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American urban planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), president of the World's Fair stands in front of the Unisphere monument at the World's Fair site in Flushing, Queens, New York City, 1964. Photo: Archive Photos / Getty Images
American urban planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), president of the World's Fair stands in front of the Unisphere monument at the World's Fair site in Flushing, Queens, New York City, 1964. Photo: Archive Photos / Getty Images

The human cost of change

How can we describe what happens when a community is disrupted by rapid development? 

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This appeared in the AL FRENTE section (Editor's Note) of the print edition published 12/11/19. 

 

We have come to reduce the idea of change within a neighborhood to an inevitable causal relationship between gentrification, represented by outside forces, coming into a lower-income community to change the community itself. Developers and high-income residents who move to the community are the enactors of that change; longtime residents are the object. 

But some neighborhoods can demonstrate how they have achieved change from within, well before the forces of developers entered into the mix and houses were being torn down or destroyed. 

Norris Square is one of those neighborhoods. If you listen to the stories of the longtime residents in pg. 12 of our cover story this week, the neighborhood transformed from an epicenter of the crack epidemic, home to what was once labeled “needle park,” to a community of residents who revitalized many of the public space areas and banded together to beautify vacant lots and fix other aspects of their environment.
Now, though, their changes, their creations and building blocks of community, are being literally wiped out by developers. 

The stories of flooded basement homes and cracked walls, houses torn apart by the ongoing construction in the neighborhood, are not uncommon experiences for longtime residents of neighborhoods that experience what is often referred to as “gentrification”: a term that in some ways obfuscates the brutal, physical impacts of the change that the concept represents. 

The reality of rapid development brings to mind a quote from the man who shaped the landscape of New York City and who also displaced thousands, if not millions, of people throughout the course of his development and construction designs: 

“...When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax,” said Robert Moses in journalist Robert Caro’s biography of the urban planning giant, “The Power Broker.” 

Moses was no champion of the preservation of communities, especially when they got in his way, but the language he uses at the very least comes closer to representing the means of gentrification, or what some of that rapid development and turnover looks like on the ground: a force that has in its mind to “hack [its] way with a meat axe.” 

”Gentrification” as a word still has some trace of a positive connotation: an indirect if not direct correlation to “coffeeshops” and “wine bars,” according to some ways it has been described in the media, as more affluent residents and businesses move into historically low-income neighborhoods (almost always correlated to demographic shifts, in which white residents move to a neighborhood whose residents have historically been Black, Latino, or from other communities of color).

But what is termed gentrification or change in a city neighborhood can also, at times, more closely resemble Robert Moses’ phrasing: a kind of destruction and tearing apart which takes a toll on people, communities, and the environment and stability of the neighborhood as a whole. 

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