chapter  2
18 Pages

Is Gentrification a Dirty Word?

On the morning of December 23, 1985, New York Times readers awoke to find the most prestigious advertising spot in their morning paper taken up by an editorial advert in praise of gentrification. Some years earlier the newspaper had begun to sell the bottom right quarter of its Opinion Page to the Mobil Corporation, which used it to extol the social and cultural merits of organized global capitalism. By the mid-1980s, with the New York real estate market ablaze, gentrification was increasingly understood as a threat to people’s rents, housing and communities, and the Mobil Corporation no longer had an exclusive claim to the purchased ideological ink of the Times’ Opinion Page. It was “The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc.” which now purchased the space in order to bring a defense of gentrification to the citizens of New York. “There are few words in a New Yorker’s vocabulary that are as emotionally loaded as ‘gentrification’” the advert began. Gentrification means different things to different people, the Real Estate Board conceded, but “In simple terms, gentrification is the upgrading of housing and retail businesses in a neighborhood with an influx generally of private investment.” It is a contributor to the diversity, the great mosaic of the city, the advert suggested; “neighborhoods and lives blossom.” If a modicum of displacement inevitably results from a neighborhood’s private market “rehabilitation,” suggests the Board, “We believe” that it “must be dealt with with public policies that promote low-and moderate-income housing construction and rehabilitation, and in zoning revisions that permit retail uses in less expensive, side street locations.” It concludes: “We also believe that New York’s best hope lies with families, businesses and lending institutions willing to commit themselves for the long haul to neighborhoods that need them. That’s gentrification.” This was an astonishing declaration, not so much for the predictable ideological tones of what it said but for the fact that it was said at all. How did it come about that the very powerful Real Estate Board of New York, Inc.—the professional lobby for the city’s largest real estate developers, a kind of chamber of commerce for promoting real estate interests-found itself in such a defensive position that it had to take out an advertisement in the Times for the purpose of trying to redefine one of its major preoccupations? How had gentrification become such a contested issue that its proponents had to summon the full ideological complement of “family” and the private market in its defense?