Race and Gender After Gentrification
I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which has historically been considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City. My parents never let me walk around the neighborhood alone when I was growing up. My dad always felt nervous about my mother coming home on the train too late at night and, as I got older, he worried about my safety, too. I’ve always been scared to go home alone at night and have always been afraid of men on the street and what they are capable of (especially as I began to experience more and more street harassment as I grew older).
Yet despite this, I’ve only begun to consider the safety (or lack thereof) of my neighborhood in recent years as my neighborhood has begun to evolve due to gentrification. I have become less afraid, but was unsure about what has made me feel safer. I have recently come to suspect that racial power dynamics, as well as my own internalized racism, are central to this decreased fear.
Many of my neighbors see gentrification as a racially based improvement: many attribute the decreased gang violence and increased police presence to the influx of white residents. But, in terms of violence, I don’t think white people directly correlate with safety -- I looked up the crime statistics for neighborhoods around New York and the most crime actually happens in Manhattan, where the majority of residents are white. And, honestly the police’s presence in Bed Stuy has never made me feel more comfortable -- in fact, I regularly see them racially profiling black men in the neighborhood and, in terms of complaints made to the police, I’m fairly certain white people mostly complain to the police about black people in the neighborhood.
The issue of safety, gentrification and race is more complex than the story we’re usually told – that white people’s presence alone creates safer neighborhoods. I may have bought into this myth, because of my own internalized racism and struggle to identify as a black person. I never doubted being a person of color, but growing up my parents told me that I had Black, Native American, Scottish and Irish blood. My family's culture was not like many of the other black families I grew up around and my classmates thought I was either white or Dominican in elementary school. Because I never physically fit society’s stereotypical understanding of a “black person”, because my peers didn’t regard me that way, I figured as a child that I just could not be Black, plain and simple.
As I got older and went to more diverse schools with very progressive philosophies, I honestly stopped thinking about race altogether because the idea made me uncomfortable. I said I was black when people asked me what race I was because that’s what my parents had told me to say, but struggled to define blackness for myself.
This ingrained racism was evident to me when, coming home late from friends’ houses in wealthier areas of the city, I realized I felt safe until the moment the train passed the Clinton-Washington stop -- the exact moment that the remainder of white people would usually filter off the train and I’d officially be in my neighborhood, Bed Stuy. I felt an instinct to pay closer attention to my surroundings and stay alert. I racially profiled black men and considered them more dangerous than white men. I would note them, then count the women around me. I made sure to look like I knew exactly where I was going and was at the front of the crowd so I couldn’t be cornered. I used to think that this was just a gender issue, but I now see that race and racism absolutely played into it as well.
I always thought that I didn’t believe in stereotypes because I’ve known people from all different races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and have made it a personal value to keep an open mind and recognize the complexity of individuals. But I do feel like there are stereotypical images about our blackness that we buy into in the black community. The black woman has to be strong and resilient, she cannot show weakness even in the hardest of times. The black man is supposed to protect, to defend what is his and to stand up to anyone he perceives to be a threat or a challenge. We tend to want to keep the black community as a safety net. This is why not calling the cops on someone is sort of an unspoken rule on the block -- police usually do not help the situation, so the problem stays within the community.
And yet we do this in a country that seems to constantly be trying to find a solution to us -- our community is considered a “situation” which, in turn, teaches us to always be on guard. This is why it is hard not to feel dubious of gentrification: it threatens to find a “solution” to black people in our own communities. There’s a huge difference between getting a few new neighbors and getting the feeling that we are being pushed out of the place where we’ve lived for generations. Many people have been bombarded with phone calls and mail from real estate companies trying to buy our homes from us and it feels like our communities are shrinking.
According to Merriam-Webster, to gentrify is “to change (a place, such as an old neighborhood) by improving it and making it more appealing to people who have money.” This definition may not directly address race, yet, as I've explained, race and racism have been essential to my experience with gentrification. Gentrification implies that being white, or the influx of white people with money specifically, improves a neighborhood -- that the squeaky clean, corporate corner store, for example, is indisputably better than the family-run bodega with the old neighborhood favorite $0.25 icees. And it's true: I have noticed that since Bed Stuy has undergone gentrification the streets are cleaner, the drugstores more organized and corner stores better stocked in my neighborhood. But my white neighbors have also detrimentally ignored established aspects of our culture: some neighbors brought pets that have caused health and noise issues and others have called the police with noise complaints whenever any type of event is held.
It's undeniable that gentrification changes the culture of every neighborhood it touches to some degree. Whether or not this is an improvement, though, is still questionable to me. While I might feel safer in some ways because of some of the effects of gentrification, it seems there's also cultural and community-based prices, wrapped up in racism both inflicted and internalized, to pay for that different conception of safety, and I'm not yet convinced that it's worth it.
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