Gentrification in Park Slope and Beyond: What Can Be Done?

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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?

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Above, Dinzey-Flores speaks.

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32 Comment

  • landlord

    “I wish there was a large movement for commercial rent control. I would like to degentrify 7th Avenue.”

    Sure way to destroy the neighborhood………….what a bunch of libiral morons!

  • Bob Marvin

    Jerry Krase made a good point when he said that “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. “
    M.M. has also stressed this here on Brownstoner.

    FWIW the chairperson of the PLGNA committee that worked on the PLG HD in the ’70s was African-American as were some of those who pushed for the more recent Ocean on the Park HD designation here.

  • I think it is ironic that this meeting was held in a school that is the number one line that real estate people use when selling the neighborhood to the affluent people who are buying properties for millions of dollars. Park Slope is a victim of its own success in this regard.

    • -also ironic (to be holding a gentrification and diversity meeting) at PS 321 in that the school is wildly popular among the affluent precisely BECAUSE it has no poor children of color (and raises massive amounts of money on account of it). To pretend otherwise–i.e. it’s the teachers who make the school so special, blah blah blah–is to be willfully blind. If the school started letting in an actually “diverse” student population, the whites would all flee. . . ..

      • 321 has a significant population of people who moved in to the neighborhood for a few months just for the school and now live elsewhere, in neighborhoods that are far less gentrified. Or they lied about their addresses, again rejecting community schools that might actually still be diverse and perhaps have a more mixed socio-economic population if they didn’t opt out in favor of homogenous schools like 321. I don’t blame the parents for that, but the handwringing and the implied “do what i say, not what i do” are irritating.

        I’m not in favor of madatory busing and changing zones is probably not politically possible. All of my ideas would be aimed at reducing the concentration of affluent people in the same 10 schools, but that would involve active support for diversity, which I’m sure some would view as promoting gentrification, too.

      • I don’t think that’s a very fair thing to say about the parents at 321. The quality of the teachers is precisely what draws so many parents there, and it’s painting the hundreds of families there with a pretty ugly brush to suggest otherwise. The fact that the school has a lot going for it makes it a valuable commodity for real estate agencies who use it as a selling point to increase prices, thereby driving long-term residents out. I’m a native Brooklynite and have seen so many neighborhoods, including Park Slope, change a lot over the years. Is it a bad thing to ask how to respond to some of these changes as a neighborhood? Or to care about these changes?

  • “For me, it’s a positive,” (land marking) 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.”

    My reply: This is a rather striking observation. So owners should not be able to take advantage of the increasing value of their properties? They stayed over the course of the long term from the time when the properties had less value, and are now able to cash out after years of staying the course. Taking his argument to heart, they should not be able to? Moreover, land marking, depending upon the circumstances, might put extra pressure on owners to maintain their properties in a way they can’t afford, especially if they are older and on fixed incomes. The documentary Flag Wars addressed this, the downside of land marking.

  • And “gentrification” is a problem how exactly?

  • East New York

    One of the first things these folks might have done is agree on a definition of “gentrification.” Speakers quoted here spoke of issues related to housing, race, ethnicity, class, wealth and law enforcement. Are all involved? Or just some? Does it strictly mean high-income white people displacing lower-income people of color? What do you call it when a middle- to-high income person of color moves into a “gentrifying” neighborhood? What about Bed Stuy and Crown Heights, where the majority of owners are black and have no intention of departing anytime soon? Sounds like a confused, circular conversation to me.

    • Bob Marvin

      A definition of “gentrification” has always been problematic, one of the reasons I’ve disliked the term so much, since it was imported from the UK (where it has a far more specific use) in the late 70s.

      • That definition of gentrification (or absence thereof) is what keeps me away from these discussions. I bought in Clinton Hill in 1988, from a retiring African American teacher who had no complaints about the transaction and used the money to buy another house in Philadelphia, closer to his family; the only holdup was that the area was redlined by banks at that time, and I had to threaten to sue Marine Midland to get my mortgage processed. At the time, my income was about the same as the seller’s. But I’m white. And in the last few years I’ve been referred to by some African American neighbors more affluent than I as a “gentrifier.” I’ve been told that people like me are pushing African Americans and/or those with lower income out of Clinton Hill. My response is, “I’m middle income. And I’ve paid off my mortgage, so as far as I’m concerned, my house represents affordable housing in NYC. How long have you lived in this area? Five years? And you can afford to pay HOW much in rent? Or, you bought your house for HOW much? Then you’re the gentrifier, not me. If you weren’t here when the bullets were flying and my block association was storming the NYPD for attention to the drug dealing on our block, don’t call me a gentrifier.” But even that argument isn’t valid; for the only constant is change. I raise the rent on my one rental apartment as my costs go up; that’s only reasonable, and doesn’t make me a “gentrifier.” And before this area was predominantly minority, it was predominantly Irish and Italian. Before that, in the nineteenth century, the small brownstones on my block were owned by middle to lower middle class people providing services to the wealthy owners on Clinton and Washington: they were fish mongers, ministers, teachers and booksellers. So I don’t understand how one group (whether it’s based on race, class, or whatever) can presume its members have some exclusive right to live in a specific area, and call everyone who disagrees “gentrifiers,” At the very least, it’s a myopic view of history, selecting a particular period to freeze in time. On the other hand, I agree that diversity is extremely important, and absolutely support increasing the number of affordable rentals in new construction.

