Gentrification: The truth behind Urban development, its systemic racism, and the resistance

Page authored by Jonathan Frett


            This page is dedicated to the full description and definition of gentrification, its history, and resistance to its affects. While we may or may not have heard this word and had it defined in a colloquial manner, it’s something that goes much deeper than its simple definition. Further, while gentrification at face value isn’t something that should be regulated or all together stopped, it is important that its ramifications are fully fleshed out and understood.

Gentrification in the common sense is loosely based on an idea of people with more money moving into an area that is generally working class or lower income. This is what people see so that’s what they understand and how they define it. What they don’t see is the underlying classism that exists with the whole process of gentrification. The term “gentrify” literally means the process of turning a working class neighborhood into middle to upper class neighborhood by renovating aging buildings and then selling them to more affluent buyers. Most of this renovation is paid for by private spenders. This has been going on in New York City (particularly in the borough of Brooklyn) for years now and there are whole neighborhoods that have changed completely. Gentrification had largely been proposed as an idea that would be mutually beneficial to all; however the reality is that it’s causing a large amount of damage to those residents who were living there before gentrification. These working and lower class families were living in these neighborhoods because that’s what was affordable, but as a result of gentrification, the property values have gone up considerably due to all the renovation going on. Renovation almost always leads to a spike in property value. As a result the reality that lower income families are faced with is that they can no longer afford to live in their homes because the value of the property has gone up which has caused the owners of the buildings to raise the rent.

The problem of gentrification is creating a situation in which people have to leave their homes because of the rise in property value. The impacts of the gentrification movement can be tied to systemic racism both directly and indirectly, i.e. it targets certain racial neighborhoods deliberately, and it also targets them because minorities make up the majority of the working class. Further, the reality provides a clear argument against the “mutually beneficial” argument due to the fact that it is notably detrimental to specific groups of people.


History of Gentrification and Resistance


Instances of gentrification can be traced back far in time and overseas, in fact the term was first used to in England to describe class transformation in London, and the term itself was first coined by Ruth Glass in 1964. The term, like today, was used to describe a kind of class oriented transformation of London neighborhoods in efforts to raise the quality of property so that middle and upper class families would move in. This was actually just as deliberate as it is in America except in America we attempt to hide the inherent classist ideals that drive gentrification. This web page was created to highlight these classist ideals because of the fact that they are so shrouded by arguments for the mutual gain of gentrification; arguments that are neither nor substantiated on any level.[1]

The gentrification that took root in the big apple has been generally centered in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. The word first emerged in the 70s and 80s and became popular to describe the inequality and market failures that existed in lower class communities in New York City at the time. Popular examples of failed lower class neighborhoods were Times Square, The Lower East Side, and most parts in Brooklyn. However, in recent years the connotations of the word have been changed slightly to include an idea that gentrification was mutually beneficial because it cleaned up these drug and crime ridden areas by putting better public services and housing. Here is where the truth of gentrification is shrouded: while this would be great for the neighborhoods, the fact that this would raise property value was never talked about (though it was known by developers) so many of the families that were living in these neighborhoods were forced to leave. Those who decided not to leave because of the better serviced that now exist are living further below the poverty line than they were previously. Was this done intentionally or was this just an unfortunate coincidence? Upon completion of reading this cite, decide for yourself.[2]

In a 1997 article by Michael Gwertzman, the gentrification in Manhattan is talked about extensively. It has been the case for a while now that the development of Manhattan has become more rampant and widespread ranging from Midtown to the Upper West Side and that is only the beginning. The article focuses on the neighborhood of Clinton (formally known as Hell’s Kitchen) and how developers have been buying up areas in Clinton and renovating extensively. Residents in the area have banded together since the beginning of this transformation in an effort to stop the class restructuring of the neighborhood in an attempt to keep Clinton working class and low income affordable. The Special Clinton District (SCD), which was a piece of legislation that was passed in 1974 to check the large amount of speculation surrounding the building of a new convention center, i.e. it was enacted to stop developers from buying up all the housing in the area, evicting residents, and building up businesses around the new convention center. Unfortunately, with the construction of structure like the port authority in 1950, a lot of that kind of development happened anyway. However, activism in the community played (and is attempting to continue to play) a huge part in keeping the SCD a strong piece of legislation to stop greedy landlords from jacking the prices to absurd highs in order to move out the tenants.[3]

