changing the character of a neighbourhood. Many have nowhere to live and those who do are subject to ruthless building owners and city policies that enable them. We can worry about how to deal with our guilt or we can show up and force the city to regulate the living hell out of developers.