Last week, I attended a screening of the documentary The Fall of I-Hotel (1983) organized by CAAAV and Picture the Homeless, two organizations that advocate for affordable housing in NYC. The film was a gritty documentation of the elderly Filipino American community that resided in I-Hotel and fought eviction by real estate developers during the mid-twentieth century. It was super great, go watch it!
After the screening, a panel discussion was held, which featured representatives from both organizations who spoke about their work and perspectives. The question that got me thinking the most was asked by the moderator, which was something along the lines of: when I’m talking about gentrification with my friends and other people, how do I respond to them when they say that cities are always changing and that it is natural for neighborhoods to see changes in people and character?
When I heard this question, it seemed to make so much sense at the time. After all, the advent of Chinatown left Little Italy shrunken to a single street and the dilapidated tenement aesthetic is hardly ever preferred. But, after thinking about it for a long time, I have decided that for my own understanding, gentrification does not equate to natural changes in neighborhoods, and to believe so would be a terrible mistake.
Yes, people move in and out of buildings all the time, restaurants and businesses start up and close down like fireworks in this city, and the dorky person you grew up with now looks like the hottest hipster around. These things happen, but the advancement of a New York City that perpetuates itself for the sake of a wealthier demographic and higher-brow culture does not have to happen.
Gentrification cannot just be accepted as natural, because gentrification is a structured process. There are permits that require city approval, real estate and private developers jostling elbows for coveted space, and there are real-people making real-life decisions that will affect others. No lie, I used to see a sign in SoHo/Chinatown somewhere that read “SoHo is Sexy, Conquest Advisors.” Conquest Advisors, really? Does anyone else see the horrific irony in that?
In fact, that there are people and organizations fighting against gentrification every single day. To say gentrification is natural would be a surrender because it implies that there can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be anything done about it. Even worse is that it distracts those who are competing against each other for the lowest rents from the fact that affordable housing itself is under attack.
So, what did the panel members have to say in response to the moderator’s question? Main word: priorities. The representative from Picture the Homeless elucidated the fact that in the U.S., housing is not a right (though the UN recognizes it as a human right) and people are not actually entitled to a roof over their heads. In a country where private property is seen as only needing to fulfill private interests, it begs for an ideological battle over values and priorities. Is affordable housing important? Is affordable housing necessary for the urban ecology of a metropolis like NYC? Is affordable housing possible? In my mind, the answer to all of these questions is a loud and resounding “YES!” Screen The Fall of the I-Hotel at your college campus, show your support to the many organizations that fight gentrification every day, and attend your local community board meetings and bring your voice and collaboration.