“Presumed Inevitability of Gentrification” in Greenpoint: Not The End Of The Story
Two new articles about gentrification and environmental activism in Greenpoint, appearing in The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, argue that the neighborhood is challenging the typical narrative that gentrifying neighborhoods will inevitably force out all long-term residents to make way for a gold coast of newly arriving gentrifiers.
The articles, by Winifred Curran (Department of Geography, DePaul University) and Trina Hamilton (Department of Geography, SUNY University at Buffalo) advocates a “just green enough” idea that “makes room for continued industrial use and blue-collar work, where cleanup does not automatically or exclusively lead to the ‘parks, cafes, and a riverwalk’ model of a green city.”
“Just green enough” coincides with “just clean enough,” wherein “as much of the environmental hazard as possible is removed in order to assure community health while still allowing for industrial uses on the waterfront for the explicit purpose of maintaining the area’s working-class population.”
Greenpoint’s industrial history dates back to the beginnings of the industrial era, pre-Civil War, when oil-refining operations began to populate a little estuary of the East River – Newtown Creek. Greenpoint historian Mitch Waxman, who was interviewed for the articles, has said that, “Newtown Creek has been a jobs engine” and “in 1900 it had 2 million jobs compared with today when there’s about 18,000 jobs within a half mile of the creek.”
Greenpoint’s activist history dates back at least as far – perhaps further, given that Greenpoint was a large farm and many slaves were used to work the farm, Kings County being the largest slaveholding county north of the Mason-Dixon prior to 1825. (Slaves rebel often, after all, and if that’s not activism I don’t know what is.)
Later, in 1891 the Brooklyn Smelling Committee voted Long Island City one of worst smelling places in New York, quite in agreement with then recent articles from the New York Times.
How has Greenpoint’s industrial working-class history intersected with its activist and middle- to upper-class gentrifying history? And “who gets to decide what green looks like?”
As the articles take pains to make clear, the cross-pollinating of these two worlds in Greenpoint is atypical. Authors Curran and Hamilton point out that typically when a neighborhood is gentrified, the process is:
– Gentrifiers move in
– Prices rise, forcing out the most vulnerable long-term residents
– Gentrifiers, equipped with privileges and professional connections/skills, agitate for a cleaner, “greener” neighborhood
– Prices are driven up further, the neighborhood changes, forcing the remaining long-term vulnerable out
– The neighborhood is “green,” but few of the original inhabitants that suffered the pollution are around to enjoy the place “greened”
But in Greenpoint, something different has happened and is happening. Instead of being in two separate worlds with separate goals, long-term neighborhood activists* worked with new gentrifying activists and in so doing changed the narrative of what is possible in a gentrifying neighborhood. One not slight example is the ongoing remediation of the Greenpoint Oil Spill, which was ignored by Exxon Mobil when the Coast Guard discovered it in 1979; largely ignored again by Exxon Mobil even when talks with NY State led to an agreement to begin cleanup in 1990; somewhat heeded when Exxon Mobil began to trudge its feet on cleanup under pressure from activists and NY State in 2006; and finally action began with the Superfund designation in 2010.
“It is not enough to simply bemoan the process of gentrification and displacement in Greenpoint.” To do so might fulfill what is derisively meant by the term “hipster” in these parts. Fortunately, we have predecessors and contemporaries showing us what else is possible. “Activists in Greenpoint challenge the notion of gentrification as a complete and total neighborhood transformation and the notion of gentrifiers as necessarily always antagonistic to long-term residents’ interests.”
In short: “The fact of gentrification does not have to be the end of the story.” As Greenpoint continues to show, it’s up to us to decide.
* Mentioned are Mitch Waxman, Laura Hoffman, Christine Holowacz and Phil DePaolo, although two dozen locals were interviewed as part of the research for the articles; local organizations consulted include Newtown Creek Alliance, Riverkeeper, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, Newtown Creek BOA, and Community Board 1.