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In Cities, Do the Right Thing

By Gregory A. Briker

In Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,”which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, events unravel over the course of one tense, hot day in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. In one particularly memorable scene that has little relation to the main characters or plot, an oblivious, brownstone-owning cyclist scuffs the sneaker of the hotheaded character Buggin’ Out.

While surely a caricature of racial and economic tensions, their ensuing fight also highlights a highly complicated and contentious issue that faced major American cities at the time of the movie’s release: gentrification. And unlike the Larry Bird jerseys and frizzy hairstyles of the late 1980s, gentrification has not gone out of style.

Broadly, gentrification is a phenomenon that involves an influx of wealthier people into a poorer urban neighborhood. The cycle is predictable at an almost scientific level: It starts with a poor area of little interest to economic elites. Soon, low prices draw artists to the scene, and these artists adopt the regions as homes and places of work. The neighborhoods become cultural hubs, drawing the interest of upper classes. Finally, the rich move in, bringing with them raised property values and higher prices for basic goods, which often leads to better city services and even safer streets. At the same time, many of former residents with less money end up having to move out.

On an everyday level, gentrification comes with both boons and pitfalls. For a family living in a neighborhood undergoing the process, it may become more difficult to afford groceries or trips to the bowling alley. At the same time, that same family may be able to send its children to better public schools and access better municipal services—however unfair it may be, areas with wealthier residents are often politically better off than those with poorer residents.

But neighborhoods are made of more than the day-to-day activities of people who happen to live near each other. They are the fundamental, social units of cities. They provide a sense of community, history, and common ground to their inhabitants. And so the biggest challenge posed by gentrification is not an economic one, but a cultural one.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wealthy individuals moving into historically poorer neighborhoods. As Clifton­—the aforementioned gentrifying cyclist—says, “As I understand, this is a free country; a man can live wherever he wants. And the intermixing of people from different economic backgrounds in the same physical space is one of the joys of city life: Diversity helps to broaden the experiences and understanding of city-dwellers, and its spread is among the most paramount functions of cities. As Jane Jacobs wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,”“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

The trouble comes when new residents neglect to take an active part in respecting and preserving existing neighborhood culture. They’re not always just scuffing sneakers—often, they change a neighborhood’s composition to suit their needs. For example, take a look at the changing physical landscapes in urban areas, where high-rise residences often replace or obstruct historic buildings with deep connections to their surrounding neighborhoods and those who dwell there.  In Boston’s Chinatown, the 121-year-old Dainty Dot Hosiery Building was demolished to make way for a 26-story apartment building. (Chinatowns around the country, true hubs of cultural activity, are undergoing rapid gentrification and are on the “verge of disappearing,” according to the Asian American Legal Defense Fund).  Luxury apartments are in demand and are necessary components of cities. But they must complement, not overtake,other structures and areas that give cities the vibrancy and diversity that defines them. Otherwise, America’s metropolises will become little more than dense suburbs.

Gentrification is a subtle phenomenon that will continue to creep from neighborhood to neighborhood. It is happening right here in Boston, our backyard. And while it may seem benign from afar, it poses a threat to city culture that cannot be solved with government actions. Instead, everyone—the gentrifiers and the gentrified—must recognize that our cities are worth preserving, and that our neighborhoods are worth respecting.

Gregory A. Briker ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Currier House.

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