Meditating on Gentrification: A Personal View of the NYC Imagining


Liliana Ashman, who serves on the USDAC Action Squad as “Story Hunter-Gatherer,” attended the New York City Imagining on June 2nd (follow the link to learn about others happening across the U.S. this summer). Here she writes about the feelings, ideas, and associations evoked by an Imagining billed this way: “#Imagining: Creative Strategies to Fight Gentrification in New York City.”  For more on the ideas thinking behind this Imagining, see Alexis Stephens interview in Next City with Betty Yu, the Cultural Agent  who organized it.

It’s an unseasonably cold, rainy Tuesday evening in June and I find myself wearing a tweed jacket, making my way through the midtown 5 o’clock rush to get to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church to attend the first NYC Imagining organized by the USDAC. Stepping off a crowded train I emerge on Lexington Avenue, surrounded by the country’s largest investment banks and consulting firms. I am immediately made aware of the stark class differences that  exemplify Manhattan. It seems strange to be gathering in a church, yet the setting offers a sanctuary, a place to speak openly and honestly. 

The history of this church is interesting, a poignant glimpse into the many fascinating stories that make up New York City. On June 2, 1862, a group of German immigrants partnered with a local Irish Roman Catholic businessman to gather in a small, borrowed loft above a grocery and animal- feed store on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 49th Street. It seems fitting that more than one hundred and fifty years later we were gathering to discuss the future of New York, and whether there is a future without gentrification.

The USDAC has been rolling out fifteen Imaginings across the country this month. The focus of the NYC Imagining, organized by 2015 Cultural Agent Betty Yu, is creative strategies to fight gentrification. This is an ambitious task to accomplish in the three and a half hours we have scheduled. There is a noticeable tension in the room as Adam Horowitz, USDAC Chief Instigator, asks us all to take a deep breath,, saying, “We are in it together.”

Artist Priscilla Stadler’s piece, Fragile City, hangs in the window. This colorful cheese-cloth tapestry depicting scaffolding and skyline. It is indeed fragile and seems impermanent. To me, this piece represents the current state of the city and at the same time offers a creative, imaginative glimpse of the ever- shifting landscape.

So where do you live?  [installation from the Fragile City series] Dyed cheesecloth, monofilament Priscilla Stadler 2014

So where do you live? [installation from the Fragile City series] Dyed cheesecloth, monofilament Priscilla Stadler 2014

As I listened to people’s stories of their experiences with gentrification—intense dealings with corrupt landlords, a genuine lack of affordable housing, being pushed out of their homes—it was clear that though housing should be a human right, many New Yorkers are not being afforded this right. A lack of resources and information on affordable housing and tenants’ rights is overwhelmingly frustrating.

Ed Goldman, an active member of the Fort Greene community, has lived there for the past twenty years and has a strong presence every Saturday at the farmer’s market.  Despite this, he told me he didn’t know what else he could do to keep fighting for his neighborhood. A woman living in Williamsburg felt that she was simultaneously affected by gentrification and also, perhaps, a part of gentrification, leaving her to grapple with how she can also be a part of the solution. Ravi Ragbir with the New Sanctuary Movement spoke of the organization’s work to protect those at risk of being deported. Michelle Carlo, a native New Yorker and performer, summed up, “People come to New York to be out of the box, not [put] into a box.” How is it that New York City, known as a cultural hub for artists, a second chance for immigrants, is pushing away everything that makes it so great?

I was struck by how many New Yorkers feel displaced, whether directly from their homes, their neighborhoods, or their communities. I live in Prospect Heights, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. There is a new restaurant popping up on my street every few months and I know that it won’t be long before my landlord decides to raise the rent. Unlike Carlo or Goldman, I am a fairly new resident to New York, having lived in Ireland for three years (where in fact, I was almost deported). I have struggled with the way in which we as a society define our homes, our land, and our rights to what should be basic elements of humanity. There were many amazing projects represented at the Imagining, for instance, Take Back the Land, a national network of organizations dedicated to elevating housing to the level of a human right, is. It’s an incredible project, but the very fact that it exists is an eye-opening example of how critical the state of housing is in this country. Our homes and communities are a part of our identities, they define who we are and shape our future. 

As we envision a future New York without gentrification, where no one is displaced or without a home, I find myself imagining what the role of an actual government agency with the aims of the USDAC would play. What if we took the same  measures to ensure that our communities felt whole and inclusive and applied this nationwide and even globally? In the wake of catastrophic events like the earthquake in Nepal, I wonder if in the future, were there a government organization with a similar mission to the USDAC, could it implement the work of artists and have a role in providing relief beyond food and shelter? Closer to home Rachel Falcone created Sandy Storyline to share people’s stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I felt that the NYC Imagining is only the beginning, a spark of something more to come, a catalyst. There is certainly a lot of potential. But as Italo Calvino wrote, it is hard to say what will emerge:

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities