The following is by our friend Geoffery Mullings of The Blinker who has kindly allowed us to syndicate this important piece.
Yes, “Cromwell-Jerome” Could Become Gentrified. But The Residents Can Stop That |The Blinker.
YES, “CROMWELL-JEROME” COULD BECOME GENTRIFIED. BUT THE RESIDENTS CAN STOP THAT
But the vision isn’t without some controversial costs. Building more affordable housing may call for the area to be rezoned from industrial and small-scale commercial use to residential use, similar to the Willets Point redevelopment in Queens. Rezoning could mean the end for Jerome’s auto repair market, and the displacement of many local residents who rely on the agglomeration of shops and other businesses to make ends meet.
More affordable housing, at what cost?
With NYC in a housing crisis, some may wonder if it isn’t worth dismantling old industry to create more affordable housing in the City’s poorest borough. Rest assured the answer is almost unequivocally “no.”
First, it’s arguable that New York hardly needs any more housing units at all. There are enough vacant units across the City to house our entire homeless population, with remainders. Much of that stock is inaccessible for a number of reasons, including mismatches between supply and demand (high demand for Studios & 3 BRs on a supply mostly comprised of 1 & 2 BRs) and the use of vacant units either only part-time or as investment vehicles. An effort to connect tenants to vacant units by mayoral candidate and former Speaker of the Council Christine Quinn pretty much failed.
In any case, building more affordable housing with such limited land options and so much vacancy is inefficient.
We should also ask: affordable to whom? The affordable housing formula has yet to be sufficiently demonstrated by Mayor de Blasio, and the normal assumption is that the newest housing stock typically goes to the highest matching bidder. It’s unlikely that incumbent tenants will have access to new housing, especially at rents they can afford. And while there is an argument that new housing stock could have hand-me-down effects on housing for lower income residents, the displacement and unemployment that could be generated from rezoning needs to be fully considered.
What will gentrification look like along Cromwell-Jerome?
The first step to gentrifying any neighborhood is uprooting the infrastructure used by incumbent residents to make a living. People without jobs can’t pay rent, and they’ll move to places where either matching employment is offered or low-cost living opportunities exist. That makes room for new tenants, who only need a new or nearby job market to attract them to more reasonably priced housing.
Rezoning Jerome Avenue will all but certainly start the gentrifying engine. The jobs there are unique anchors for nearby residents, in an industry with relatively low barriers to entry and international prominence. If you fixed vehicles in the Dominican Republic, or Jamaica, you can fix them on Jerome Avenue. Many immigrants with little training in other industries or with poor English Language Proficiency rely on the local auto repair market to give them a shot at surviving in NYC.
As one resident asked according to Bronx Bureau, “Are these the kind of jobs we need to protect?”
And rezoning isn’t the only finger pointing towards gentrification. “The rest of the picture involves revitalizing the whole strip and making it safer” notes Curbed. While the surrounding area and the Concourse has had some troubles with block gangs (sometimes called “crews”), the idea of delivering safety is subjective. In Washington Heights, wheregentrification more prominently threatens the neighborhood, enhanced safety has meant criminalizing incumbent, otherwise law abiding residents for minor crimes like marijuana possession. Needless criminalization will only make gentrification easier if it removes harmless income streams or inhibits access to employment and education.
The road to safer streets starts bycreating more jobs, not taking existing ones away.
Once jobs are removed, it’s all downhill from there. The neighborhood will be ripe for improvements that few if any of the incumbent residents will benefit from. Rezoning will hopefully decongest the neighborhood’s streets and air – something incumbent tenants could badly use – but that will only make the area more appealing to educationally better armed, employment hungry Millennials. They won’t hesitate to occupy a neighborhood with excellent transit access (easy highway access, but even more attractive are the 4, B, and D trains) better parks, fresher air, and apartments marginally more affordable than those in Manhattan.
“I always said that there could be more done with this neighborhood—to blow it up,” says David Modesto, 22, according to Bronx Bureau. David says many of his friends left The Bronx after college, and spend most of their leisure time in Manhattan. Although he has roots in the neighborhood the sad reality is that young, highly educated workers like him will be the folks most likely to replace incumbent low-skill immigrants when auto repair shops are swapped for new housing stock mostly affordable to the well employed.