Other instances of gentrification come in the form of shady land lord dealings and the cities attempts to capitalize on vacant buildings. In Joshua Breitbart’s article “Tenants Begin Battle for Brooklyn Loft Law,” he discusses the current climate in Brooklyn regarding the attempts to get tenants to leave their residences. The issue with in Brooklyn was that there were tenants living in spaces in which they also worked. There was no legal agreement in place for this so after they had spent time in money building up a business and renovating the spaces, land lords would take on shady ways of kicking them out of their homes. They would undergo such practices as turning of the heat and electricity to get people to leave and move out and claim they had the right to do that because it wasn’t a residential but a commercial lease. In one instance in at 255 Water St, a landlord disconnected a sprinkler system which then caused the cities Buildings Department to attempt to evict residents because they claimed it was unsafe to be inhabited as a result of the disconnection of the sprinklers. As a result of these attempted and successful evictions, the Brooklyn Live/Work Coalition was formed to combat this type of wrongful eviction. The started to fight for the extensions of the 1982 Loft Law which states that “any building that had been designated for commercial use but now had three residential units and no certificate of occupancy was a ‘multiple dwelling’ and had to be brought up to code by the building owner” (Breitbart). While this isn’t a direct attempt to combat gentrification, it still has a lot of importance to the overall movement due to the fact that is providing a situation in which landlords are mandated by law to up hold a certain level of living in the buildings they own, and to stop them from going forward with bogus evictions that are manufactured by their own greedy actions. This is a perfect example of how gentrification can take many different forms, and how it can also be combated on multiple fronts.[4]


Contemporary Resistance to Gentrification


This section of the site has examples of the contemporary struggles that go on to combat the widespread gentrification in New York and nationwide.

One woman’s response to the gentrification in Harlem was to incorporate that struggle into the Occupy Wall Street movement. Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, with the help of a friend, decided to occupy the boiler room of the building that she lived in when multiple attempts to have the boiler fixed were thwarted. A combination of real estate interests and some interests of tenants have made it impossible to have the boiler fixed because they have an underlying goal of getting the building condemned as unlivable.

These attempts come straight from gentrification attempts in an effort to have all the tenants in the building leave so that the building can undergo a complete overhaul. Queen Mother, however, doesn’t want this to happen because she has living in the building for a long time and wants to maintain the legacy it has low income, affordable housing for people. She does not wish to have yet another situation of mass displacement of working class citizens in order to put in nicer buildings that these same citizens can’t afford to live in. She has decided that she will not leave the boiler room until it is fixed and has asked for the help of those working with the occupy movement. She believes that the issue of gentrification and the occupy movement are related and feel that it is time for strategizing to occur around how to best deal with the issue.[5]

People have been following in suit to best build a community resistance to gentrification by all sorts of organizing and lobbying attempts. There have been varying degrees of success on this front so far but the combination of community groups and recent attempts at legislation has been moving the resistance in the right direction. The more that communities organize against gentrification that is designed (both deliberately and otherwise) in ways that causes a large amount of displacement the greater the affect in the slowing down or regulation of gentrification as an attempt to restructure a neighborhood through class.


Groups Standing Against Gentrification


FIERCE: The Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) is a group dedicated to fighting gentrification and keeping the neighborhoods more or less from turning into higher income area forcing lower income families out.  This group rose out of the development of the Christopher Street Pier, which was previously a popular hangout spot for kids in the area. After the Hudson River Park Trust stepped in to develop this area there set up a system of rules that made the area less accessible to kids. An example of a new restrictive rule is a 9pm curfew was put in place making.[6]

FUREE: Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) is a group that works to keep the Fulton mall area in Brooklyn a popular area to shop for minority groups. There has been a lot of construction already done in the area and there are plans to do more construction as well but FUREE has won the battle to keep the abolitionist history of downtown Brooklyn intact. The efforts by FUREE have helped to maintain the current state of downtown Brooklyn from total and extreme gentrification that was otherwise going to take place.6

Chinatown Justice Project: This is another community group that has formed to fight against recent plans to develop the Chinatown area of lower Manhattan. The current Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, had development plans set in place that would cause displacement of the current residents of Chinatown on a large scale. The Chinatown Justice Project has halted or otherwise delayed much of this development in order to save the homes of the numerous families that would otherwise be displaced as a result.6


Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC): This committee is organized to the point of having a whole website dedicated to information regarding the struggle against gentrification. Their mission isn’t exactly to stop gentrification as much as to make it so that gentrification takes place in a way that is more equal in terms of social and economic justice, particularly in south Brooklyn, i.e. works to develop communities without displacing hundreds of residents and their families.[7]


These above groups that have formed (as well as individual efforts such as those of Queen Mother) to combat gentrification have formed in a way that gets entire communities involved. An overarching point that is being made (both vocally and by example) is that if there is going to be any sort of successful protest and fight against gentrification and large amount of displacement it’s going to have to come from within communities. Though this is a fact that may seem intuitive, most don’t know where to start and expect that some organization is going to come along to stop this injustice. These groups stand as rallying cries to those families in the inner cities who are damaged by this large scale gentrification to educate themselves on what is happening, why it is happening, underlying goals of what is happening, and how to protect themselves in their families from becoming victims of what is happening. Further, as members of groups of people who are being negatively affected, there must be a vocalization of what is happening. Movements begin and are fueled by untold stories. There can be no change unless it is called for and given reason for it.


Systemic Racism Targeted


This section provides a list of the systemic racism that is being targeted by the movement. While there isn’t anything written that would call attention to deliberate racism that exists in this movement simply because that would be incredibly difficult to prove, there is plenty of room to make arguments that there are elements of systemic racism that exists in gentrification; elements that the movement combats just by combating gentrification itself.

  • Preservation of White Privilege
  • Raising property value to move out minorities (the majority of which live below the poverty line
  • Turn neighborhoods into upper class neighborhoods (white) to create an influx of money into a certain area
  • Minor elements of the white man’s burden, but essentially fails because the changes made don’t rise up minorities.

Analysis and Recommendations


From the research that I’ve gathered over the course of creating this web page there are incredible amounts of social and economic injustice issues going on. From the basic information that most people receive regarding gentrification any one would agree that it is a good idea. The clean-up and rejuvenation of working class neighborhoods is never a bad idea. It makes the city look nicer; it gives more incentive for people to move back into the city, it makes the neighborhoods safer to live in, and promotes an overall lift in the community. With all of those positive changes going on it would undoubtedly lead to a better school system (funded federally) and better emergency service response. Having said that, let’s first juxtapose the results of those changes to the current status of these neighborhoods now.

The majority of working class citizens are minority workers and are the ones living in the areas that have been marked for gentrification. We must ask ourselves why these improvements aren’t going on already. It seems clear that the areas need it and have needed it for years, but the reality of the situation is that it wasn’t until these areas were marked to be gentrified. Further, in face of the definition of the word, gentrification is intrinsically classist. The whole point is to change areas of the city from working class to middle class and up. That’s what gentrification means. Because of this reality, the whole argument that gentrification benefits everyone is not only untrue practically, but it was never true to begin with. In fact, the idea behind gentrification was never meant to be beneficial to everyone. It was always meant to make change the structure of class in a certain area by raising property value through mass renovation and development. Here’s where the racial injustice in NYC comes in: why are the areas largely populated by minorities the main targets for gentrification? One argument could be made saying that minorities live the unfortunate reality of being the majority in the working class in NYC. To rebut that argument: so your response to a systematic disenfranchisement of entire groups of people is to force them from their homes? It’s undeniable that minorities make up the majority of the working class in NYC, but this is something that has been manufactured by the system of white privilege in America. Statistically, white ex-felons have a better chance of find a better job than a minority with a clean record. The racism in those statistics is also irrefutable. To then turn around and insinuate that the reality of the dynamic that exists between being a minority and being poor is something that has nothing to do with anything other than a minorities ability to make good money is not only unfair, but it’s racist in it of itself. The plan of gentrification not only supports a system of white privilege, it also makes it more difficult for those living below the poverty line to start living above it.

Another way that gentrification is clearly racist is the underlying motive for why it exists which has been mentioned a few times already on this site: the attempt to get wealthier people to move back into the city. Who, might we ask, make up the majority of “wealthier” people in America? White people. Not only does gentrification place blame on the poverty of minorities on minorities themselves, ignoring the system of white power in America, it then turns around and pushes out minorities to make room for powerful white people. This, my friends, is social injustice at its finest.

