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The ‘New’ Gentrification Explored at NJ Spotlight on Cities Conference

Developers and advocates discuss ways to breathe new life into neighborhoods without displacing long-time residents
Jersey City's Schroeder Lofts, developed by Paul Silverman

Gentrification is a dirty word in many quarters, having come to represent the idea of new development — and its attendant residents (usually wealthier and white) — displacing people with deep roots in the community. But that doesn’t have to be the case, according to a panel of advocates for new development, who spoke last week on “Gentrification: From Urban to Urbane” at the NJ Spotlight On Cities conference held at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC).

Mayor Lester Taylor of East Orange boasted that his city has “a different model. We have room to grow.”

With state funding for local initiatives lower than it used to be and countless studies showing that gentrification actually doesn’t displace many residents, some architects of urban change are giving the concept a second look and finding creative new ways to make it work for everyone. The other speakers on the panel were Jersey City-based developer Paul Silverman, responsible for a number of the transformational properties in that city, as well as Braden Crooks, a sustainable-cities activist from the Designing the We social impact studio in New York City.

Though Crooks has a dimmer view on gentrification than the other two, all three men are striving to bring new economic life to underinvested communities while conserving and even strengthening their core culture. Whether it’s preserving rather than razing an iconic building or giving existing businesses tools to thrive, the new gentrification insists on maintaining, respecting, and highlighting what’s special about what’s there. The first step for the panelists — as well as responsible developers, elected officials, and activists around the country — is to prioritize vacant buildings or blocks over inhabited areas when identifying redevelopment projects.

“We don’t take buildings that have people in them,” said Silverman, who generally rehabs empty “theaters, hospitals, school, churches, and factories.”

Some, like Taylor, believe that approach marks the difference between “gentrification” and “renewal.”

“Most development is happening in vacant and abandoned lots,” he added of his midsized city, which he says had 85,000 residents 25 years ago and 65,000 now. “We’re diversifying incomes in our city, not gentrifying our city.”

Taylor describes his four square-mile municipality as ideal for income diversification. He says a majority of schoolchildren qualify for free-or-reduced lunch in an overall population that’s 85 percent black and made up to a large extent of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, East Orange’s infrastructure erects barriers that lower-income people in other cities don’t encounter. Much of the city resembles suburbs where single-family homes practically require a car.

Because the city may not be as natural a draw for investors as larger ones like Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City that are an easy commute to Manhattan, civic leaders are attempting to improve it holistically in order to entice former residents to come back home. In trying to establish a more middle-class residential base, they’re working to create a cleaner, safer city and stabilize the housing market by helping homeowners facing foreclosure negotiate with banks. In March, city leaders signed a contract to bring all public wages up to at least $15 per hour by 2018.

“We’re trying to market East Orange as urban center of excellence … and show the business community that (we’re) serious,” Taylor said.

As part of the business community himself, Silverman feels it’s his responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the neighborhoods he impacts. He calls his company a “huge supporter” of two nonprofit organizations that enhance learning opportunities for local children and teens, and he aims to improve home values across neighborhoods by contributing to Jersey City’s affordable housing trust fund.

Further, he tries to avoid leasing space to national chains and even helped to relocate a nearby vintage clothing boutique, and a fitness studio into larger spaces that he custom-designed for them.

“Supporting the community … is one of the most important things we can do as developers,” he said.

Crooks agrees that existing businesses can and should be nurtured by newcomers as a way to keep them as community assets instead of chasing them out with escalating rents. He cites an old record shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where residents and local high school students are working on making connections with the shopkeepers to create a shared value that can allow stakeholders and the neighborhood to benefit.

“How do we get folks really engaged in planning their communities all the time? We need proactive processes to create outlets for all the energy that’s already here,” he said.

In the case of the record store, owners may create a membership model to deliver weekly songs to subscribers and program events that can make their store a must-visit destination where new Bed-Stuy dwellers come to “plug in” to the neighborhood.

Crooks worries that after decades of racist policies, such as redlining, that kept people of color from buying homes and establishing businesses, these populations still suffer from an inability to build wealth. He feels it’s especially important to encourage success in the minority-owned businesses that may struggle to survive when the “hipsters” come to town. Perhaps only that way, he says, can society innovate ways to repair these historic inequities.

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