Monday, November 12, 2007

The Embers of Gentrification

Red Hook: The Embers of Gentrification
My old 'hood is even more like Detroit than initially thought.

[excerpt from New York Magazine]: For the last two years, people in Red Hook have been waiting - some hopefully, some fearfully - for that wave to crash, the hordes to come, the towers to sprout. Weirdly, though, none of that has happened. In fact, for all the heraldic attention, the neighborhood now seems to be going in reverse. The Pioneer bar has shut down. So has the bistro 360 and, just recently, the live-music venue the Hook. Buildings put on the market for $2.5 million have stayed empty and unsold. Landlords hoping to get $2,500 a month for a Van Brunt storefront - the rent that Barbara Corcoran was asking - have found no takers. In fact, Corcoran's spot sat unrented for over two years, until a local business took the space at the cut rate of $1,800 a month. The perception of the neighborhood got bad enough that in August the Post ran a story headlined "Call It 'Dead' Hook." Somehow the neighborhood went from "undiscovered paradise" to Dead Hook in just over a year.

It's a terrible shame to see some great businesses close in a neighborhood on the brink. Stalled gentrification in itself though is not necessarily a bad thing. Gentrification is like cholesterol: there's a good kind a bad kind. Rather than chain businesses and loftominiums popping up like dandelions (like in Williamsburg and other parts of the city,) a slow, deliberate and neighborhood contextual development can take place. This is exactly the kind of development Red Hook was experiencing, but unfortunately is incredibly rare and difficult to maintain. The only time it works well is when a number of dedicated small investors are doing it at the same time, combined with new residents seeking diverse and legitimate neighborhood businesses. Big development money seems to either come in a reckless flood or not at all.

I don't see either Red Hook or Detroit ever being truly gentrified places, due to blatantly obvious but seemingly insurmountable barriers. Red Hook is a bit simpler: a subway stop less than twenty minutes away would all but change everything (all but housing projects, crumbling infrastructure, etc.) Detroit is more complicated and an awful lot bigger, but there are perhaps quixotic yet theoretically plausible solutions there as well.

I wouldn't call either place "dead" - just "stalled". Neither will see a brush fire of big development any time soon or any of the major changes needed to cure what ails these places, but there is always another wave of optimistic enterpernuers with a bit to invest and the best of intentions on the horizon. Getting the magic formula right is the trick.

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