The community reacts
“I’d like to see a business atmosphere where one can feel comfortable bringing their family to a sit-down restaurant,” said José Rodriguez, district manager of Community Board 4, according to Bronx Bureau. “Not the Kennedy Fried Chicken, not the McDonalds, not a liquor store on every corner. I want to see a real nice neighborhood with folks walking up and down, without having to move because there are 50 cars on the sidewalk.”
Rodriguez brings up very valid points about the community’s current state and welfare. Jerome Avenue, due to the surrounding poverty, is a prime example of a food swamp, among other harmful characteristics. But residents are weary of the City’s investigation and ultimate plans for the neighborhood. A walking tour was recently disrupted by presumably incumbent tenants who were concerned that their neighborhood only became relevant when it seemed ripe for profit.
The community has all right to be suspicious, considering the direction being described by people involved in Cromwell-Jerome’s planning. There seems to be more concern about a hopeful future, and less concern about ensuring incumbent tenants can make it through to the other side.
How to make sure incumbent tenants survive the inevitable
One person interrupting the walking tour may have put it best, “Ya’ll should have been here 10 years ago.”
Whether or not some tenants want change, it’s hard to see a future within which Jerome Avenue remains unchanged. It’s also hard to find good reasons why Jerome Avenue should remain unchanged – the neighborhood serves a marginal economic benefit to tenants as is, but much of that is eroded by the noise and environmental pollution, and socioeconomic neglect. Residents there deserve better. And better starts with solidifying a place for incumbent tenants in whatever Cromwell-Jerome will look like, using what is known about the neighborhood now and what we know about surviving gentrification.
Expanding rent stabilization and maintaining it where it exists should be central to any redevelopment strategy. It’s been demonstrated that stabilized rents keep poor people in place, especially during gentrification. Additionally, evidence suggests incumbent tenants who live in stabilized units are more likely to enjoy the socioeconomic benefits of the improved neighborhood. There is no reason why people need to choose between continuing to scrape by or being left behind.
Combined with stabilization should be an incumbent-preference in any housing development. Not only should tenants be protected where they live, but they should be given the first opportunity to move into better conditions if possible. Similar local hiring preferences should also be given by new businesses attracted to development in the area. It’s about protecting the livelihoods of people who sustained the community through its decades of neglect.
Rezoning shouldn’t happen without a highly subsidized retraining initiative and limited-time protection of select auto repair businesses in the area. That is to say, people should be given the time and opportunity to adjust to any changes in their neighborhood. The market there is so vital that some businesses will also need to be protected (at least not zoned out) if displacement is to be avoided. And workers willing to be retrained for in-demand, related Green Industry jobs need to be offered that chance at the lowest cost possible. As tenants find their steady footing in the new labor market protections on auto repair shops can be gradually lifted.
Finally, we must consider the businesses for whom displacement hinges on whether or not they can keep up with changing neighborhood preferences. Bodegas and other grocery stores, which complement businesses and residences in the area, need to be armed with tools to offer healthier options. Improving a neighborhood for its residents – not without them – includes offering residents the choices they deserve: the ones in their best interest, not just the ones that sell well.
If your biggest concern about this survival plan is its cost, you’re absolutely sane. This won’t be cheap, especially since it shifts the costs of community protection from residents and non-profits to the City government. But the costs are relatively small compared to the burdens of homelessness, hunger, and social stagnation that will accompany the unchecked gentrification of Jerome Avenue. Communities don’t have to remain dormant for incumbent tenants to survive, but after the years of intentional destruction of parts of the outer boroughs it’s time that the City pays its fair share to uplift residents. If others want to profit, the residents who held these neighborhoods down for decades need to see the dividends first.
Featured photo credit: Kim Snyder / Flickr
About Geoffery Mullings:
Geoffrey Mullings is the Editor-in-chief of The Blinker and is a CUNY student hailing from The Bronx. Versed in social science, communication, and business, Geoff also brings to the team experience in news, politics, education, and audio-visual production and technology. Geoff is currently seeking an MBA from CUNY Baruch and is a Fordham alum.”
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