Expert: Gentrification Harmful for New Yorkers’ Health

One of the neighborhoods most affected by gentrification is Washington Heights, where most residents are Dominican immigrants. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The phenomenon is not new, and much less unique to New York City. However, the gentrification process is occurring in such an extended and accelerated manner in the Big Apple that it has caused great alarm among experts, particularly with regard to the health of families and communities.

The most affected neighborhoods are those where immigrants and minorities such as Latinos and African Americans live. Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side in Lower Manhattan, and Upper Manhattan’s Harlem and Washington Heights are just a few examples of a process that appears to be unstoppable in this city.

“Displacement is quite harmful to families. Gentrification problems are very serious and are seriously threatening the health of all New Yorkers and [the city’s] neighborhoods,” said Dr. Mindy Fullilove, urban policy and health professor at The New School’s Urban Policy Analysis and Management program.

According to the expert, one of those neighborhoods is Washington Heights, mainly populated by Dominican immigrants, where the gentrification process is advancing quickly and becoming a critical issue.

“What is happening in Washington Heights – which in the ’90s was plagued by a great deal of violence that made it tough to live there – is that people worked very hard to curb crime, improve the neighborhood and start businesses but, with gentrification, businesses have been expelled and people are losing their apartments,” said Fullilove.

“This is destroying everything the people have created. Many of those businesses were established in Washington Heights specifically to serve the Dominican community. That means that those businesses depend on the people living in that neighborhood. It may become too hard for them to start over somewhere else, and they will end up losing money,” said the scholar.

Financial losses are not the only negative outcome of displacement. According to Fullilove, gentrification seriously affects families because they suffer significant psychological shock.

“When people become displaced, they generally move to places with fewer resources. This is disastrous for families because it involves a great deal of stress. They lose their house and the neighborhood where school and work were nearby. It is very traumatic for people, and that trauma undermines their health and the health of their whole community,” she said.

Several medical studies have found that the trauma and stress brought about by displacement and by losing a home may cause many people to suffer health problems as serious as depression and cardiovascular disease.

Loss of political power

In the opinion of Professor Mindy Fullilove, who has performed extensive research and written a number of books on the socioeconomic phenomena of gentrification and displacement (www.rootshock.org), another extremely negative consequence is the loss of political power.

“In our society, resources are distributed based on who has political power and who does not. Those resources are fundamental to staying healthy. And so, losing political power is disastrous to the health of those communities because they are unable to compete for those resources,” said Fullilove.

“This is especially unfortunate in Washington Heights, as people there have migrated from the Dominican Republic and worked so hard to build a community here, to be united, to have a strong connection and political power, and all that is being threatened by gentrification,” added the researcher.

Fullilove believes that, when people are displaced, they lose their relationship with important organizations created by the community that may end up disappearing, such as social clubs and churches.

Although the gentrification phenomenon is quite complex, Fullilove thinks that metropolitan authorities are greatly to blame for it. “The city is not doing enough to safeguard affordable housing or to build more affordable housing, and it needs to do more to protect the cost of those units,” she stressed.

She recommended New Yorkers, particularly those living in immigrant and minority neighborhoods, get informed about the changes taking place in their area so they can be better equipped, and to be prepared to make demands to their local representatives and ask for better housing policies.

“My advice to people in the community is to fight and refuse to move out, to preserve Washington Heights and the other communities they have built, because they have worked very hard for them,” concluded Fullilove.

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