Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn (pg 1-44)

Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn pg. 1-44


In the introduction, the author – Judith N. DeSena – wastes no time in explaining the main focus of the book. This book is the product of qualitative research in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on gentrification and inequality in this neighborhood. It focuses on the working class community and those who have entered during gentrification, and social class distinctions in a changing community. She goes on by explaining that Greenpoint is just another orderly neighborhood in Brooklyn, with people who engage in “parallel play” interacting with one another while engaged with their own group and life activities. Greenpoint as neighborhood works in a way where tensions and disagreements are negotiated and people learn to work things out to some conclusion. These are neighborhoods where people from different cultures, lifestyles, religions, etc. learn about one another and slowly integrate habits of another group into their own lives. DeSena illustrates this through the urban culturalist perspective - “there is a relationship between culture and places in which shared meanings get constructed, negotiated, and reworked. Neighborhoods are places in which ways of life are constantly negotiated and continually changing”. (3) She continues by looking at how New York City creates an environment where dialogue is forced among people regardless of dissimilarities where they cannot completely avoid each other, and there seems to be a process of homogenization occurring. People from different social classes engage and connect in everyday life. The residents make accommodations from the gentry because of the high rent they bring, and influx of growth that come with them. In many ways, many factors seem to trump social class, like mothering, children, and increased revenue and business.
DeSena plans to study this neighborhood using a different approach – she plans on challenging the urban cultural approach by suggesting that class, not culture, is the more critical variable in the lives of ordinary people. “Being unequal makes us different, even if we appear to act the same and to get along”. (6) DeSena, through this book, will be showing the reader how gentry and working class are exhibited side by side - sometimes in conflict because of social class differences. This book focuses on how social class differences lead to the creation and maintenance of parallel cultures within the neighborhood of Greenpoint. As well as, looking at the process of gentrification by uncovering the underlying tensions and power dynamics that exist in this neighborhood as gentrifiers develop into the dominant group of a previously stable, working class community, and is ultimately, moves toward a complete transition by social class.

Chapter 1 – Gentrification, Segregation, and Negotiation in the City

In this study, unlike earlier studies, examines gentrifying families. It is done by focusing on the positions taken by gentrifiers and long-term residents regarding each group's connection to and participation in the local community. In the end, this book arrives at theory – arguing simply put – that gentrification creates greater social inequality. She discusses Burgess and his view that neighborhood changes includes a process of invasion and succession of groups of people who vary socially and culturally. She focuses on the “reaction” stage – in which the existing population responds to the newcomers. His model is bases on ethnic and racial transition in neighborhoods. However, Greenpoint has maintained a majority white population. Yet, now it is experiencing a transition of social class. This book also focuses on community activism and the long history of community organization and activism and Greenpoint's high degree of social capital.
This study was done over many years through intensive qualitative research. The author has spent over 30 year studying this community and has written three books analyzing it. The research style was unobtrusive and included formal interviews, moving in and out of assorted local settings.
Research on gentrification focuses on the causes and consequences of the urban process. She quickly reviews the ecological theory and the critical theory. The ecological theory examines the needs, tastes, and desires of populations, which are responsible for precipitating neighborhood change in the form of gentrification. Looking at the contributing factors that lead to gentrification like housing. Critical theory views the causes of gentrification as stemming from actions of the political economy; most importantly the investments of capital and the policies of state. All the different views come together to document the benefits and cost of this process on the local community. Other then housing, most areas of how this process effects everyday life is highly underrepresented. She hopes to fill this gap by examining the process of gentrification, looking at the past into the current through interactions of the locals and the gentrifiers as they compete for a neighborhood. (DeSena also briefly examines feminist theories and the lives of the women in Greenpoint).
Greenpoint is a very attractive neighborhood and one which, through gentrification, has changed in many ways. One of the impacts of this is the common struggle between the locals and the newcomers. They are segregated in many ways. The gentrifiers segregate themselves by having a manner of entitlement to the neighborhood and impose their lifestyle and public practices on the locals instead of adapting to the communities way of life. There is a clash of lifestyle and social norms based on social class. In many ways the locals resist change, and the newcomers welcome it. Although gentrification is normally viewed as a positive process, it disrupts peoples lives, and has the ability to displace people and create economic struggles.

