Historic Preservation: Maintaining the City’s Character for the Elite

"Caucasian Invasion", by Specter

Extremely diverse since the 17th century, Williamsburg has hosted residences and businesses belonging to a myriad of European immigrants. A mecca for industry, the area was flooded after the construction of the Williamsburg bridge and later a series of public housing projects. Over the past century, a new type of immigrant flocked to Brooklyn—artists and creative individuals—taking advantage of affordability and potential studio space. More recently, areas like Williamsburg have seen tremendous development; influx of business and bourgeois culture as the upper class seeks to attain cultural capital from the area’s historical hipness. Once a bohemian sect of New York brimming with innovation and creativity, Brooklyn’s fleeting authenticity is being replaced with trite enterprise.

Rampant gentrification throughout Brooklyn attracts mostly young upper class, white people while displacing local people and business, which are succeeded by bougie and commonplace establishments: Starbucks, Soul Cycle, trendy cupcake and frozen yogurt chains. Brooklyn’s authentic nature, thought to be a neighborhood ally to local business, is being threatened by corporate competition. Authentic, locally owned restaurants, bars, and stores are being replaced by chain stores like Rag & Bone and J. Crew—which commissioned artists to side the store in cheesy, themed graffiti. This leaves Brooklyn as “‘unaffordable,’ even for ‘normal, middle-class people with good credit’” (Higgins). While we condemn the “selling out” to become a capital for bourgeois consumption, we often forget the dire social and economic ramifications of gentrification.

While post-war gentrifiers often intend on achieving authenticity, diversity and progressive liberalism, the neighborhoods they enter incur “yuppified urban theme park of chic restaurants and boutiques and a myopic white-collar not-in-my-backyard (nimby) attitude.” The profile of a gentrifier is comprised by “white-collar, middle-class professionals or urban hipsters” who, between World War II and the 1980s, displaced former residents and local culture as they preserved the architectural integrity of brownstone Brooklyn.

Row houses on Park Place, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.

In a speech given at Pratt Institute in February, director and New York native Spike Lee discussed the alarming increase in gentrification occurring throughout Brooklyn. In some parts there has been an astounding 29.6% increase in white population from 2000 to 2010. Scathingly critical of new residents abiding by an affluent, homogenous, white-collar lifestyle, Lee notes that only once white people moved into lower income neighborhoods was there pressure—which received immediate response—to improve public services like education standards and police protection in areas where minorities had been living for decades. Comparing local parks to the Westminster Dog Show, Lee notes the specific conveniences that come with gentrification and attracts affluent white people, like prep schools and upscale chain stores. For example, The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights “becoming more of a New York City school located in Brooklyn than a Brooklyn school” is attracting privileged, white Manhattanites—who, for the past four years, have composed over 50% of incoming freshman. The sought after Brooklyn identity is being watered down as more mainstream, affluent people flock to developments.

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Bedford Historic District Proposal

The Bed-Stuy neighborhood, while having endured crime, drugs, poverty and neglect in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, has remained one of America’s most historic concentrations of  African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans. Rows of 19th & 20th century brownstones and townhouses designed by renowned architects are a part of the area’s rich history and charm. Efforts to preserve the architectural integrity of the neighborhood through the creation of a Bedford Historic District has become a local controversy. Press reports revealed hundreds of letters were submitted in favor of the proposal; however,  only 37 letters were submitted by district property owners. Preservation of a historic district has routinely invited a degree of gentrification. Opponents of the proposal fear a designation would prompt increased renovation expenses, higher rent and home costs, and a muddle of codes and restrictions dictating how homeowners can improve their properties. All of which would lead to the displacement of residents, largely low-income minorities, who have lived here for generations. This proposal would decide who gets access to the city, as the median income in designated historic districts is higher than average, therefore only a specific class could afford the heightened property values and related costs.

Brooklyn has 4 zip codes in the top-25 fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the US. Courtesy of Property Shark.

This issue extends beyond Starbucks replacing your favorite local cafe. The politics that force the onset of gentrification also instill systematic discrimination within the city. Kirsten John Foy, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Action Network stated that the proposal will “benefit the architectural elite who happen to follow the workings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and who share its objective and economic interest that are very different from the majority of the residents and homeowners in the community.” Foy, a staunch advocate for racial justice, takes a stand against the political tactics that discriminate and destroy minority neighborhoods.
Circumstances like this have yielded urban access and equality issues throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Pre-gentrification residents likely “constitute a different ethnic and racial community” and “have consumption patterns of a lower social class” (Zurkin 133). When these “pre-gentrification residents mobilize to defend a neighborhood” with gentrifiers through restoration of the “historic community,” they aid in the process that increases property values, leading to their own displacement. Historic preservation can be a vehicle for constituting a “new urban elite.” The economic repercussions, which benefit the upper class and business, widen the already disparaging wealth gap. Gentrification’s displacement is a major contributor to homelessness, and while it may benefit a select group, the impact of gentrification subsequently creates immense societal issues.
Since the 1960s, the consequential economic restructuring due to the process has been concerned with corporate presence in metropolitan areas, as the city is restructured to suit corporate needs. Urban, social and political changes throughout the second half of the twentieth century were heavily influenced by business, as headquarters for white-collar work physically separate themselves from manufacturing and blue collar workers, relocating to city centers for the proximity to amenities suiting its status. The corporate influence of gentrification is pervasive, constructing new middle-class consumption patterns as historic preservation and renovation encourages the investment of “time and money into a quasi-bourgeois habitus,” benefitting corporate culture (Zurkin).

“Historic Preservation” seemingly has positive connotations: maintaining the beauty and history of a neighborhood, preventing demolition and destruction of celebrated architectural craftsmanship, keeping a sense of community. Only these attributes are advertised as the effects of historic preservation, however, the process and designation is a vehicle for politicians and the elite to employ systematic racism and classism and change demographics of these areas to benefit white culture. Most often people hear “historic preservation” and blindly support it, thinking the objective is to protect a neighborhood, yet a under more scrutiny, these proposals garner support to erase generations of ethnic history.

Moreover, the inequality due to gentrification is deeply rooted in corporate culture—promoting gentrification is their interest as it generates consumption of mass-produced products from mega corporations and chain franchises. This, along with real estate development in advantageous areas, prompts the influx of bourgeois culture, in turn attracting more gentrifiers. The severity of gentrification far surpasses a question of “authenticity,” historic preservation is used as a tool for ethnic cleansing. Gentrification through political action inhibits minorities to live in areas unjustly claimed by affluent opportunists.


Works Cited

Krasovic, Mark. “The Invention Of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification And The Search For Authenticity In Postwar New York.” Journal Of American History 98.4 (2012): 1213-1214. Professional Development Collection. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Zukin, Sharon. “Gentrification: Culture and Capital in the Urban Core.” Annual Review of Sociology 13.No. (1987): 129-47. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

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