In NYC, Changing Neighborhoods Lose Their Latino Identity

New condo buildings are changing the landscape at the traditionally Hispanic, working class Inwood neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. (Photo by  Gerardo Romo via El Diario).

New condo buildings are changing the landscape at the traditionally Hispanic, working-class Inwood neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Up until recently, for most residents in Jackson Heights, Mott Haven and Washington Heights, the word “gentrification” referred to a phenomenon that took place elsewhere in the city. However, the appearance of new luxury buildings, Starbucks and designer cafés on Roosevelt Avenue, the Grand Concourse and Dyckman Street reveals that the ghost of eviction is walking among them.

Over the course of one week, three El Diario/La Prensa reporters visited eight traditionally Hispanic areas in the city. They all saw evidence of this type of urban transformation.

Gentrification is the process by which residents of a neighborhood, generally composed of minorities and low-income residents, are displaced to make room for a population with more means and, in most cases, white. While the phenomenon is as old as the city, recent decades have seen an unprecedented increase in rent prices. Neighborhoods which appeared to be safe from gentrification, now seem irreversibly caught in the process.

“Gentrification has always existed, but there are many incentives for high-end construction companies now, and this has triggered an artificial, uncontrolled surge,” said Andrew Padilla, who directed the documentary “El Barrio Tours.” “This is not only affecting the lower class, but the middle class as well.”

Another effect of gentrification is the arrival of new products at supermarkets that used to cater to Hispanic residents (Photo by  Gerardo Romo via El Diario).

Another effect of gentrification is the arrival of new products at supermarkets that used to cater to Hispanic residents. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Padilla has witnessed how El Barrio, the traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem where he grew up, lost some 2,500 Hispanic residents and gained nearly 6,000 new ones over the past 10 years. Padilla himself is being forced to move back to his parents’ house because he can no longer afford to keep the studio apartment he was renting.

“The worst part is the impact this has on small businesses. They have no protection whatsoever against rent increases the way public housing and stabilized rent do,” says Padilla.

Just recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to create affordable housing in the area where the old Domino Sugar factory still stands in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This project would require 700 out of the 2,300 apartments to be rented to low- or moderate-income residents. The local administration celebrated the mayor’s decision as the first step towards de Blasio’s plan to create 200,000 affordable housing units, but some experts are skeptical about it.

“These plans aren’t a solution,” says Ed Morales, a professor at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and co-director of the documentary “Whose Barrio?” “Because of the way the real estate market is designed, the displacement of poor people is unstoppable.” Its effects are felt not only in the economy or the demographics, but also culturally, according to Clara Irazábal, assistant professor of Urban Planning at Columbia.

“New York has a lot to lose when whole ethnic groups are displaced,” said Irazábal. “The cultural capital that has already been lost in Manhattan is significant, and other boroughs are following suit. Without diversity, New York loses its identity.”

The displaced:

– Rafael Somoza (Washington Heights): “Ten years ago, you could rent an apartment here for less than $700. I don’t understand how, in such a short period of time, apartments are three times more expensive. If I would have arrived in New York today, I would not have been able to live here.”

– Félix Rodríguez (deli owner, Mott Haven, The Bronx): “Everyday, more Manhattan people are moving to the South Bronx. I am selling more, so I’m grateful, but now they’re saying that they’re going to build new towers and supermarkets, and that it is all going to change. In a few years, my deli will be replaced by a fancy restaurant, and I have no idea where I’ll be.”

– Estela Matos (El Barrio resident since 1970): “Years ago, white people with money would come here because they wanted to experience our culture and our food. Now they come because they have to, and, in a few years, there will be no trace of the culture that we Puerto Ricans brought to this place.”

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