Possible ways to fight this injustice ranges from dismantling the entire system of power and restructure it on the basis of equality to more practical and probable ways as fighting the injustice by regulating gentrifications ability to force out tenants.

One prime way to restrict a rent increase by land lords is to reduce large scale increases in property value on the basis of development. In reality, because places have been developed by malls and other big business, there isn’t a need to raise the taxes on residential living. This recommendation is on the basis on commercial interests and city interests. The city itself is already going to make a lot more money the production of nicer facilities. The amount of business that would be enjoyed by the new developments is more than enough to pay the city the tax at whatever level it sets it at. Not to mention the type of business that is coming is almost always corporate. People will spend that money regardless of what their income bracket it is. The difference in the big business income on the basis of the residents living in the surrounding area is pretty marginal.

Next, regulation on a land lord’s ability to jack rent prices on because of gentrification should be regulated. This can be incorporated into lower taxes placed on building owners by the city. I’m not saying we should lower the rates from what they are already at, we just should raise them on the basis of gentrification. This would only guard against ex post facto changes in response to gentrification. If buildings are sold, or new tenants move in, the regulation shouldn’t stay the same.

The argument for higher safety levels (gentrification leads to safer neighborhoods) also doesn’t really apply in the question of how to protect gentrified areas (or neighborhoods in general). In fact, the claim that minority neighborhoods are the only ones that are unsafe is also extremely racist. True most crimes are committed by minorities, but this is because of a system of poverty that is generated through systematic racism. Were developers to come into minority neighborhoods and develop them in ways that don’t displace the current residents, crime is going to go down because of the amount of safety that these businesses are going to expect and require. With nicer things, higher security always follows; regardless of what racial or ethnic group surrounds these nicer things. There is a racist reality that exists in a belief that security is related to race when in actually they have nothing to do with one another. If your things aren’t secure, anyone can and will steal them.

The concept of developing neighborhoods to create better living situations for residents is absolutely a great idea, but gentrification following it isn’t, and it is an extreme social injustice. We must keep in our minds that while gentrification is often described as the developing of lower class neighborhoods making them better when it is in fact the process of raising property value to force out people who can’t afford to pay higher rent costs. In NYC this is strategically being used to force out many minority groups creating yet another bracket of systemic racism that exists in this country. The main problem with fighting this reality is this question: What is more important: free business and the overarching ideals of capitalism, or social justice values that take into account a people’s ability to live comfortably?


Related Links


Relevant Organizations

Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC)

Chinatown Justice Project

Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE):

The Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE)

Occupy Wall Street (OWS)


Works Cited


Becker, Ben. “Occupy Movement Joins Anti-gentrification Struggle in Harlem.” Party for Socialism and Liberation. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

Breitbart, Joshua. “Tenants Begin Battle For Brooklyn Loft Law.” Tenant Net – Tenants and Renters Rights – New York City. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

“FACs Mission.” – Fifth Avenue Committee. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

Gwertzman, Michael. “Keeping the Kitchen in Clinton.” Tenant Net – Tenants and Renters Rights – New York City. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <;.

Newman, Kathe, and Elvin Wyly. “Gentrification and Resistance in New York City.” National Housing Institute. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <;.

Padua, Alejandro. “Organization Of Communities.” Real Estate Laws. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

Slater, Tom. “What Is Gentrification?” MultiMania – Free Website Hosting with PHP, MySQL and 1 GB Webspace. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.


[1] Slater, Tom. “What Is Gentrification?” MultiMania – Free Website Hosting with PHP, MySQL and 1 GB Webspace. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

[2] Newman, Kathe, and Elvin Wyly. “Gentrification and Resistance in New York City.” National Housing Institute. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <;.

[3] Gwertzman, Michael. “Keeping the Kitchen in Clinton.” Tenant Net – Tenants and Renters Rights – New York City. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <;.

[4] Breitbart, Joshua. “Tenants Begin Battle For Brooklyn Loft Law.” Tenant Net – Tenants and Renters Rights – New York City. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

[5] Becker, Ben. “Occupy Movement Joins Anti-gentrification Struggle in Harlem.” Party for Socialism and Liberation. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

[6] Padua, Alejandro. “Organization Of Communities.” Real Estate Laws. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

[7] “FACs Mission.” – Fifth Avenue Committee. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <;.

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