What Actually Caused Gentrification in Brooklyn?

By Imploring Transplants to “Go Back to Iowa”, Borough President Eric Adams Misidentifies Who’s Even Moving to The Borough.

January 29, 2020

Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams made national news this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when he lashed out at New York City’s transplants. 

“Folks are not only hijacking your apartments, and displacing your living arrangements. They displace your conversations, and say the things that are important to you are no longer important,” said Adams, at an event hosted by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “Go back to Iowa. You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was (sic) here.”

This got quick condemnation from both ideological sides of the media spectrum, and from city council speaker Corey Johnson, who, like Adams, is running for mayor. That said, Adams, who is black, was voicing frustration that many people in New York City feel. Since the revitalization that began in the 1990s, median home prices have risen for everyone, regardless of race, and are now nearly triple the national average. Black areas have proven especially prone to turnover, with the share of the black population in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant dropping significantly. 

But still, it was a strange statement, showing not only a poor understanding of New York City’s demographic changes but a poor vision of what makes it great in the first place. 

Blaming, for example, transplants from Ohio and Iowa isn’t even accurate. The number of people from those states moving to New York City is only negligibly higher than the ones making the reverse move. The same goes for people from elsewhere in the U.S., says Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz. 

“Domestic migration into New York from within the U.S. has been declining over the past eight years,” Hymowitz wrote in the Daily News. “It’s international migration and a rising birth to death ratio that boosted the city’s population numbers to record highs.”

The white share of the population, moreover, has since the 1990s declined from 43% to 33%. 

What really has driven gentrification is immigration. A Baruch College analysis found that between 2010 and 2016, New York City’s domestic population declined by 524,000, while its foreign-born population increased by 500,000. That puts New York City’s foreign-born share at 38%, the highest it’s been in a century. This growth has changed all kinds of city neighborhoods, black or otherwise. Bedford-Stuyvesant is now less than 50% black because 20% of residents are Hispanic. But Bay Ridge, which used to be a Norwegian enclave, is now also only 50% white, as the Asian share of the population jumped 10 percentage points since 2000. It’s become known as Brooklyn’s “Little Palestine” since most of these Asians are of Arabic heritage. Examples of this immigrant-driven demographic churn abound citywide. It’s odd that Adams wouldn’t know this, and instead lay the blame on Midwesterners. 

But even more odd is why he thinks the domestic migrant or immigrant growth should stop. New York City has made enormous strides in the last 30 years. Murder rates have tanked, the subways have improved, and rather than becoming just a soulless hub of Starbucks and Walgreens – the generic complaint – much of the city has become more dynamic and interesting. Hymowitz, who has spent years debunking myths about gentrification, notes that in the 1980s, leaders were debating whether some parts of the city should revert to farmland. Now, largely because of the new immigrants, investment – and gentrification – that would be unthinkable. 

“We’ve yet to find a better alternative [than gentrification] for urban revival,” Hymowitz writes. 

While one downside has been the higher home prices, that’s due to city zoning regulations that prevent housing supply from meeting demand. According to the Department of City Planning, only about 1 new unit is being added for every 4 new jobs. Citing this fact would be a much better way to educate people on gentrification than just blaming the new people who come. 

Rather, New York City has always attracted such people – including the native black constituency that Adams represents, whose ancestors migrated from the South. It is those former transplants and the new ones who built the city. They are the last ones that political leaders should tell to go back where they came from.  

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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