      • Bob Marvin

        BTW, that original use of the term in Britain referred to middle class “gentry” buying and renovating working class terrace houses. I always thought the term was a poor fit for NYC brownstones, although it might be accurately applied to coops, or condos in multi-family tenement buildings.

        Of course my neighborhood never really had, nor needed, anything resembling “gentrification” on the blocks with one and two family row houses, which have always been middle class.

    • Cate

      I think they meant the city growing so expensive only the affluent can afford it.

  • “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.’”

    I really don’t understand this quote — what doesn’t exist now that used to exist on 7th Ave? Benneton?

    • Cate

      She said the mom and pops can’t afford it any more and it’s all Rite Aids, banks, and chain hamburger joints — ironic considering Park Slope used to be considered a vegetarian stronghold, she said.

      • When I think of iconic stores I think of places that are still there and fit the neighborhood like Clay Pot and Jack Rabbit.

        I think she has a very selective memory — except for the explosion of hamburger places which I assume is just the current “it” thing and in five years it will all be Mongolian or something else ridiculous. There were always the banks on 7th avenue, and I am not sure if there is even another chain drug store except for that especially crummy Rite Aid next to the Barnes and Noble. Isn’t Neergaard’s smaller place still there near Garfield?

        • grimacenyc

          Yes there were always banks on 7th Ave, but there are not hold-up / hostage situations like there were back in the early 90′s at the Chase on 7th Ave like there was back in ’93..

          Dark Slope is definitely softening up!

      • mildredfierce

        Back when lesbians and hippies were the key gentrifiers, Park Slope may have been a vegetarian stronghold, but that ship sailed many, many years ago.

  • Bus half the 321 kids to a school in Sunset Park that is 100% Hispanic, and half the kids in a school in Sunset Park to 321 (like they do in Yonkers). That should slow down gentrification considerably.

    I’m sure the uber-liberal parents in 321, who preach the beauty of diversity and who are so concerned about “what can be done about gentrification,” will be all for it.

  • The idea that 321 wants suggestions as to what to do to improve diversification is so disingenuous to me. Once they rezoned kids living between 4th and 5th Av. into the new school down 4th Avenue, they effectively removed the great majority of Latino kids remaining in the neighborhood. There are still older row houses where Latino families have long lived; they are now zoned out of 321. I imagine the new school at least has the potential for greater diversity.

    • it’s only in its first year, but the new zoned school (ps 118) has pretty similar ethnic demographics to 321, though 118 has more kids whose parents identify them as mixed race. no idea about economics. i would guess some of the hispanic families will now head to ps 133, which is also on 4th ave. 133 has a brand-new, state of the art building and an established spanish dual language program where spanish speaking kids get priority admission.

    • the school and parents had no hand in the zoning lines, that was DOE. So to suggest otherwise is silly. hats off to 321 for hosting a forum like this where people can have a conversation and better understand the varying views. that can only help our community.

      • actually brook718, it’s not silly at all. Parents had the final say on zoning lines. although mayoral control got rid of community control of just about everything, the one thing still preserved in state law is that the Community Education Councils (CECs), which is an elected body of public school parents – have the final approval or disapproval of any changes to zoning. If Park Slope parents really cared that much about the diversity of their schools, that would have been the time to actually create them.

  • Bob Marvin

    That New York Magazine article about “gentrification” quotes Brad Lander as talking about “neighborhoods where gentrification has been meaningfully tempered,.” I think that is key; “gentrification” can exacerbate the trend towards the “tale of two cities” or it can strengthen communities that are starting to mirror the demographics of our increasingly multi-ethnic city. The trick is to continue “meaningful tempering” by such tactics as encouraging mixed income housing (and increasing the percentage of “affordable” housing required for tax breaks, perhaps even using a more realistic definition of “affordable” ; enforcing existing tenant protection regulations, to prevent abuses like these:

    http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2014/01/tenants-bushwick-landlord-tears-out-kitchens-bathrooms-to-get-tenants-to-move/?ic_source=ic-most-commented

    as well as other policies that benefit the great majority of New Yorkers.