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Gentrification: Cause and effect on New York, L.A. and Rome

Bushwick
Manhattan skyline from Bushwick

There is one specific word spreading across various cities in different continents, particularly in the western world: gentrification. Its definition could be the opening scene of a movie, kind of like Tarantino’s “pulp” in Pulp Fiction. Wikipedia’s definition of gentrification is: shifts in an urban community lifestyle and an increasing share of wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.

Silver Lake
Silver Lake

Now, I wish to take three cities far from each other in terms of space and time: Los Angeles, New York City and Rome. If we take these three cities and mix them in the gentrification pot, you will get something quite interesting out of it. Los Angeles: There are various districts of Los Angeles that have undergone several urban modifications over the years, if you think of Silver Lake and Echo Park just to mention a couple. These two areas are part of the East side L.A. and if we look back we can see huge differences with how they look today. Today they are hipster areas, where people live in a constant state of hangover, searching for that esthetic beauty which is simply utopian. Pretentious display of nothing, as if on a stage of sarcastic cynicism, with their cafeterias and pubs as a caricature of the European lifestyle.

Street art covering walls of the scorching, never-ending Sunset Blvd. Along the streets, shops that sell things you never thought existed, live music bars and pubs, bookshops, numberless liquors stores and tons and tons of Mexican fast-food restaurants. In the cafeterias you can see girls in Frank Sinatra’s hats, small, worn-out shirt, some kind of shorts and winter boots, in spite of the heat, as they sip espresso with their eyes wide open on the pages of a book about Brecht. At the crack of dawn. With a hangover.

These districts, Silver Lake and Echo Park, used to be the Hispanic gangs’ territories. No way you would be sipping espresso and reading Brecht amongst the daily shootings. So what happened? Many years ago the many, (true) poor artists who arrived to LA started looking for a place to live. Most of the city was too expensive, so they would up in the dangerous slums: Silver Lake and Echo Park. Quite squalid, but at least it was cheap. It wasn’t long before the artists’ migration caught the attention of the bored, wealthy youth of L.A., who escaped the dullness of their lives by improvising as artists, like something else that money can buy. They realized that in order to be acknowledged as an artist, you need to display some sort of suffering and poverty, making their Bel Air mansions unfit dwellings. How about we move to Silver Lake and get the rush of adrenaline of living in a dangerous place?! Hence, there was a migration of rich, white youth to Silver Lake and Echo Park.

In America, just like in other parts of the world, when a large number of rich, white people move to the other side of town, a massive police migration follows as well. So you see, the streets of Silver Lake and Echo Park were flooded by police. The time of the Latinos, the gangs and the riots was over. The rich white started buying property, raising the value of the whole neighborhood, opening pubs, bars, live music places, restaurants and there you have it: gentrification.

Williamsburg
Williamsburg – Brooklyn

We can see the same phenomenon in New York, in areas of Brooklyn like Williamsburg or Greenpoint, once poor, dangerous outskirts, now cult places for young masses. In the very heart of Brooklyn, the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant area, become famous thanks to movies like Die Hard, a few years ago it used to be a place where only African Americans lived, now gentrification has brought the variety of sprouting pubs and Italian restaurants. And what about the poor who used to live there? They’ve been pushed off to places like Coney Island. What about Bushwick? Up until 3 years ago it was a mainly Hispanic area, now it’s morphing into the second Williamsburg, the area of artists or wannabes. Needless to say that the rent for a studio apt that used to be $ 1000  is now $3000!

Trastevere
Trastevere

Rome has some similar examples. Just think of the difficult life of Trastevere in the 60’s, today it is the gathering place for American students, nymphomaniacs, and the whole hipster community. I believe a transformation like Silver Lake’s is currently happening, and pignetowill keep on happening, in Pigneto, the Rome neighborhood which is slowly gaining an aura of cult in the collective mind of young people. You can already witness the upper middle class choosing Pigneto over London, to flaunt their artistic side, thus mingling their blue blood with the bright-red, meager Rome blood.

What’s the matter with gentrification? Well, if the areas that used to home those who put bread on their table, or rather booze, thanks to art, are flooded in wealth, where will the real poor artists go once the property value increases beyond their possibilities? Williamsburg is now just as expensive as Manhattan. Silver Lake and Echo Park are at the same level as West L.A.. Rent in Trastevere has become pricey.

So, shall we point to Pigneto and Bushwick?

Washington Heights is slowly rising in New York, Koreatown in L.A., San Lorenzo and Talenti in Rome. Where is gentrification moving next? Not to be provincial, gentrification is in fact good, it allows slums to get a second chance. The problem is, again, speculation. Gentrification seems to start from a specific, central neighborhood, then it spreads and withdraws, going back to the initial area, over and over again in a cycle. We’ll just have to wait and see how speculation finds a balance in cities that artists can no longer afford, like New York. Meanwhile, let’s forget about Brecht at the crack of dawn, and google the cheapest place.

by Gabriele Scarfone

 

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