Seminar Explores Complex Micro- and Macro-Level Effects of Gentrification on NYC Neighborhoods

On Friday, April 11, the Students of Color Collective and the Social Justice and Diversity Committee at the NYU Silver School of Social Work held a seminar on the impact of gentrification on housing, urban planning, policy, race, and poverty in New York City. Held in conjunction with a film screening and discussion of the documentary My Brooklyn, which focuses on the various forces reshaping New York City neighborhoods along race and class lines, the seminar utilized lectures and small groups to foster animated discussions between policy experts, students, and residents in changing neighborhoods.

Panelists included Kelly Anderson, director of My Brooklyn; Max Weselcouch, research analyst at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; NYU Silver McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies Robert Hawkins; and Associate Professor Lance Freeman of Columbia University’s urban planning program. Hawkins and Freeman provided insights into the multi-faceted concept of gentrification, a word whose definition is nebulous and can be presented as positive development or a pejorative term depending on who uses it. Lees, Slater, and Wyly’s eponymous textbook on the topic defines gentrification as “the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city to a middle class residential and/or commercial use.”

Several key themes of gentrification emerged organically during the seminar’s discussion. Among these was the concept of ontological security—defined by British sociologist Anthony Giddens as the “sense of order and continuity in regard to an individual’s experience”—and how this security is impacted when gentrification-fueled change occurs. An awareness of environmental change’s impact on the individual is vital in considering gentrification’s reach.

The spread and impact of gentrification often seems like an inevitable and foregone conclusion, especially in a metropolis like New York City, whose economic epicenter (Manhattan) is so geographically small. Changing neighborhoods need a representative voice to afford them agency in the gentrification process. Attendees stressed the importance of civic engagement in addressing issues stemming from gentrification. One of the simplest, and most effective, methods of fostering civic engagement is through voting. Unfortunately, voting rights in the United States are currently under threat from proposed voter ID laws, which President Barack Obama feels unfairly targets minorities, students, and immigrants (who form the majority populations in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods). Attendees proposed that one civic response to the threat on voting rights is to create new ways to help people become more politically involved, such as a neighbor offering to babysit so a parent can go vote, or an employer giving their employees the day off on polling days. Beyond voting, the seminar suggested that neighborhood residents can increase their agency by becoming involved in local and community grassroots projects geared towards empowering the disenfranchised.

Weselcouch from the Furman Center shared her insight into the impact of rampant and rapid gentrification in New York City. The Center, a joint research hub of NYU’s School of Law and the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, conducts interdisciplinary empirical and legal research on housing and urban policy, including neighborhood change. Weselcouch presented details of what the Furman Center’s data reflects on demographic and cost changes in the major boroughs of New York City.  

Attendees and individuals who want to learn more on the complex and fascinating issues surrounding gentrification are invited to peruse the following resources, compiled Kandra Knowles, MSW ’14, and Shomari Harris, MSW ’14, who planned the event: