Gentrification in Rochester, New York: A Tale of Two Cities

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We often discuss the concept of “two Rochesters” but what happens when these two Rochesters meet? As city officials and planners seek to shrink income gaps, reduce segregation and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, the city’s neighborhoods are predicted to see vast amounts of gentrification in coming years, with areas like Beechwood and the 19th Ward already seeing change in the resident make-up.

However, by itself, gentrification isn’t inherently negative or positive, explained Dr. Ann Howard, a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She explained that the moving in of more affluent and middle-class citizens isn’t by itself bad. It becomes a negative process when these new neighbors are at the expense of the older residents and contributes to the loss of the cultural and social vibe of the neighborhood.

And in Rochester this is even more likely because of the large gaps between residents of the two Rochesters. For some residents, the city is on the cusp of great progress. So cheap housing and development projects suggest real estate investments in the city will pay off, especially for young families who want a more central location. For the other part of Rochester, violence and poverty reign, and to be something, anything, you have to get out.

So these neighborhoods can, and often do, become a mix of residents who no longer want to be there and incoming residents having a sense of needing to “fix” the area. This combination only paves the path for negative gentrification because there is less resilience than in neighborhoods with more pride and it’s also more likely the newcomers are going to be especially politically active to fix the neighborhood’s “woes.”

“It’s a very challenging question and the research doesn’t give us much to go by,” Howard said, discussing gentrification in Rochester. She said most of the research focuses on larger cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, which have larger real estate markets and more popular center cities. “We don’t have that kind of real estate market in Rochester right now. We have a good market but it’s good from the perspective of affordability. But nevertheless, some of these other initiatives…have the potential for adversely impacting lower-income neighborhoods. And I say that cautiously. From my point of view, gentrification is neither positive or negative. It is. Is it possible to have mixed income neighborhoods successfully? Is it possible to bring in people with greater disposable household income and not have that new resident and the growth of that new resident profile be at the expense of current residents?”

It depends, she said. When dependent on just the impersonal forces of the market, residents are especially vulnerable. Prices in the area rise, owners and/or renters are no longer able to afford their homes and then they’re displaced. For those who can afford to stay, they may find more and more affluent residents moving in, reducing their political voice eventually.

“What the research tells us is gentrification can also cause cultural displacement, social displacement and political displacement. It’s called indirect displacement,” Howard explained. “Whose voice gets heard from that neighborhood? Evidence suggests that the greater the disposable household income, the greater one’s voice.”

“Public policy also drives the market,” she said . “The market responds to things like ‘we’re going to subsidize your revitalization, rezone, have a new focus on downtown entertainment that appeals to younger adults.’ All of that is a result of policy and that drives the market because people aren’t going to invest unless they see other indicators of a good investment. Having said that, the research isn’t determinative and part of the reason is because it depends on how you create that mixed income neighborhood.”

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Rachel Barnhart explained that she lives in the Beechwood area and doesn’t see herself as a gentrifying force because she works to become part of the neighborhood. This yet again highlights a difference in how people understand and define gentrification. For some, those who are strict protectors of city neighborhoods, gentrification happens as soon as white, middle-class residents move in. Even if it’s just one or two. For others it’s much later and is only once the neighborhood loses its culture. It boils down to a basic question: Is gentrification the moving in of more money or the moving out/displacement/disenfranchisement of the residents who were there first?

Barnhart would fall among the latter but said, like Howard, that she believes policy is a necessary force in the mediation of gentrification.

“I think it’s important to include people when we have successes… Here’s the thing, there’s good gentrification and there’s bad. Good is when everyone is lifted up, when home values rise, services come to a neighborhood. Bad is when people are displaced and have to move. We don’t want that. It tears at the social fabric of the community. You have to strive for economic diversity, a balance or a mix. We do a lot with programs we don’t do enough with policy.”

Specifically she pointed to her property tax break plan, a huge part of her campaign for mayor. She said she’d cut property taxes in half and added that ideally it’d help retain low-income renters because landlords could pass on those savings to tenants. Of course, there’s no reason for landlords to pass on this savings but the hope is that with competition from those who do, everyone will be encouraged to do so. It’s a plan that’s been met with much criticism. However, Howard backed the overall idea that policy can be a way to mediate impersonal forces like the market or economics. When homes become cheaper, encourage residents to take advantage of this and purchase or fix up cheap homes in their area. So, programs helping with home buying are a great start but they often leave much to be desired when it comes to actual activism, which of course they’re not created to drive.

Enter agency.

George Moses of NEAD oversees much of Beechwood, a neighborhood that spans from Bay and Goodman and up to Culver Ave and East Main. While Culver has long seen more affluent and/or white residents, Moses told me in a separate interview about a year ago, that these residents have begun to trickle as far down as Webster Ave- Barnhart is one of them for example. It’s important to note that gentrifying forces rarely come in with the idea of steamrolling the people- they come with good intentions. Seeing the neighborhood’s trouble spots as flaws instead of assets that need to be built upon further, is what creates the disconnect.

“I stay on Parsells,” said Moses. “Our street has a certain character. We have people of mixed incomes staying here. But you have to define what that character is- that’s one of the things missing. You got to find out where you are, where you want to go and where I’m living, is that going to meet what I need? I believe in mixed income neighborhoods. I’d like to be able to see my family’s resources increase but stay here. I want to do well and do good but does that mean once I get to a certain (level) I gotta leave? So how you define character and keep it matters. You have to remember the before the before– before it was dilapidated and I remember before that because I grew up over there. Keepers of the character and the culture are important.”

And it’s not just homes. Buildings and public spaces matter in neighborhoods too and the Public Market may be one of the best examples of what’s known as public space gentrification. The Market for decades was heralded as a place to get cheap food, however, in recent years it’s been developed into a more “happening” spot with restaurants and occasional events. That by itself doesn’t suggest negative gentrification. This is just gentrification- or the moving in of money. It began to be seen as negative once some of the restaurants were more expensive and slowly, prices ticked up (whether because of a new consumer base or inflation but probably, like most products, a mix of the two). There are various programs, like the tokens for SNAP users, but overall it stands as one of the best ways to discuss entertainment for a mixed-income audience. How can you preserve the character of this institution and still capitalize on new audiences?

“Once white folks discover something, it changes,” said Moses. “So they look at the Market and it’s dilapidated, which I’d disagree with…And who wants to pay $5 for a breakfast sandwich at the Public Market when I can get one for $2 from the Korean dude down the street? Like, I don’t even go to the market anymore unless I want an experience.”

Slowly, but surely, the audience at the Market on Saturday mornings has begun to grow whiter and more affluent. Though it was designed to bring together people from all walks of life, it’s beginning to see fewer of the visitors it once did and now visitors with more money and more political voice, and they’ll most likely continue shaping the space the way they see fit.

Howard added that gentrifying forces often come to urban settings with suburban values, meaning instead of building up key urban aspects, they destroy them and put in new structures that reflect their own life experiences. This often comes from a lack of understanding. They don’t know, for example, that those who sit on the porch, especially the elderly, have been watching the neighborhood for decades. Or that block parties used to be an essential part of urban living. Because they come with no historical understanding and only their personal experiences, but have more disposable income (and as a result a louder political voice) they can change the area intensely and rapidly.

However, instead of sitting around and discussing at what point incoming residents counted as gentrification, Moses and his team of neighborhood strategists and builders decided to purchase land in the Beechwood area. They created the Freedom School and the Freedom Store. He said he believes buying land is one of the best ways to fight gentrification and it can be done together among many buyers if money is a barrier. Not only does it reduce the available property that can be bought by those outside of the neighborhood but it also gives current residents more of a foothold in community discussions.

He added that mediating negative gentrification isn’t about empowering people- they already have the power. Instead it’s about making them realize their own agency and exercising it. For one, they have to have to pride in their communities. Instead of leaving, build it up to be the place you want to live in.

“You have to know you already have that power,” said Moses, dispelling this idea of empowerment. He said people already have the power and it’s up to them to use it; to exercise their agency. “Did they take my power or did I give it to you? And if you didn’t, well, you still have it. So what is it? What are the things you can do? Nobody knows you better than yourself so get to work. The only thing that hasn’t changed is us. We’re still here. We have historical reference on what happens when a neighborhood goes through this cycle because it is a cycle. Who’s going to protect those who don’t know?”

Gentrification may be an unavoidable force as millennials seek cheap housing and families move back into the city, but that doesn’t mean it has to exclude residents already there. From public policy to independent agency, we all have a role in protecting the city’s neighborhoods, both those already there and those coming in.
headshotABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tianna Mañón is the Editor in Chief of Open Mic Rochester. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2011, where she double-majored in Journalism and Political Science. As a politics and news junkie, she sees her role as making politics and policy understandable and relatable to everyone. Follow her on twitter @TiannaManon

Open Mic Rochester is Rochester’s fastest-growing news publication. A digital black magazine, the publication focuses on black perspectives and ensuring these voices are always included in discourse. As a hard news publication, they are committed to the truth and accuracy. Find them online at openmicroc.com or on Twitter at @open_roc

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