Happy 50th Birthday, Gentrification!

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Until last week, I had no idea that the word gentrification was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist “seeking a word to sum up what she saw happening in the London borough of Islington, where creative young professionals were suddenly re-appraising the neighborhood’s Georgian terraces and intimate squares,” as Steven Thomson wrote in a wonderful essay on the history of gentrification for Curbed. Nor did I know that the stem of the word is “gentry.” In my gentrification ignorance, I was not alone.

So gentrification — the word if not the reality — turns 50 this year, the same year Curbed turns 10. For the past decade, the topic of gentrification has been a big part of the Curbed narrative. That’s because, as Curbed NY’s Hana Alberts writes, the topics of real estate and neighborhood change, Curbed’s raisons d’être, are inexorably intertwined. It’s also because the word gentrification gets used in ways that transcend its literal definition, which I think is well captured in the graffiti in the photo at the top of this post.

In that slightly broader spirit of gentrification discussion, Curbed NY asked a bunch of writers, bloggers, and NYC neighborhood citizens “to share with us one moment in which they knew their home had irrevocably changed. A shop opens; a dive bar closes. An industrial tank gets torn down; a pile of glassy condos launch.” Curbed’s resulting compilation of carnage makes for outstanding reading.

I moved to New York city in August 1996; my first apartment, in the odd cul-de-sac of East 5th Street between Avenues B and C in Alphabet City, was on a run-down block. Two weeks after I moved in, Neil Strauss wrote a story for the New York Times called Life Beyond Avenue A. Strauss wrote, “For many New Yorkers and tourists, Avenue A is a boundary line, east of which they will not cross. Beyond Avenue A, the streets get darker, the commercial offerings more sporadic. Stepping through a brightly lighted doorway could take you into a trendy new bar or a cockfight in progress, a fence may hide a burgeoning community garden or a sprawling garbage dump.” Indeed, the first bistro, Cafe Margaux, had just opened further up on Avenue B; hailing a cab on Avenue C was impossible, as cabs simply didn’t drive there. Less than four years later, the Times returned again, this time with a real estate reporter to tell the new story of the neighborhood: “It is impossible to take a stroll around the avenues and their connecting blocks without encountering concrete being poured, foundations for new structures being sunk, and old town houses and tenements undergoing facelifts.”

Save for one year in the West Village and one year abroad, I lived in the East Village and Lower East Side consecutively from 1996 until 2011. In that era, my answer to Curbed’s question about the moment of irrevocable change would be when the gas stations closed.

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It happened mostly in the 2005-2006 era; perhaps I remember it vividly because I was doing most of the writing on Curbed back then and found myself fascinated with the sudden closings of nearly every gas station below 42nd Street. The Gaseteria at the bottom of Avenue B? Gone. (Now apartments and a bank.) The gas station on the north side of the Houston/Broadway intersection? Gone. (Now that giant sleek Adidas building.) The one on lower Sixth Avenue, between Canal and Houston? Gone. (And only now being developed into apartments, if I recall correctly).

In this same era and area, I’d count the preservation of so many of the community gardens of the East Village as the biggest preservationist win. What would the East Village be without the garden at Avenue B and Sixth, or Avenue C and 10th? And gas stations, well, one wouldn’t think that’d be such a big loss. We’re now a city of Ubers, anyway. Yet it’s what sticks in my mind when I think about the downtown that was, and isn’t any more.