There goes the neighborhood


There Goes the Neighborhood is a podcast series from The Nation and WNYC.

It provides a look into the public perception of rezoning East New York. The reporters and producers get the emotional response on tape in a way you can only accomplish on radio, complete with all of the vocal inflections and intonation, putting a human sound on a complex set of issues.

However, a few criticisms:

For a podcast series about gentrification, the hosts don’t ever actually define what it is. This isn’t a knock against the producers, as gentrification doesn’t have a universally agreed upon definition to point to. By keeping things nebulous, the producers are able to capture the responses and reactions from New Yorkers without putting their thumb on the scale. They range from concerns about housing costs to new restaurants that don’t feel like they’re ‘for us.’ Cultural changes, economic changes, social changes – it’s all there.

However, much of the show focuses on the city’s response to this trend – NYC’s push for inclusionary zoning. Without defining the nature of the problem (gentrification), it’s very difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the city’s response. Programs like IZ are focused on providing a specific kind of ‘proper noun’ Affordable Housing; newly constructed housing units offered at below market rates. The particular mechanism of IZ builds these units in exchange for additional development. IZ is predicated on a change to the physical environment of the city.

While the podcast talks a lot about race, class, and the challenges of a changing city, it never quite rounds the corner and asks the next question – if change is inevitable, what kind of policy response is appropriate (and is New York’s response adequate)? How should communities look to manage change?

It’s clear that the reporters are interested in telling the human story of people facing eviction, watching their neighborhoods change before their eyes. But in discussing a major change to the city’s zoning policy, the podcast series has very few interviews with the public officials involved in crafting that policy (I only recall one quote from Vicki Been referenced in the final wrap-up episode).

Perhaps my background as a planner tunes my ear to things like this, but there are other small mistakes regarding the policies that shape a city’s housing stock. Zoning is the big one. In episode 4, they discuss New York’s 1916 zoning code, noting the results proved so popular, and property values increased – “and developers have been manipulating the zoning process ever since.”

I might argue with the greedy developers vs. civic minded interests framing; but the broad intent of zoning to preserve and increase property value isn’t wrong. However, they then add this: “DeBlasio’s innovation is to use zoning not just to facilitate growth, but to control it. That’s new.”

No, it is not. That is the very idea of zoning.

There are numerous references to a housing shortage and a housing crisis, but the entire series elides the overall demands for growth. They clearly document the change in the kind of people moving into the neighborhood, but don’t ever address the broader question of how to increase the housing supply in the face of growing demand. How should the city grow? If not here, then where? If the city doesn’t engage in shaping this physical growth, that won’t prevent the social fabric of the neighborhood from changing.

Despite these frustrations, these are important conversations to have. Taking action to fight gentrification will require building a political coalition; one that’s bigger than just the market urbanists or the anti-displacement activists:

There’s potential to form a political coalition around these issues; this podcast series is a great look into the kinds of issues such a coalition would need to address.

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