Chapter 2 – The Neighborhood of Greenpoint

Greenpoint is an area that has a long history that included tight knit community and a small town feel. It has also attracted gentrification due to its character. The neighborhood was purchases in 1638. And, since then has gone through many changes such as going from being an isolated community to becoming part of the city of Brooklyn. It has has a large industrial economy based on shipbuilding, jute mills, oil refineries, and manufacturing wares. Residential and shopping areas were developed to meet the needs of workers. Most of the housing was built before World War II. It is very aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. It is also an area with a great deal of beautiful, mostly catholic, churches. Rent has experienced a drastic increase over the years, and especially since gentrification began to take place and continues to rise. Lately, there has been a boom in the building of condominiums.
Greenpoint has a long history of social activism and community organization which has maintained a high level of social capital. Mobilization is likely to take place in Greenpoint if the community feels it is necessary. The community also has a long history of advocacy efforts. There are numerous social spaces and community services for member of the society to take part in including organizations, groups, churches, and antipoverty programs. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act also helped facilitate this strength in community organization and activism. With CETA came a $3 million dollar contract and 295 paid jobs. However, these programs ended up running on low funds and fundraisers. CETA workers were made up of community organizations and residents who were paid to participate in community actions. This unified the home, community, and work enabling people to organize around local issues that were important to them. They later forged a union that allowed for ongoing strategizing and mobilization around neighborhood improvements. There is the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Coalition of Community Organizations which was a consortium of organizations capitalizing on the existence of the CETA organizations and their large complex staff that works on community issues. This only adds to the spirit of activism in the community of Greenpoint. The local community is always working on fixing issues; however, lately, since gentrification has begun, it seems that changes are occurring more swiftly. It is funny however – as gentrification continues, more community organizations are formed. However, instead of the newcomers taking part in the communities original organizations, they are creating their own. It is clear that over time, Greenpoint is changing from a busy working class area to a place for the affluent and creative. This transition is having numerous negative impacts for those who have lived there for many years or most of their lives. Still, Greenpoint is on its way to becoming a community that supports a global economy – it is close to NYC, and has an easy commute to work. It is becoming a prime location for those who can no longer afford to live in Manhattan.

Chapter 3 – Neighborhood Demographics and Change

Like most urban neighborhoods, Greenpoint has changed numerous times throughout its history. However, as stated before, in many ways it has resisted change. (Race) This chapter looks at the neighborhood's demographics at two different points in time to reflect the changes and lack of changes that have occurred – 1980 and 2000. According to DeSena, this span of time allows for the analysis of social change leading to gentrification in the neighborhood of Greenpoint.
Social Characteristics: Green point has always been known as a white, working class neighborhood. In 1980, 44 percent of the population was high school graduates, and 61 percent of NYC residents had high school degrees. It was behind in education, below the average. The income was also below average for the city, and occupations were mostly in the technical and sales occupations and had most employees in the private sector, while most Brooklyn workers were government workers. Since gentrification, population has increased, there were few changes in the racial profile of the neighborhood, 31% of residents have bachelors degrees or higher, managers and professionals are the largest group in occupations, and all these characteristics combined are indicators supporting the development of a gentrifying neighborhood. In terms of housing in 2000, rent is becoming less and less affordable. There has been a 50% increase in rent from 1997 to 2002. Rent is, quite literally, “skyrocketing”.
It was clear to many that Greenpoint was a neighborhood ripe for gentrification since 1970. It has numerous characteristics which make it a prime location for gentrification to take place. It is close to Manhattan. It is an organized community which high social capital. There is low crime, and the housing stock was attractive and promise. It was also relatively affordable within a global city. Of course many would want to move to this neighborhood as rent increases in Manhattan and many are looking for more affordable housing. Many people were actually interested in attracting gentrifiers to Greenpoint. This was mainly done out of self-interest by property owned knowing that it would allow them to increase rent, raise property value, and make a lucrative amount of money compared to before. Those who could afford the housing were normally white with high paying jobs. In many ways they were adding to the segregation in their everyday lives. In order to put Greenpoint on the map, they worked are to make it visible and attract more affluent groups than the working class currently there. One strategy they used was through historic preservation – this helped resist racial change, and it contributed to gentrification. Landmark designation has succeeded in attracting the desired newcomers as homeowners and renters.
Although home owners worked hard at maintaining a mostly white population, they have also helped those who are not white enter the neighborhood through sponsorship from someone else, or illegal loft living which comes with a high risk of losing housing and investments put into that living space. This is how many white genrifiers entered Greenpoint without much issue. However, many white property owners are okay with this change because those who gentrify tend to be white and be able to pay more for rent than the current residents of the neighborhood. Although the neighborhood was able to avoid racial change, they were not prepared for change due to social class, especially the increase of people from affluent and elite classes. Many are unable to afford rent in the neighborhood they have spent all or most of their lives in. Gentrification is a major threat to the future viability of ethnic, working class, and low-income neighborhoods.

