Racial Tension: The Other Side of Gentrification

Dozens of fliers like this have been appearing along along First Avenue between 115th and 125th streets. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Dozens of fliers like this have been appearing along First Avenue between 115th and 125th streets.
(Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The recent appearance of dozens of signs containing blunt messages against the newer, white residents of El Barrio reveals growing racial tension in the neighborhood, attributed to the phenomenon known as gentrification or displacement.

The anonymous fliers, printed in English in large black letters, were posted along First Avenue between 115th and 125th streets and used expletives to demand that the newcomers leave Harlem.

“I don’t know how to deal with such a discriminatory message,” said a visibly uncomfortable David Schaefer, a web designer who moved to the area in December 2013. “The fliers show resentment on the part of some members of the community. I understand it, but I don’t justify it. Your skin color does not determine which neighborhood you are supposed to live in.”

Regarding the racial tensions in the neighborhood, Schaefer said that he recently saw a group of customers who appeared to be Latino become upset and whisper among themselves at a Mexican restaurant on 116th Street after a waitress served him his food first.

“I received special treatment without asking for it. Maybe the waitress assumed that I would tip her better because I am white,” said Schaefer. “I did not motivate the discrimination in the service, but the employee’s attitude roused irritation against me, feeding the tension that is already present here.”

Hispanic neighbors had diverse opinions. Puerto Rican Edil Cruz, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in East Harlem for decades, said that the First Avenue fliers were discriminatory.

“It is a racist message that does not coincide with the ideals of a veteran who went to war convinced that he was fighting for freedom,” said Cruz.

Other residents said that the fliers revealed a valid need for self-defense in the face of the “colonization” of a neighborhood traditionally known for its Hispanic heritage.

“I do not see discrimination in the fliers. Legitimate residents are making full use of their right to free expression,” said a man who identified himself as López. “We Hispanics held El Barrio together during the bad times, and now the whities want to benefit from it during the good times.”

The main problem that neighbors say they have with the new residents is the area’s increasing rental prices. Ecuadorean artist Cristian Chávez, who grew up in El Barrio, said this is the reason why he wants to move to Queens.

“I do not blame white people but the city, because it has prioritized their needs instead of ours,” said Chávez. “Bike lanes are an example of how the authorities provide the newcomers with resources. All through my childhood, I had to dodge cars. No one cared about kids of color.”

Bike lanes, a project sponsored in 2011 by then-Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, extend between 96th and 125th streets on First and Second avenues.

Community Board 11 said that they know about the fliers but that, so far, no residents have filed complaints. Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s office stated that they are working to keep El Barrio’s character and affordability.

“The Office is focused on the creation and preservation of affordable housing, on protecting and investing in NYCHA projects, and on [providing] legal clinics to assist people regarding housing issues,” said the speaker’s office via email. “The Office has also worked to preserve El Barrio’s cultural identity and legacy through initiatives such as the launching of La Marqueta Retoña.”

The police said that, so far, no one has filed a complaint or reported racially-motivated attacks in the East Harlem neighborhood, although three such incidents against white people have been documented citywide. The department did not offer further details.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said that the area will be monitored, and they asked residents to report any incidents through the Hate Crimes Unit at (212) 335-3100. All calls are confidential.

The radicalization of anger

Sociologist Samuel Cruz, who has studied the displacement phenomenon in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said that the anonymous fliers in East Harlem represent a “radicalization of anger” on the part of some members of a historically marginalized community.

The Union Theological Seminary assistant professor said that gentrification carries a strong racial component because the new, higher-income residents are white and the old residents are low-income minorities.

“These changes may cause racial or ethnic tension due to a great loss of social diversity and the evident class segregation. This creates conflict and animosity within the community,” said Cruz.

Cruz, a reverend at Trinity Lutheran Church and resident of Sunset Park for 53 years, said that the tension also comes from the side of the newly arrived residents. As an example, Cruz provided the case of a new restaurant located on the corner of 44th Street and Fourth Avenue which attracts a mostly white clientele.

“They exclude me from that circle even though I have lived in the neighborhood for many decades,” said Cruz. “The displacement is not the fault of one group of individuals. The phenomenon involves social, economic and political factors, but racial tension is definitely one of the outcomes.”

Tense climate in the city

In September 2014, 54-year-old celebrity photographer James Edstrom told the press that the nonprofit St. Nick’s Alliance, which provides affordable housing, did not intervene when he was bombarded with racist and homophobic insults by the residents of one of the buildings he manages in Williamsburg.

Edstrom, who moved into the building located on Maujer Street in 2012, said that he was a victim of racism for being white in a building where most of the tenants are black or Hispanic. The photographer said that he was called “white trash,” among other insults.

During the fall of 2014, graffiti messages reading “Fight white gentrification of FBush” and “Keep Flatbush black” were painted onto the columns of the Church Avenue B and Q subway station. Activists slammed the messages as racist and expressed concerns over tensions in the Flatbush neighborhood, one of the areas in the city hit hardest by gentrification.

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  1. Pingback: The Downsides of Gentrification: Displacement, Cultural Dismemberment, Death « CauseHub

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