'There Goes the 'Hood': Gentrification in New York City Is gentrification a bad word or a good influence? Lance Freeman, an assistant professor at Columbia University, talks with Farai Chideya about his new book exploring the gentrification of two predominately black neighborhoods in New York City — Manhattan's Harlem and Brooklyn's Clinton Hill.
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'There Goes the 'Hood': Gentrification in New York City

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'There Goes the 'Hood': Gentrification in New York City

'There Goes the 'Hood': Gentrification in New York City

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Gentrification is a word that's come to symbolize wealthy, white newcomers to a neighborhood, displacing poor blacks and Latinos. As we heard earlier, changes in neighborhoods can take many forms, including wealthier African-Americans replacing poorer ones. But when it comes to the classic issue of gentrification, the process is often viewed from the standpoint of the new people moving in, not those who have been there for years.

A new book now gives the long time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods their due. It's called There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. Author Lance Freeman, an assistant professor at Columbia University, joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome, Professor Freeman.

Professor LANCE FREEMAN (Author, There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up; Professor of Urban Planning, Columbia University): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So you studied two predominantly black neighborhoods in New York, Manhattan's Harlem and Brooklyn's Clinton Hill. Can you describe what those neighborhoods were like 10 or 15 years ago and what they're like now?

Prof. FREEMAN: Sure. I'll start with Harlem. Harlem is probably the better known of the two neighborhoods. Harlem, although it's been predominantly African-American for decades, it was initially built for very affluent people. And you can see that after you walk around Harlem, the streetscapes, the brownstones are actually gorgeous. But was previously a pretty diverse in terms of socioeconomic status neighborhood turned into a relatively poor neighborhood.

So if you went back 10 or 15 years ago, Harlem was a relatively poor African-American neighborhood that had went through a similar transition as a lot of other black neighborhoods.

Clinton Hill is a little bit different. Clinton Hill was actually predominantly white for most of the 20th century. Starting after World War II, African-Americans started moving into the neighborhood. And like other neighborhoods that experiences racial transition, Clinton Hill also started to experience some disinvestments starting in the 1960's to 1970's. So I think if you went back 15 years ago in Clinton Hill, you would have a neighborhood that had some signs of gentrification but also had some signs of disinvestment. So it was a very diverse area.

CHIDEYA: And so what are these neighborhoods like today?

Prof. FREEMAN: Both of them are experiencing significant gentrification. Harlem is perhaps more stark because it had declined more in terms of disinvestment. And so what you'll see now, if you walk around...

CHIDEYA: Let me just interrupt you for a second. What do you mean by disinvestment?

Prof. FREEMAN: Financial institutions were no longer making loans available in these neighborhoods. Landlords were no longer maintaining their properties. They were oftentimes abandoning their properties. Stores were closing down, they were shutting down.

So now you'll see sort of the reverse of that. You'll see new apartment buildings being built, new types of stores are opening up. You see that also to some extent in Clinton Hill. I would say Clinton Hill is experiencing a less extreme version of gentrification because it never declined as much as Harlem did.

CHIDEYA: Give us a brief example of something a resident said during the course of your research about gentrification and how they felt about it.

Prof. FREEMAN: Sure. There was some ambivalence about it. Try to paraphrase one resident. He was describing what was happening. This is a resident of Harlem and he was saying, well, you know, there are more supermarkets open, it's easier to access fresh produce, whereas previously he had to go outside of the neighborhood. But then what - another thing he said that I thought was very telling, he said, yeah, but, you know, what good is a nice neighborhood if you can't afford to live there?

CHIDEYA: Now, you have an interesting section on social norms. You know, questions of how loudly people speak on the street, how they dress, how they greet each other. How does gentrification impact that?

Prof. FREEMAN: Gentrification, by definition, is newcomers coming into the neighborhood from a different area perhaps with a different set of expectation, a different set of norms. And what happens is you have some conflict around that. Newcomers may not like the fact that people are congregating on the street corner and they might see that as a sign of disorder.

Whereas compared to people who had been living there for a while, they feel like, you know, this is something we've always been doing, we haven't been causing any harm so why should we now have to change our patterns of behavior? So that's just one example of that type of conflict over different types of norms.

CHIDEYA: So in summary, do you think gentrification is good or bad for the long-time residents of these neighborhoods and in what way?

Prof. FREEMAN: I think that there is a little bit of both going on - and I think so. I think my answer is reflecting the ambivalence that many of the residents expressed to me.

On the good side, as I said, these two neighborhoods - and this is common in many other predominantly African-American neighborhoods that experience a lot of disinvestment. So you had abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. If you wanted to go to a supermarket, you might have to get on a bus. If you wanted to have a prescription filled, again, you might have to go outside the neighborhood.

That's something that is not desirable to anyone. Anyone would like to see that improved. There are a number of different strategies that could be implemented to improve that. It just so happens that with gentrification, you're going to see less abandoned building, right. You have more people coming in with money; more stores are going to open. So that's I guess you could say the plus side.

On the negative side, the issue of displacement is a threat. People are fearful that they're not going to be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood. Or even more telling, many more people who grew up in the neighborhood, even if they're not displaced, they can no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood. They have to move outside of the neighborhood. That's a negative.

And also, as I said, I think the conflict over social norms and the resentment that people who have lived in the neighborhood who feel like they sort of stuck it out when times were bad and now that things are improving it's not improving for them and they or their offspring might not be able to take advantage of it. I think those are some of the negatives that people experience with gentrification.

CHIDEYA: Professor Freeman, thanks for speaking with us.

Prof. FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Professor Lance Freeman of Columbia University is the author of There Goes the ‘Hood. You can read an excerpt from this book, plus catch all the other reports in this week's real estate series, at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, President Bush will address the NAACP for the first time after nearly two terms in office. And three New Orleans healthcare workers are accused of murdering patients during Hurricane Katrina. We'll discuss these topics and others on our Roundtable, next.

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