Gentrification Crisis

Young man shoots heroin in Alphabet City, 1978.

As previously stated in the Violence and Crime section, Alphabet City was an area rife with drug usage and poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. In Geoffrey Biddle’s Alphabet City, the rampant illegality is clearly seen: drug deals being enacted on the streets in broad daylight, twelve year-olds shooting drugs into their coursing veins, and people dying all around from disease or brutality. In a testimony from the late 1980s, a resident of Alphabet City named Evalene Claudio said, “Today, these days, it seems like somebody you know dies every day. Years ago, when somebody died in the neighborhood, everybody would mourn them. Now it’s, Oh, so and so died…” (Biddle). People were taking advantage of the looseness of the space brought on by lack of supervision. “Disarray and deterioration have benefits: they invite people to take the initiative in imagining and creating their own arrangements of space and finding alternative uses” (Franck and Stevens 21). In this case, drugs and violence are what swept the generally impoverished area.

Police Crackdown
In 1984, Ben Ward, Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) at the time, began a program to try to put a stop to the rampant drug market. The procedure was called Operation Pressure Point and it involved stationing “a cop on every single corner in twenty square blocks, almost 24 hours a day” (PBS). The head of the narcotics division of the NYPD at the time, Deputy Chief Francis C. Hall, was quoted in a New York Times article saying, “We used to say that you have to kill the octopus, not cut off his tentacles. But then there was always a new octopus that came along. Now we are cutting off the tentacles and finding he can’t move around.” (Kerr). While Hall was optimistic, the reality of the situation was less than what was hoped for. While crime in the area did go down, there were negative consequences. The judicial system became extremely backed up with all of the arrests being made. There simply weren’t enough people to handle all of the cases. As a result, limited convictions were actually made. In addition to this, instead of actually stopping the drug trafficking, the market merely moved. While the plan may have seemed ineffectual, Operation Pressure Point would prove to be the catalyst for the ongoing issue of gentrification.

Real Estate Boom
As drug trafficking was forced to move out of the area or go underground, the crime rate dropped dramatically and the real estate subsequently skyrocketed. Rents went through the roof. As a result, the area became more attractive to developers. In a neighborhood with projects like the Lillian Wald and Jacob Riis houses, restaurants, clubs, and galleries began opening. This just further lured more luxurious enterprises. Apartments were renovated and sold at extremely steep prices. Evalene Claudio was again quoted saying, “They fix these apartments up and they’re charging not even six hundred dollars, a thousand dollars. That’s not for the black or the Puerto Rican.” (Biddle). The resident members of the Puerto Rican and black communities were unable to keep up with the rising rents and were forced to relocate. Gentrification was forcing the Nuyorican culture out.

Ongoing Struggle

An older building on the left, stands stalwart against the encroaching modern apartment building on the right.

To this day, the struggle against gentrification continues. In an interview with the New York Times, a chairman of the housing committee for Alphabet City was quoted saying, “When rents skyrocked [sic] throughout Manhattan a few years ago, landlords in this neighborhood realized what an opportunity they had to make a real profit, so from Avenues A to D, there is construction of new housing on every space available. There is also a lot of rehabilitation of existing housing to get more market rate tenants into buildings” (Brozan).

Bloom62.

When visiting Alphabet City, our group encountered an interesting sight. A very modern and sleek apartment building called Bloom62 (seen on the right in the picture above, and here in this picture on the left) stood right next to an older building. Interested, we ventured into their outdoor garden walkway. Kathleen, being the outgoing and pioneering girl she is, walked right into Bloom62 and began conversing with the receptionist who knew a plethora of information about the apartments. Mistakenly thinking Kathleen was a potential buyer and obviously trying to impress her, he told her some “impressive” facts. Owned by Magnum Real Estate Group, Bloom62 used to be an old folks’ home until it was torn down to make way for this contemporary apartment building. This is the ninth building that Magnum Real Estate Group has purchased and torn down in the area, and they have plans for more.

I was perturbed to say the least. This titan of real estate was tearing down older buildings with history and meaning to make cookie-cutter cutting-edge apartments in the name of pure consumerism. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs expresses the dire need for diversity. Not only diversity of people, but diversity of uses, and diversity of building ages: “If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction” (Jacobs 244). If this pattern of replacement continues, the Alphabet City culture will begin to vanish and be replaced by upper-class and college age tenants looking for housing in the “East Village.”

What was once called Loisaida by the Nuyorican residents was then dubbed Alphabet City in the 1980s by real estate developers who were trying to market the area and didn’t want potential customers struggling to pronounce the Spanglish term. However, because the crime of the 1980s led to Alphabet City being dubbed a bad place to reside, current real estate developers are marketing the area simply as the East Village. During the interview our group conducted with Father Pat Maloney of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, he quipped that the difference between those who call the area Alphabet City/the Lower East Side and those who call it the East Village is that those who call it the East Village pay $2,000 more for an apartment in the same building.

Culture Shines Through
Despite the efforts of real estate developers, the powerful and vibrant Nuyorican culture has not been silenced. Standardization of the area cannot dull the vibrant radiance of the community. Walking down Loisaida Avenue, you see the Jacobian ideals of a successful neighborhood at work. Police officers casually chatting with store owners. Public seating is plentiful and the multitude of shops is inviting and warm. As streams of people walk, bike, or ride the multitude of buses, multiple languages are heard: Spanish, English, a combination of the two, Chinese, and more that I do not recognize. A garden dubbed La Plaza Cultural provides a green oasis amongst the concrete and steel. Love is evident in the careful cultivation of the plants. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space stands as a testament to the battles fought against the city institutions.

Weathering the issues of gentrification, Alphabet City remains a thriving neighborhood. Though rents may rise, spirits do not fall and the rich culture of the area that has been shaped by countless predecessors remains and flourishes.

 


Works Cited

  1. Biddle, Geoffrey. Alphabet City. Berkeley: University of California, 1992. Print.
  2. Brozan, Nadine. “The New A B C D’s of Alphabet City.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Dec. 2000. Web. 17 Sept. 2013.
  3. Franck, Karen A., and Quentin Stevens. “Tying Down Loose Space.” Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  4. French, Howard W. “For Crack, a Hydra-Headed Market.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. Jun 07 1987. ProQuest. Web. 18 Nov. 2013
  5. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 50th Anniversary ed. [New York]: Random House, 1961. Print.
  6. Kerr, Peter. “WAR ON DRUGS SHIFTING FOCUS TO STREET DEALS.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Apr. 1987. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
  7. “Interviews- Robert Stutman | Drug Wars.” PBS. PBS. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.