new internationalist issue 178 - December 1987

Bowery blues
Baby boomers are on the move: once dead city centres are springing back to life all over North America and Europe. Even New York's Bowery district has felt the force of gentrification. Beverly Cheuvront reports on the dangers of overdevelopment in New York City.

Diners at Buster's Waterfront Crab-house in New York's Bowery district find it disturbing to dig into their $30 lobster dinner while watching a derelict rummage around on the sidewalk outside. So disturbing in fact that restaurant owner Sharon Ash launched a campaign to rid her neighbourhood of the homeless vagrants who hang out on the block and intimidate her customers.

Ten years ago it would have been a different story: after all the Bowery gave the English language a synonym for down-and-out. Now Manhattan's spiralling real-estate market is making even this refuge for derelicts desirable. And newcomers like Ash are not happy about sharing the streets with long-time residents.

'These people are animals,' Ash says. 'They should be moved to neighbourhoods not as built-up as this one.'

Ash's 'trendy Bowery bar' is just one example of 'gentrification' - a process that is sweeping through Manhattan and other old industrial cities on the American east coast.

It is a word that has become commonplace in New York as older run-down neighbourhoods are invaded by armies of real estate agents and upper income professionals. As they settle in with their BMWs and designer track shoes, low-income residents get pushed out. They double-up or triple-up with friends or relatives - or they wind up on the streets and in homeless shelters.

Gentrification is fueled by government policy that offers tax breaks and incentives to private investors. But a severe housing shortage has also prompted affluent people to move to neighbourhoods considered slums a few years ago. At the same time it's difficult for those displaced to find affordable housing.

Thousands of cheap apartments have gone up in smoke due to arson and hundreds have been let go to ruin by landlords. In addition, Washington has slashed federal housing funds so few new low-income apartments are being built. Instead existing flats are being converted to privately owned co-ops and condominiums.

Since 1984, 80,000 apartments have been converted and only 8,000 new ones created - most of those at the upper end of the market. To make matters worse thousands of additional units are being 'warehoused' - held off the market while landlords plan conversions.

Meanwhile, the city-wide vacancy rate for rental apartments hovers at just two per cent. For families on welfare the rate drops to .05 per cent.

The end result is a widening gulf between rich and poor, between whites and racial minorities. One recent study reports that 78.8 percent of New York City's 1.7 million poor are Black or Hispanic. As more and more impoverished families join the ranks of the displaced and homeless, social-service agencies predict a volatile new generation of alienated, angry black and Hispanic young people.

As the gentrifiers put a pretty new face on old New York, the social fabric of the city is being seriously torn. Landlords are pitted against tenants, affluent newcomers against low-income residents and upscale boutiques against 'mom and pop' stores.

In fact gentrification has become a dirty word in New York. Officials prefer to call it 'reinvestment.' They point with pride to the smart, new look it has brought to the city's deteriorated housing stock. A city-backed 1984 study of two gentrified neighbourhoods, Manhattan's Upper West Side and Brooklyn's Park Slope, found 'private reinvestment improved housing conditions, stemmed deterioration and strengthened neighbourhood commercial areas.' The report conveniently shrugged off the effects on residents forced to relocate. The study also opposed controls to protect small businesses unable to pay upscale rents.

Mayor Ed Koch expressed his administration's position succinctly: 'If people can t afford to live in a neighbourhood, they shouldn't be there.'

Planner Ron Shiffman says gentrification is in some ways a side issue. 'The real issue is displacement and the destruction of communities,' he stresses. 'Overinvestment (gentrification) and underinvestment are part of the same destructive process.'

Adds Shiffman: 'Cities like New York don't concentrate on improving things for people already there - by providing training, education and more suitable jobs. Instead, the goal is to simply replace them with a higher income group.

The city has taken some steps to inhibit gentrification. But Housing Commissioner Paul Crotty maintains the city can't fight market forces. With rents rapidly escalating and with half the city earning $15,000 or less annually, he sees displacement as inevitable. 'I wish somebody would tell me how you stop market forces from operating in that kind of environment,' he laments.

