In reading the passage from Levy about the social issues that goes into housing planning, I immediately thought about the viral rant from Spike Lee last month, when he talked about gentrification. For those of you who haven’t heard the rant yet, the link is attached (Note: the audio and transcript are both expletive-filled, so the audio is NSFW). This rant provides an interesting, personal take on the downfalls of gentrification, and the importance housing policy has on a neighborhood.

Spike Lee in 2012 (Source: José Cruz/ABr via Wikimedia Commons)

Spike Lee in 2012
(Source: José Cruz/ABr via Wikimedia Commons)

Levy notes that “through the mechanisms of cost, one pattern of housing may favor racial integration whereas another will favor racial segregation.” He goes on further to say that the formation “of the ‘urban underclass’ is in part due to prolonged, large-scale unemployment in urban areas. Thus decisions about housing policy effect what many regard as one of America’s most pressing social problems.” Housing policy plays a huge role in the make-up of a community, as policies can try to encourage certain types of people to move in while discouraging others. This can clearly be done depending on the types of housing units that are planned. For example, discouraging low-income, affordable housing in one area for upscale, loft style apartments can greatly restrict the amount of racial integration of a neighborhood. Without incorporating things like mixed-income housing, that area will be highly homogeneous. This greatly impacts a poorer and usually minority population. These ideas relate to the notion of gentrification, which is a term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, often at the cost of displacing poorer residents.

Gentrification seems something that most cities would want to strive for, as this can be used for increasing their economic outlook, but this often occurs at the cost of the history and culture of neighborhoods. Lee’s argument, while largely based on a few personal experiences, makes some interesting points that should at the very least start a debate on the pros-vs.-cons of gentrification. He really attacks the influx of white residents in areas of Brooklyn that were traditionally high-minority residents.Spike Lee refers to loss of culture as the “Christopher Columbus Syndrome”, where white people are moving into historically black neighborhoods (example: Brooklyn) and changing the culture of these towns. In places like Brooklyn, cultural aspects that have reflected the historical black population for the last century are being hampered and changed into things that are more culturally acquiescent to the newly moving in whites. Lee uses an example of music playing in a park to show how culture is being eroded. He uses the example of  of Mount Morris Park, where for 40 years the playing of African drums can be heard on the weekends, and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums were too loud.

Example of gentrification: 2nd Ave Deli, a local fixture that opened in 1954 in the East Village, moved in 2006. Now there's a Chase bank there.  (Source: James and Karla Murray via Huffington Post)

Example of gentrification: 2nd Ave Deli, a local fixture that opened in 1954 in the East Village, moved in 2006. Now there’s a Chase bank there.
(Source: James and Karla Murray via Huffington Post)

Breaking down his argument to its core, it’s a resistant to change: the changing of the cultural identity of a neighborhood can be in conflict with the historical composition of the neighborhood. There is more to this change than just cultural aspects, however, as by forcing certain people out of an area changes the economic landscape. Businesses are forced out, and with that, cornerstones to blocks and streets are eroded away.  The Huffington Post offered a very good visual representation of this effect of gentrification. Throughout the photos, like the one on the left, mom-and-pop stores get forced out and changed into branches of larger companies or chain restaurants. I have nothing against banks and ATMs, as they provide important services, but what does a Chase bank bring to the culture of this neighborhood? It is replacing a local fixture that has been around for half-a-century, and provides a resource much more important than just sandwiches: the Deli provides a link back to the history of the neighborhood. I understand that economic forces take place and dictate what types of development and businesses grow, but I think that historic institutions need to be given more reverence. By just replacing links to the past with big-box retailers and chain restaurants, we are crafting cookie-cutter streets, with zero personality. Neighborhoods try to attract higher-income residents by catering to their needs, often times at the expense of  people who have lived in an area for decades.

I understand and empathize with Spike’s argument. By crafting policies that aim to just increase the financial stability of an area, non-tangible things (like culture) are lost.   Gentrification does not have to be bad for the culture of an area. Policy-makers just need to work on integrating neighborhoods better. The successful mixing of higher-income residents with lower-income residents, as well as different racial groups, can make streets more vibrant. Think about the amount of culture and history that can be shared between the two groups, and proper intermingling can be blended into new and interesting experiences. Whether gentrification is a good force or a bad one is still up for debate. At the very least, Spike Lee’s rant on the subject should get an unpleasant, but important, conversation started.