I am a brown person. I am biracial (African-American and white), but others often see me as Latina. I currently live in an area of Harlem where the dominant language is Spanish. On the outside I blend in more than I ever have in my entire life. When I walk through my neighborhood, people assume I am one of them. When I go into the grocery store, people speak Spanish to me (reminding me how shortsighted I was not to learn Spanish in school), and tourists stop to ask me for directions because I look like I should know my way around.
In spite of appearances, and in spite of the fact that I love my neighborhood for the escape from anxiety-riddled downtown that it provides, I know I don't belong. I am a gentrifier. I am one of the people living in a completely renovated, more-expensive unit in an apartment building filled with mostly older, rent-controlled units.
I frequently find myself wondering about my place in my neighborhood, and about gentrification generally. I understand the arguments in favor of gentrification: better grocers, more attention from the city, greater safety, better schools, etc. But as Spike Lee recently pointed out, it should not take gentrification for these changes to happen. Gentrification does not mean discovery; as Spike put it, "People already live here." Although the rent prices in the rest of the city tell me that Harlem is where I belong, I can't help but wonder whether my presence adds to the problem of gentrification.
So what happens when a kid like me moves into an existing community like Harlem? Granted, I do not come from wealth, and I live in Harlem first and foremost because it is where I can afford to live as a 24-year-old supporting myself. I have a salaried job because I graduated from a great university, and I'm lucky. That is the only reason I can afford my rent. If I ever fall and need to work as a waitress or bartender, I will have to move somewhere else. I can't shake my discomfort with the knowledge that when the rent-control period runs out, some of the people in my building will be forced out if they can't pay the rent I pay. I also see Columbia University creeping up higher and higher into Harlem with its Hamilton Heights expansion, and I know what that means for my neighborhood: even more change.
When I tell people back home in Texas, or even my friends in downtown Manhattan, that I live in Harlem, there is always an initial recoil and a kind of wide-eyed admiration. I know this stems solely from ignorance. (People living in New York City have told me they've "always wanted to go to Harlem," even though it is a 15-minute train ride away.) People fear what they don't know. Well, I know this neighborhood now, and while I'm still trying to find ways to integrate myself further, I already recognize the cultural, community, and humankind gold mine that is a neighborhood before gentrification. People say hello to each other. People know each other. They take pride in establishing businesses that have nothing to do with American chains and everything to do with their own culture. The thought of that being pushed out of Harlem, out of New York, terrifies me.
What is the benefit of gentrification? Nicer apartments? More money for big realty and business? That is not worth it to me. What is worth it, what has been worth it for me, is forcing gentrifiers to learn the skill of adaptation. When I first moved into the building, the (very good) opera singer I could hear across the way used to bother me, but now she lulls me to sleep. The sound of kids running back and forth in hallways at 10 p.m. used to drive me crazy (and I found myself questioning the parenting), but now it mostly makes me chuckle as I listen to the developing little humans living next door.
I think what is lost with gentrification is the opportunity for us to learn how to proceed with our new America. Our "melting pot" of a country has always been more of a tossed salad, with different groups staying separate from one another but in the same bowl. Why can't we learn to live with one another instead of in place of one another? Why does white people (or educated brown people) moving in have to mean current residents moving out? This is our chance to change. If wealthy individuals want to live in Fort Greene, how cool would it be for them to make friends with their neighbors living in housing projects across the street? If I live in Harlem, why can't more of my friends move up here without the dynamics of the community transforming completely?
I don't know all the answers here; in fact, I don't really know any. All I know is what I've learned from my place as a new member of a well-established community.