Manhattanites Displace the Gangs of New York

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Gentrification is happening in cities across the country. And nowhere is this more evident than in New York City's neighborhoods. Commentator Betty Baye says areas that used to be dominated by street gangs are now run by a new syndicate: upwardly mobile Manhattanites looking for affordable housing. Baye is a columnist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.


Gentrification can revive declining neighborhoods, but commentator Betty Baye says there's also something that's lost when long-time residents are forced out.

Ms. BETTY BAYE (Columnist, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky): Felix Gillette's recent article in New York's Village Voice newspaper had me laughing and crying at the same time. I mean, laughing that there actually was a gang of drug dealers in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood in the 1990s named The Jheri Curls. But there they were in mug shots, the gang's leaders, the Martinez brothers - Lorenzo, Julian, Daniel, and Cesar - sporting what Gillette described as long, loose, and greasy jheri curls.

A disclaimer here: I once wore a jheri curl, but that was I the early '80s. By the 1990s the jheri curl had played out, except in the South and with some older black women who wear jheri curls to this day because, grease spots on the pillows notwithstanding, wearing a curl beats wearing a wig. And shhh! Don't tell anybody, but some young sisters today wear jheri curls, but they keep their ringlets cut short thinking maybe that someone can be fooled into believing that they've got Halle Barry hair. But I won't go there.

Anyhow, the not-funny part of Gillette's tale of the Jheri Curls, which he described as one of the most violent and best-branded of the Dominican gangs in Neueve Yorke(ph) is that the gang made millions selling cocaine and terrorizing a community. One Jheri Curl reportedly shot a girlfriend in the kneecap for joking about his limp. And a neighbor who openly complained about the gangs' drug dealing out of their old headquarters at 550 West 157th Street died of a bullet wound to the head.

Most people in the building were too terrified to complain, and some believed that the murdered man should have minded his business.

But fast-forward, and today most of the Jheri Curls are serving hard time. But even if they did get out of jail, there'd be no place for the Jheri Curls back in the old neighborhood because there's a new gang in town. I guess you could call them the Gentrifications, because they're clearing out poor blacks, Latinos, and elderly folks on fixed income from inner city neighborhoods across the country, including the Jheri Curls' old stomping grounds.

Drawn by such amenities as river views, parks, large rooms and convenience to public transportation, the gentrifications are willing to pay almost any price, or so it seems, to live in grand old buildings that long were the domain of poor folks on rent control, buildings that are being reborn as luxury co-ops and condos.

The gentrification of inner city neighborhoods may seem to some as nothing but the inevitable circle of life since most of those grand neighborhoods began as middle class and white. But once white folks fled to the 'burbs, these neighborhoods transitioned to middle class and colored. And when the middle class coloreds followed the whites to the 'burbs, poor folks - Latinos, blacks and immigrants - moved in. And now that they're being forced out, the children and grandchildren of the better off people who left are coming back to claim what perhaps many of them see as their rightful inheritance.

I can't say that I'm sad to hear about the Jheri Curls' demise and the replacement of a hardcore drug dealing gang with baby strollers and dog walkers. But I do wish the Gentrifications would leave some turf to the people who've been there for so many years.

This new gang may be wielding Blackberrys instead of guns and shooting up on Starbucks instead of coke, but they're having an effect on long-time residents that is not completely wholesome and a little bit sad as well.

CHIDEYA: Betty Baye is a columnist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. To hear more on our real estate series, go to our Web site at This is NPR News.

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