City councillor Ruth Messinger says 'the city fuels real estate speculation by being overly ready to modify zoning in precisely those areas of most interest to developers:

Take the Clinton district west of Times Square - once known as 'Hell's Kitchen'. When well-heeled residents began moving into this pocket of working-class Irish, Italians and Hispanics, speculators went into a kind of feeding frenzy. They were so eager to shove out low-income tenants that they set fire to their buildings, hired gangs to beat up tenants and rented apartments to drug addicts and prostitutes to make the buildings uninhabitable.

The city itself is New York's largest landlord with 5,600 tax-foreclosed residential buildings. Frequently it has paved the way for developers in marginal communities, like the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, by offering these buildings (sometimes with subsidies) to private developers. In Harlem, where property prices are on the rise, the city warehouses its apartments for future development - even while would-be 'homesteaders' and non-profit community groups beg for buildings for low-income housing.

Says Ruth Messinger: 'The city is reluctant to act on the side of the tenants. That makes it easier for landlords to evict tenants, easier to warehouse empty apartments. The city is convinced the job of government is to encourage private investment, then get out of the way so it can proceed.'

Who benefits from gentrification? Apartment buildings and stores are in better shape, there is no doubt about that. The new property owners, the landlords and the speculators make out handsomely. But what about the others, the regular folk that have to pull up stakes and move on? They don't seem to figure into the equation.

'Short-term benefits go to the builders and developers who make the profits,' agrees Ruth Messinger. 'But the entire quality of city life is threatened by overdevelopment.'

While city officials and real estate magnates direct the development of New York's communities, the results of their strategies are played out in hundreds of neighbourhoods across the city. Ugly confrontations are on the rise. Middle-class newcomers like Sharon Ash are determined to protect their investments, their renovated 'lofts' and upscale businesses, in neighbourhoods like the Bowery.

And the odds are in her favor - the Bowery will likely become a boutique community. The have-nots will drift on to another neighbourhood and bide their time - waiting for the speculators.

Beverly Cheuvront is editor of City Limits, a magazine focusing on housing in New York City.

A face-to-face look at New York's homeless epidemic.

If you're an average member of the middle-class it's easy to dismiss the homeless as social pariahs - people who just haven't got what it takes to make it.

A visit to the South Manhattan family shelter would quickly change your mind. This is one of the places where families, mostly led by single mothers, come to find a place in New York's badly overcrowded temporary shelter system. Most of the faces are women of colour.

Take Beverly for example: she is an Hispanic woman with five children. Beverly used to live in Harlem until the dangerous streets, deterorating conditions and spiralling rents drove her out. She left her home but she still has her self-respect and today she's fighting mad.

She has been in the intake unit for 48 hours because she refuses to let the welfare bureaucrats push her into the Martinique, a midtown welfare hotel.

'I've been there before, five years ago,' she says. 'There was rats, roaches, robbery and rape. There are holes in the wall this big. The halls are just shooting galleries (for addicts). That's no place for my kids.'

Beverly tried 'doubling up', a stopgap for many of the homeless, by moving in with her sister's family.

'But I could tell from the start it wasn't going to work. When fighting started in the little apartment I picked up the kids and brought them down here. And I'm going to stay until they find me a decent place.'

But that won't be easy in New York's hyperinflated real-estate market. According to Beth Gorrie of the Coalition for the Homeless there are 28,000 places in New York's system and between 60,000 and 80,000 homeless.

A further 100,000 people live with friends or family. Others sleep in the subways, under park benches and bridges or even in the waiting room of Grand Central Station.

Like Beverly the homeless are not all that different from the rest of us. Many of them hold down jobs but can't afford exorbitant New York rents on their low wages. The average Chinese or Puerto Rican woman working in the garment industry makes about $8,000 a year.

The Homeless Coalition says 50 per cent of renters in New York make under $15,000. And that doesn't go very far when a modest one-bedroom apartment can easily bring in $800 a month rent. When Beth Gorrie first started working in soup kitchens she was surprised by the number of 'matron-like, quite respectable older women who clung to their outward appearance for both camouflage and self-respect.'

The policies of the Reagan administration have greatly aggravated homelessness in the US - federal funding for low-income housing was cut to 67 per cent of its 1978 level. It now takes as long as 20 years to get to the top of the New York City public housing list. Beverly and her five kids may have a long wait at the South Manhattan intake unit.