Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gentrification and Blockbusting

I had heard the term gentrification long before I moved to the apartment in Jersey City. To me it simply meant that middle-class people were coming into a previously run-down neighborhood, and were slowly improving it by their presence and efforts.

Others didn’t see it in quite those terms. They saw gentrification as something evil that pushed the poor out of affordable housing, either when landlords realized that they could charge more for the spots that existed, or when investors tore down entire blocks of what had been substandard housing, and replaced it with newer units for people who wanted to live near Manhattan, but not pay through the nose for it.

A few years ago, as we took a trip on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, we passed through my old Jersey City neighborhood, and I didn’t recognize it at all. 25 years later, the transformation had been that complete. The slightly dicey neighborhood I had lived in for a year was now beautiful, and I probably couldn’t afford to live there now myself.

However…I didn’t have the history with Jersey City that I had with my hometown of East Orange. I hadn’t lived there during its “better days,” if it had any, so I didn’t know quite where it came from before the gentrification started. As a result, I didn’t have an answer for those who thought that gentrification was evil because it displaced the poor. But looking at East Orange, where it came from, where it fell to, and my hopes for its future, gives me a whole different perspective on the whole gentrification issue.

And my new perspective is that gentrification and blockbusting are two sides of the same coin, with the former possibly being a correction of the latter.

Now, for those of you who are two young to be familiar with the term “blockbusting,” it’s really quite simple…and truly evil. It was the act of scaring the current middle-class residents of an area into selling their homes at a loss, and moving out, because “those people” are coming; and then selling, or more likely renting, those homes to “those people” at a profit. In the years after the 1967 Newark riots, a lot of blockbusting went on in East Orange, and a lot of the middle-class, both white and black, moved to “safer” places like Scotch Plains, West Orange, and Montclair. As more of the middle-class moved out, more of the poor moved in, and it became a repeating death spiral, to the point where what was once one of the wealthiest towns in the state has almost a 20% poverty rate.

But this trend can be reversed. East Orange can be saved, and it can be saved by something that has run right through the middle of town since about 1836. I’m talking about NJ Transit’s Morristown Line. As young professionals moved out of Manhattan to Hoboken and Jersey City in the 1980s because of its convenience to the city via the PATH line, East Orange, just a few stops away on the Morristown Line, may be the next stop for the Gentrification Express, as those two cities become almost as expensive as Manhattan.

“But what of the poor?” you might ask. “Won’t the influx of all these professionals displace them by making housing there impossible for them to afford?”

This is where I see both sides of the equation. Because I know where my hometown came from, I can see that while gentrification may indeed displace many of the poor who are there now, it would not be artificially and unfairly raising property values, but instead, would be bringing them back up to what they would’ve been, had the blockbusting and middle-class flight of the 1970s and 1980s not occurred in the first place.

And I can see so many reasons why a mass influx of the middle-class back to my hometown would be a good thing for everyone.

But that’s something to talk about later on.


  1. Yes, gentrification is annoying. On the other hand, it has produced some wonderful results. But it truly does disrupt the lives of the poor and lower middle class who cannot afford to live in the new areas. Some cities require low cost housing to be built along with high cost condominiums. Santa Monica, CA has a law of this kind. Blockbusting was truly evil. My father refused to move out of East Orange during that time because he knew it would hurt his hometown, and he always liked the diversity of East Orange. But people were scared (and rightly so in many instances) and people fled in fear. By the time my parents had to leave, they couldn't even find a buyer for a home that was nearly paid off. It was sad watching them start all over again. It is a shame that many hard-working people can't afford to rent decent apartments or purchase a home and even sadder that so many jobs for the middle class continue to disappear. City planning and development could be very exciting for everyone if greed didn't rule decisions. There is so much new technology for sustainable building which could be used to create attractive affordable living environments for all. If only.... (Ruth H.)

    1. Ruth, I was hoping I'd hear from you. I'm not sure you'll see this reply, since I'm not sure if this system is capable of letting you know that someone else has commented on the same thread, so I'll also reply to you on Facebook.

      I like the Santa Monica law. That seems like the best way to do it...a middle way that doesn't just reach for the high rollers in the luxury condos, but seeks to have affordable housing for all. The trick now is how to do that without still creating "the poor neighborhood" vs "the rich neighborhood." Well, I suppose the rich we will always have with us, and they'll find a way to gate themselves off from the rest of us, but there must be some way to have a few poor families interspersed with the rest of us in middle class neighborhoods. The question is, what's the tipping point before it starts to go "the wrong way?" No one wants to think in those terms, but there definitely is a tipping point.

      I'm also a firm believer in the idea that having a mass of middle class families around a small percentage of poorer families gives those in the poorer families another option to consider, another model to try to aim for. After all, if all you see around you is poverty and crime, then that's all you're gonna aim for for yourself.

      My mother stayed in East Orange for as long as she could...actually, technically she was in Orange, just on the border, but the driveway to her complex was in EO. But she was eventually driven out by crime...on what was once considered the "good" side of EO. My father stayed in EO, in the house I grew up in, until the day he died, but that neighborhood really needs a major redo. I can't believe how small and narrow that house is, and how steep the steps are. Considering how outdated many of those houses are, I don't think it's a case of them needing to be rehabbed, they need to be torn down, and a fresh start made.