Mayor Eric Adams was right to honor the memory of Seneca Village, the community of free blacks that once stood on part of the site used to create Central Park. But he’s misguided in asserting, as he did in his Juneteenth speech, that gentrification — and the changes it can have on current-day black neighborhoods — is akin to slavery. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Gentrification is an aspect of freedom.
It is well worth recalling the many communities of successful black-owned businesses and property owners — from Harlem to St. Louis to Pittsburgh to Detroit, that were cleared for the alleged greater good of urban renewal and, like Seneca Village, without compensation for their owner.
Think of Pittsburgh’s Hill neighborhood, immortalized by the brilliant playwright August Wilson — replete with a rich community life, yet labeled a slum and replaced by public housing.
But buying and selling property is not seizing. Adams’ call to “preserve” black neighborhoods ignores that urban real estate constantly changes as the economy changes, as commuting patterns change, as the climate changes. That’s just not how healthy cities work — for any racial group.
“Preserving neighborhoods” means freezing them, and long-time residents may suffer, rather than prosper, as a result. Somehow declaring Bedford-Stuyvesant to be permanently a black neighborhood would have meant denying long-time owners the chance to sell their homes for far more than they originally paid — and, in the process, to build the inter-generational wealth blacks are likely to lack.
So, too, are poorer residents of neighborhoods in which higher-income newcomers arrive likely to realize benefits: more retail choices, more employment opportunities, the improved city services that the political pressure of the affluent can demand.
So, too, do increased property values lead to increased property-tax revenues, providing, in theory, improved city services, both for poor as well as well-off neighborhoods. The fact that New York’s property-tax system fails to do that at present is a problem of government, not gentrification.
If there is any aspect of New York City life today that is akin to slavery it is the fate of public-housing residents. They lack the control over the daily life surroundings that property owners take for granted. They live an institutionalized life, in which they must appeal to authorities for repairs, or for permission to plant a garden.
And, crucially, they lack the freedom to own anything; their apartments are owned by government: They can’t rent empty rooms to lodgers. They must pay a higher rent when their income increases. They must hope that plans to attract private investors to chip away at the New York City Housing Authority’s $40 billion in deferred maintenance come to fruition.
There’s no doubt that gentrification may price some poorer tenants out of increasingly well-off neighborhoods. But to insist that black neighborhoods must be flash-frozen patronizes residents, based on the assumption that they cannot cope with change, adapt and move on.
Plus, thanks to fair-housing laws, there’s no reason affluent African-Americans can’t be the “gentrifiers.” Nor, for that matter, should we rule out the prospect that new African-American communities will form out of choice, not policy; indeed, someone should tell that to progressives who mainly believe black communities are, per se, “segregated” and need to be changed.
The mayor of America’s greatest city must understand and acknowledge that it is Gotham’s history of change that underlies its dynamism — and that lays the foundation of a shared, not exclusive, prosperity.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.