Another Perspective on Gentrification

by Guest Contributor Joanna Eng

There is something extremely disheartening about walking into a bar called “La Negrita” to find it full of white people, and white people only. I already cringe when someone brings me to a bar in New York City where I’m the most “ethnic” face in the room; it hits me over the head in a city as diverse as this. But La Negrita is especially bugging me, not only because of its name and lack of explanation for the name; but because we’re on 109th Street and Columbus—Manhattan Valley—a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where most of the longtime residents are black and Latino (and most of the newcomers are white).

For the past couple of months, I’ve been staying with a friend who lives in this neighborhood. (It’s a temporary living situation while I wait to make a more permanent move back to Queens.) I’ve been hyper-aware of gentrification and racial dynamics since my first day here.

There are a string of new restaurants that look like they’re attempting to convert the neighborhood into an extension of the Upper West Side: Thai restaurants, gourmet brunch spots, places with frozen margaritas and tofu-filled burritos. It seems clear to me who these restaurants are for—white (and the occasional Asian) yuppies, people coming north from the Upper West Side, and Columbia students venturing south. Now, I love outdoor dining as much as the next person, and the prices aren’t even high for Manhattan. But I don’t like being on display. As I eat my Massaman curry, I could be mostly imagining it, but I think the “natives” walking down the sidewalk are staring, and I feel like an impostor even being here.

Sometimes, as I walk down Amsterdam Ave here, I feel like apologizing to the old-timers, who are chatting while sitting on milk crates on the sidewalk, about what this place is becoming.

Maybe I’m unfairly attributing opinions and values to groups of people based on broad stereotypes. Maybe I’m exaggerating the tension, and the area’s really more of an idyllic melting pot than I think. Well, I know it at least has a more complicated history than I can understand—I am a newcomer, after all.

Maybe I’m over-sensitive because I’m currently reading a novel (Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer) about an old jazz musician on 106th Street getting displaced from his apartment. But I’ve also read articles that affirm that in the real world, real estate prices have been rising dramatically, and young people are being encouraged to snatch up property in this “last frontier” area before the prices get too high.

Maybe I’m so uncomfortable because, with my white ear buds and newcomer status, I know I’m much more like one group than the other.