Gentrification is turning me into a bitter old lady

I never thought it would come to this.

Let me explain. It’s not that I look at teenagers and say “darn kids these days,” although sometimes I do think it. It mostly has to do with what is going on in my old hood in New York City. I’ve been living abroad for the past 4 years, and in that time, some things have changed.

This is turning me into something I didn’t think I would become (at least not this soon): a bitter old lady.

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Welcome to my hood

My neighborhood is in West Harlem, and I’ve always been proud of that. I’m about a 10-15 minute walk from the famous Apollo Theater.

All kinds of people live here and still can afford to stay. Old Hispanic men chill out on the sidewalk outside their building. People used to play basketball on our sidewalk, using the bottom rung of the ladder of a fire escape as the “hoop.” We used to have block parties in the summertime.

More and more Columbia University people are moving into the area. There are several blocks of government housing in the area, although some of the buildings have been converted into coops (meaning that the apartments are owned by individuals and the building operates as a cooperative community).

It might be the case that, in a few short years, things may get so expensive that people will start moving away.

The neighborhood is changing slowly, but I find myself resisting it more and more.

New construction

Like I alluded to what I noticed when walking the High Line Park area in lower Manhattan, things are changing pretty fast. Manhattan hasn’t seen new buildings being built at this rate in a long time.

One of the most concerning things is that most new buildings are luxury apartments or condos. Many of the newest buildings in New York are still mostly empty.

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There are two 30+ floor buildings planned for the area, and we currently don’t have any buildings that tall or of that price point. This makes me very sad. New York doesn’t need more high priced condos.

While I do understand the need for high density living, none of these new buildings would have any affordable housing. It’s totally different aesthetically to what already exists and would put extra burden on our infrastructure.

It may also lead to a change in who can afford to stay in the neighborhood just by attracting people of higher income brackets that then attract businesses to cater to them.

How this all started

About ten years ago, Columbia University was going through all the legal processes to build their new campus in my neighborhood. I didn’t really understand what was going on and what it would mean for people like me who had always lived there.

I remember seeing the “No imminent domain” signs and posters, but I didn’t fully grasp what it meant. (Imminent domain is a term that means an organization that wants to expand their real estate has some extra advantage when looking for land and lots near where it is already established.)

Maybe this was inevitable. We were pretty close to Columbia, and there was some underused space here. They seem to own several residential buildings on my block and the next block over.

Now with 1 new building open and 2 more opening soon, the new campus is taking shape. I’m feeling torn about it all.

Maybe it feels like it is happening so fast because I’ve been living abroad for the last 4 years. Each time I came home, the progress on the construction site seemed to have jumped forward.

This time I came home, though, 2 buildings were actually completed and operating. Now, the current construction workers are digging large and very deep pits for the next building.

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Pivotal moments in time

Two things happened recently that seem to be indicative of how the neighborhood has changed.

First, the first Starbucks to ever open near where I live opened earlier this year. This is the only Starbucks probably within 10 minutes walking distance. I guess it is 2017, and it was bound to get to us, but this makes me sad, too.

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Exhibit A: First Starbucks

Second, the sidewalk around the entrance to the subway station was repaved and cemented. Cement takes a while to set, and they had a few barriers to keep people from walking on it.

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Exhibit B: Graffiti free, newly paved sidewalk (and the hip ramen place)

Back in the day, at least a few people would have scratched their names or initials into the cement. Maybe a few hearts too. On my block leading up to this corner, there are a few names that were scratched in within the last 10 years.

This time, nothing! No one at all went over to make their permanent mark in the ground. I don’t mind that there aren’t names scratched into the cement, but it just made me go “Huh!”

Entering bitter old ladydom

My younger sister overheard our next door neighbors. The son, who is maybe 10 years old, was telling his dad, “Did you know there are 5 people living in there? Isn’t that a lot of people?” We laughed, because they way that he was saying this to his father was funny, and also because it’s partly true. (Although now that my older sister is at her new apartment, there are 4 adults living in here.)

Sometimes I catch myself feeling like I need to defend myself in my mind. Like when I see neighbors in my building, I think that they may be judging me, or that they may be thinking who the heck is she and how can she afford to live here.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking, if all these young hip people didn’t move into the neighborhood, things wouldn’t have become so expensive (at the supermarket, or in general). All the new restaurants and cocktail/smoothie bars on Broadway wouldn’t be there if not for them. My favorite Italian restaurant would remain a secret and I wouldn’t have to wait too long to get a table (but now I know to book ahead anyway).

I’m trying not to think thoughts like “they don’t belong here” or “the neighborhood is going downhill.” (If you watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I’m trying not to be like Lillian!) It’s hard, especially at moments like when I walk to the subway station and see a huge line of people waiting to eat at the tiny, hip ramen place.

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Where do we go from here?

I’m moving in July to a neighborhood north from here, but also experiencing some gentrification. It’s perhaps a little earlier in the gentrification timeline than my current neighborhood. But all the same, there are brunching spots and hip cafes. I love me a cute cafe, so I can’t complain about that. I do feel slightly hypocritical.

I think the important part is that people talk about things, and across the lines as well. I should talk to my new neighbors more, so they can get to know me. I shouldn’t dismiss all the professors, workers, students and young folks coming into the neighborhood, because it’s not their fault.

Change is part of life, so I know I need to work at embracing it. The part the makes me start to feel bitter is the feeling that I’m losing the old life that I was so comfortable with. Another is the feeling that the neighborhood is losing its people and character, turning into just like every other up and coming neighborhood.

This is an interesting Kickstarter project in Brooklyn that aims to discuss and report about issues like this. This Kickstarter ends on Friday, so make your pledge soon if you feel so inclined!

For more reading, here’s an interesting article about similar urban issues.

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The only part that has not changed at all in 30+ years, the McDonald’s

Always and forever

We lived here when the neighborhood was still a bit sketchy. My great-grandfather bought this apartment way back in the day, and he had a restaurant where one of the new Columbia buildings is being built.

I’m still proud to say that I’m from here, and that I grew up here. This will be home for me always. I’m proud to be part of the old guard.

To leave you, here is a song that I’m digging at the moment.

Is you hometown or neighborhood going through changes? What do you think about it?

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  • Hi Chewy,

    Really interesting to hear how your city / neighbourhood is changing. Every time I go back to Berlin, there’s something new to discover and something that’s gone. It’s hardly the city anymore that I remember from growing up. Change is both difficult and exciting but I appreciate how hard it can be when your neighbourhood is changing right around you.

    And the world needs cranky old ladies, right?! 😉

    • Hey Kati!

      I didn’t know you were from Berlin! Now I know! I agree it is difficult and exciting to adapt to change. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents to return to Shanghai after not seeing all the many many changes it has gone through over the last few decades. They had left in the 70s, returned once in 1990, and then not again until 2007 or 2009. If you haven’t been to Shanghai, it’s all skyscrapers now!

      Hahaha, yes, cranky old ladies! We will be the ones to scold the next generations! 🙂