Chapter 4 – Gentrification in Everyday Life

As sociologists, we know (or should know) that everyday life is embedded in our field. Everyday life is something we experience, examine, and study all the time. Goffman believed that our everyday actions in one sense can be viewed as theater, where we are either in public on stage or in private backstage. We, perform onstage, so those around us view as we wish them to and as we are expected to be viewed, what we do in our private life is about being oneself. Smith's theory was focused on the everyday lives of women. Haywood, added another stage to Goffman's analysis – community. She argues that community is located between public and private. It serves as a middle-ground where the public and private world meet social expectations and are negotiated. DeSena is focusing on the informal interactions among neighbors and residents of those in Greenpoint. She examines clashing social norms between the local residents and the gentrifiers that took place while living together in Greenpoint. Ultimately, we see that the newcomers “exhibit a lack of deference toward established ways of life”. (38)
Bicycles: With the newcomers came an increase in the number of bikes and those who use them as transportation around the city. With that came an abundance of bikes being left chained to trees, gates, fences, poles, and the like. Local residents found this incredibly annoying and disrespectful. They would leave notes on the bikes, call the police to have them removed, take part in verbal altercations, and be worried of being sued if someone got hurt due to the bike being left on their property. To the locals, bikes were something that were kept put away inside somewhere, not left on their property as inconvenient decorations and hazards. As well as aesthetically displeasing. The newcomers see it as a way of life however, and had little regard for where they were leaving their bikes. They did not understand why it was such a big deal, and in the process were incredibly rude and arrogant about their actions without care. These “depictions are of clashing cultures stemming from class struggle”. (39) Locals are trying to maintain their neighborhood, while the newcomers seek to change their ways or local culture to suit their needs and desires.
Noise: This is another issue. Greenpoint is typically a quiet neighborhood. We are all aware of the typical street noise of Brooklyn which becomes simply background noise. We adjust to it and almost are unaware of it. However, newcomers have brought issues concerning noise in Greenpoint. The local residents of Greenpoint are used to certain noises; yet, when a new noise is heard or the source of the noise seem extraordinary for the neighborhood they are disrupted and angered. Perspectives of what is acceptable as neighborhood noise is based on class.
Filmmakers: Another issue for local residents is filmmakers. Greenpoint has become a prime location for the filming of movies, tv shows, and other filming. To the local residents this is a burden – streets get closed off, film crews tell them to be quiet and disrespect the residents of the neighborhood. Small filming crews also tend to think they should get priority in their needs with quiet when filming, where the locals feel they are being invaded by film crews and being told to put their everyday activities on hold during filming. They find this almost funny, but still annoying and frustrating.
Dog Walking: Another issue between the two groups is that associated with dog walking. The neighborhood culture has always included dogs and with that specific norms and rules that apply to dog walking such as curb your dog and clean up after your dog. It seems that the new gentrifiers “expect accommodation and convey entitlement and superiority by violating the law”. (41) The everyday life of residents is being disrupted by their disregard for local practice and city laws. It seems the gentry lack adaptation to sharing the community with those who resided there before them.
Housing: In the neighborhood culture, it is common for people to talk openly and participate in conversations that center around housing. At one point, two people from different social classes can hear a price for housing and interpret it in different ways, as illustrated by DeSena's example. They also have conflicts over regard to aesthetics. The ordinary citizen have generally been cost efficitent, effective, and not always been pleasing to the eye. The gentry are interested in aesthetics and like the idea of historic preservation through restoration to original facade. This shows us that although they are also interested in maintaining historic landmarks, they also understand that there is more social status and economic value in places designated “historic”. There is self interest at play. Those who own homes that are in historic districts, they are limited by the city as to what changes are deemed acceptable. “The different standpoints regarding housing costs, location, and appearance are brought to light and provide an additional layer to the meaning of gentrification in everyday life”. (43)
All the conflicts shown in this chapter defy Goffman's idea that we look to manage the impressions that others have of us. The behavior of the gentrifiers is a prime way to rule his theory out when looking at Greenpoint. It is as if they are trying to colonize working class life in the neighborhood of Greenpoint. They manage their impressions with each other and work to make their ways of life dominant in this neighborhood.


1: Can you think of any neighborhoods in Brooklyn at the moment which are currently going through the process of gentrification that is common to that which took place in Greenpoint? If so, which one and explain what you know about the gentrification process taking place in that neighborhood.

2: Do you agree with DeSena that class is a more critical variable in the lives of ordinary people than culture? Do you agree with her challenge to the urban cultural approach? Explain.

3: Greenpoint has been fighting for the environmental cleanup from the oil leaks in the Newtown Creek for years, and for all damage to be repaired. Since gentrification has begun, it seems other issues are being taken care of faster and there is high hopes that soon cleanup in the creek will also take place. Do you think the newcomers have made it more important for the city to focus on fixing the neighborhoods issues and if so, how does this have to do with social class?

4: As a resident of the city, what are your thoughts or feelings in general knowing that Greenpoint has been able to resist racial change in the neighborhood for the most part, and continues to use strategies in order to maintain a majority white neighborhood? In your view, how does this have to do with social class?

5: According to DeSena, what are the characteristics of Greenpoint that made it so attractive to newcomers and how did they make it a prime location for gentrification? Do you think the community helped the process by resisting change for most of its history? How?

6: What are your views on bicycles becoming a more utilized form of transportation in the city? Are you a bike rider or someone who bears the consequences that come from bike riders as described in her book? What was your take on the attitudes of the gentrifiers versus the locals and how does social class play a role in this sort of conflict and behavior in the community?

7: How have the demographics changed in the community between 1980 and 2000? How do these changes represent gentrification?

8: When looking at the conflicts between the gentrifiers and the ordinary people of Greenpoint, how do they illustrate the typical characteristics associated with the social class which they belong to? In any way do they make you question the typical features applied to their social class position?