A panel on gentrification Thursday night at P.S. 321 proposed some concrete ideas for things people can do to improve affordability and increase diversity in their neighborhoods and schools. As a slide show of photos of Brooklyn’s changing communities played in the background, three sociology professors, all of whom live in Brooklyn, briefly presented their research on gentrification and then took questions from the audience. The panel was convened by the school’s Diversity Committee, made up of P.S. 321 parents.
The main way to improve affordability and diversity in the borough is to increase the availability of affordable housing, said the panel. There are many ways to do this, including via rent regulation, community land trusts, co-ops and taxpayer-funded development. “We should be advocating more public investment in these projects, especially at the federal level, and ensure distribution in the most equitable way, including to different neighborhoods,” said Emily Molina, a professor at Brooklyn College whose research focuses on the uneven impact of the ongoing foreclosure crisis. “The private market will not do that.”
Practical suggestions for improving diversity at P.S. 321 included joint projects with other schools. “Figure out what resources you have to share so you can be involved in joint projects,” said Brooklyn College Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jerome Krase. “Think of the district as being one large school.”
Other suggestions included discussing race at home and reaching out to neighbors. “I say hello to my neighbors every morning,” said Krase, who has lived in Prospect Lefferts Gardens for decades and once served as the chair of the Brownstone Revival Committee. “You say hello, offer to help move the garbage can. You make community yourself.”
“I asked my first grader are you talking about race [at school],” said Zaire Dinzey-Flores, who recently moved from Fort Greene to Bed Stuy. “It’s as important for my daughter as her white peers. The colorblind strategy kind of backfires because then difference is to be avoided. Take control of that situation, acknowledge inequalities.” She instructs her children to treat 40-year residents of the neighborhood “as pillars of the community.” Patronize long-term businesses and get involved with block associations and other longstanding groups, even if they have a different way of conducting business than what you are used to, she said.
Big pieces of paper on a table on the way into the auditorium asked participants for their ideas about how to counter gentrification. One attendee wrote “Give a percentage of our PTA money to lower income school partners.”
Dinzey-Flores’ research looks at how people self segregate by class and race, even in integrated neighborhoods. Potentially, racial integration is “one of the things that could come out of a gentrifying area,” she said. When gentrification first started, it was generally viewed as positive. “At first, the thought was that gentrification would be restrained, and in the ’80s we wondered if it would continue. But here we are and it’s obviously here to stay,” she said.
Whether it is good or bad is complicated, and depends on your aims, said the panel. But, “the net result is that it makes the entire city unaffordable for all but the affluent,” said Molina, who recently moved to Crown Heights from Los Angeles. “It brings up the question of who has the right to the city. The quesion is not is it good or bad but how it contributes to the affordability crisis.” There are good and bad effects, but the more people spend on housing the less they have for other things such as food and health care, she said.
Rates of subprime loans are very uneven, and lenders targeted African American communities for subprime loans based on their race. Properties in these areas are more likely to remain vacant after foreclosure, so there is more likely to be blight. They’re also more likely to be bought by investors after the fact. “We’re seeing a massive transfer of wealth from homeowners to investors,” she said. “What I found in my research is that the foreclosure process accelerated the gentrification process in L.A., and I think that is also true of New York.”
An attendee asked if investors renting out foreclosed properties could be a positive because the houses are improved and not vacant. “If you look at it as asset stripping, wealth stripping, then no,” said Molina. “People are locked into rent peonage for a long time, possibly for the rest of their lives. I think it is a terrible idea. It’s a better idea to be able to modify the mortgage and stay in the home.”
“Park Slope has metastasized to Ditmas Park,” observed another attendee, commenting on all the strollers she saw there on a recent visit. Another member of the audience, a 35-year resident of Park Slope, lamented the changes gentrification has brought to Park Slope’s 7th Avenue thoroughfare. Commercial rents are so high that the street is no longer attractive or interesting, she said. “It is not as attractive an avenue as it used to be and it feels like it’s taking away from the sense of community. I wish there was a large movement for commercial rent control. I would like to degentrify 7th Avenue.”
Krase said of Park Slope, “Gentrification is not over, it’s always going on. What you’re talking about is supergentrification. It’s not stopping in the sense that Brooklyn is always changing.” There is immigration, and the boundaries of Park Slope are always changing, for example, he said.
“Yes,” said Molina, “but the challenges of Park Slope are not the challenges of where I live, Crown Heights. Crown Heights is rapidly changing by the month. Park Slope is more stable.”
Krase said he believes “housing problems cannot be solved with housing solutions. There are much bigger economic issues.” His research involves photographing and mapping gentrification. The slides playing in the background showed Brooklyn scenes such as friends walking in Bushwick, a 1915 NYPD map that mapped ethnic groups by neighborhood, and a more recent map that showed the location of mosques in Brooklyn according to the CIA. “Stop and frisk, and foreclosure, is all connected. People can pretend it’s accidental but it shows up over and over again. The economic engine of New York City produced decent working class and middle class jobs, but they’re just not there any more. The education and jobs that made it possible to buy and maintain property disappeared in the ’60s and ’70s. The goal is for communities of color to get to the point where they don’t need assistance to stay in the city,” he said.
The panelists disagreed on the relationship between landmarking and gentrification.
“For me, it’s a positive,” said Krase. “You can’t build a six story building [where a house used to be]. There is a decrease in value for individual homeowners. If a house could be changed into a six story building, it would be worth more in value. Was landmarking good for Park Slope in general? Yes. But only if you believe gentrification was not bad. Houses just outside landmark districts benefit more than houses inside the district. In PLG they are trying to get landmark status for a street to protect it from the kind of super value we see on 4th Avenue. But supergentrification doesn’t automatically follow from landmarking. Supergentrification hasn’t taken place in all those neighborhoods.”
“All over the United States there is a link between historic districts and resegregation,” said Molina. “It is a barrier to constructing affordable housing.”
Krase disagreed. “There are a considerable number of places in Brooklyn that have been landmarked by African American owners” said Krase, referring to PLG, Crown Heights and Bed Stuy. “And it helped those sections get mortgages, so it’s a bit complicated.”
What’s your opinion?
Above, Dinzey-Flores speaks.