Thursday, August 05, 2004

Gentrification

While I was away, new owners bought the laundromat across the street from my building. It was in tough shape when I left; a third to half of the washers and dryers were out of service, and to use others I had to ask the woman who worked there to lift the lid and push some kind of lever that would get the machine started. The whole space had a gray, run-down feel, not the kind of place that made me confident my whites would be whiter or my brights brighter. But the woman who worked there - perhaps owned the place - was kind enough, Cuban or Dominican, made change and patiently worked with the failing washers and dryers while waiting to save enough to get them fixed or replaced. She and her daughter and neighborhood women read magazines, folded garbage bags full of laundry and watched Spanish soap operas, news, children's shows. They had a tall, stringbean thin friend who sat on top of the washers, teased all the young women who came in, tossed a tennis ball around the room, leaping behind the dryers to retrieve it. Sometimes they tossed him out to sit in a chair on the sidewalk by the door. I felt like a shy interloper whenever I did my laundry, not really part of this community, but I was also used to it.

The new owners have made changes, all for the better so far as convenience and clean laundry and attractive premises go. They've replaced all the machines, painted the walls, scrubbed the floors, removed the chipped folding tables. They've added two arcade video games and a machine that sells detergent. They've walled off the manager's room and dispense change through a small window. A load of laundry costs the same as it did before - for now. The TV plays English-language daytime shows.

As a young, white, single professional living on a teacher's salary, I am always going to be one of the foot-soldiers of gentrification in New York City. The first neighborhood I moved to in the city became too expensive for me within the two years I lived there. Alphabet City, the East Village, the Lower East Side - only a few years ago these were the setting for RENT, inhabited by Spanish-speaking families, heroin addicts, and the first wave of artists. The East Village became the trendy place to go out. More young people moved in. Rents went up. Landlords split one bedrooms into two bedrooms and still raised rents. Nicer restaurants and bars replaced dives. I wasn't around to see most of this; it had pretty much happened by the time I moved to NY. Now, it's cleaner, safer for everyone, a pleasant place to live. I moved to the outskirts of the neighborhood, to a block that felt a little sketchy at first - though no one has ever hassled me. In the last two years, one new building replaced an empty lot on the next block, another new building is nearly finished in the formerly empty lot next door to my building, and while I was gone construction began in an empty lot across the street. These new buildings will make the block safer in feel and reality. Young teachers and social workers and others in our salary bracket won't be able to live in them. The artists and families who lived here before we did definitely won't be able to live in them. And rents will go up all around.

I'm not romanticizing run-down, unsafe neighborhoods. They are run-down and unsafe for everyone who lives in them! I'm sure the parents in my building are happy enough to have safer streets and parks for their kids, less exposure to gangs, and cleaner laundromats. Yet, the forces that improve the neighborhood are the same forces that eventually push out the people who have been living here longest. Is there a way to make a place safer and cleaner for the community that lives there?

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