“What exactly is gentrification? What produces it? And where do you fit in?” If you’ve found yourself asking these questions since you moved to Brooklyn, you might want to take Pratt Professor Dr. Caitlin Cahill’s urban geography course “I Heart/Break New York: Gentrification and Urban Change.” Gentrification is seen as the “original sin” of new New Yorkers. Still, many of us lack a true understanding of what this word means. I sat down with Professor Cahill to learn more about the course she created, which challenges students to place themselves within the context of gentrification.
“I think a lot of Pratt students come from outside the city and move to Brooklyn thinking this is the new, cool, hip place to be. I want to support them in understanding the processes of urban change but also, and really importantly, their own position within it,” Professor Cahill told me on a warm day in mid-October. “There’s a lot of anxiety for Pratt students in terms of the everyday experiences within Brooklyn neighborhoods where there’s actually a lot of tension, anger, confusion, and stress within gentrifying neighborhoods,” she explained. “Pratt students can feel paralysed by a lack of understanding or confusion and feel a sense of guilt or responsibility and not know what to do with that.”
In her course, Cahill has students explore and reflect on their experiences in Brooklyn to understand the impacts that gentrification has on local communities. They focus on the contemporary city within a historical, political, economic, social, and cultural context. Gentrification is a buzzword these days in Brooklyn, as it’s transformed into New York City’s trendiest borough in the last decade. According to Cahill, students often come out of the class feeling a sense of outrage about the injustices of displacement, and also gain a sense of agency and knowledge on how to address these shifts within a community. Whether they’re in architecture, graphic design or fine arts, students realize they can make meaningful contributions to their neighborhoods.
So what is gentrification? Well, it’s more than hipsters in Williamsburg or a new Starbucks. To understand gentrification is to define it, and the word root “gentry” means upper class, synonymous with aristocracy. Cahill explained that people have been thinking about the effects of gentrification for a long time, especially in New York City. “In 1985, there was an advertisement in the New York Times put out by the Real Estate Board of New York, headed in big letters: “Is Gentrification a Dirty Word?” Similarly, this was trying to reframe how we understand gentrification.” Cahill continued, “When Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 in London, it was to talk about a particular process of the upper class coming into a community to, in the language of the definition, ‘refurbish it.’ This renovation would ‘clean up’ the neighborhood, and in the process, displace the people in it — so, importantly, displacement was always part of the definition of gentrification. I think the discomfort with the question Is Gentrification a Dirty Word? is that it asks what the social and human costs of gentrification are. It asks if displacement is acceptable, and in my mind, the answer is no.”
Gentrification occurs in American cities because they were historically segregated by race, ethnicity and class through public policies which include redlining and planned shrinkage. Many of the neighborhoods that are now becoming gentrified in New York, which are predominantly communities of color, were disinvested and first abandoned by the state decades ago. Long term residents of these neighborhoods, who have survived for years without decent public schools and with cutbacks to essential public services including fire stations, hospitals, and poor housing conditions, are now facing the threat of displacement.
In just the last twenty years the area around Pratt has transformed quite a bit. The surrounding neighborhood was segregated and had been redlined, which restricted residents’ access to essential goods and services. These policies impoverished communities, and as a result, housing costs became more affordable for Pratt students. Until around 2000, a high amount of students lived in New York and commuted from home, but as the neighborhood became more gentrified, more students came from out of state, able to afford higher rent. The surrounding neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene were predominantly communities of color, but the demographics have shifted dramatically over the years as many have been pushed out by increasing rent.
Cahill emphasized that Pratt students should be aware of how they might be used as pawns in the process of gentrification. “We need to understand the ways in which students are positioned within this larger process. Students need housing, they want to live close to school or on a train line that’s convenient, they don’t know much about the housing market or their rights as tenants, and they have guarantors. All these factors lead to landlords bringing students into less than desirable living conditions for their own profit. By not knowing their rights and the history of the community, they’re used by landlords in order to raise the price in the housing market.” Furthermore, because college students don’t occupy apartments for more than a few years, they are a market that can be overcharged and at the same time used to deregulate rent-stabilized apartments.
Dr. Cahill stressed they should check to see if they are being treated differently than their neighbors are. “You might see…that the landlord turned off their water or only renovate the apartments that are paying the higher price. We have to think about our relationships to these inequalities and what are the ways in which we can build community or solidarity with others who are also in the same housing market as us.” In addition, she advises that students check to see if their apartment is rent-stabilized, suggesting the website AmIRentStabilized.com.
Throughout our thirty minute chat during Cahill’s Diversity Education workshop, I learned a lot more about my position as a Bed-Stuy resident. Yes, I am a gentrifier and that is problematic, but there are things I can do to help offset the negative consequences of gentrification. A good first step may be to take Professor Cahill’s class.
Images by Samuel Herrera