The social effects of gentrification in Washington Heights/Inwood Manhattan

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Eileen Gonzalez
Interdisciplinary Studies
City College of New York

This paper will analyze the social effects of gentrification on residents residing in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. It focuses on the Washington Heights/Inwood area of upper Manhattan. Different disciplines provide insights into the effects of the demographic change with respect to housing, business, intergenerational stability, employment, and public space. Gentrification is the process of “revitalizing” a neighborhood to prepare for more affluent, wealthier people to inhabit the area (Chong, 2017, P1). Families and local communities are threatened in this process because it takes away their common space and the support systems that they need to flourish. Families face tough decisions as rents dramatically increase forcing families to leave or even face eviction. Additionally, small “mom and pop” businesses are closing at a dramatically fast rate affecting families and their income. The ordeal impacts residents quality of life, directly affecting their mental health as needs become a major burden to families stress levels.
To understand the effects of gentrification on a community dense with strong culture, Domincians, who are predominantly the main group residing in Washington Heights/ Inwood, one must look through a variety of disciplinary lenses to address this complex problem. This paper analyzes gentrification through the lens of Sociology, which is essentially the study of society, including the social lives of people, groups, and society as a whole. The study of economics is a viewpoint important in the social impact of gentrification. Economics involves examining markets and how the change impacts the cost of living, viability of small businesses and employment opportunities. Psychology is another disciplinary lens that entails the effects of human behavior, experiences, and mental processes. Analyzing the effects of gentrification through the lens of Sociology helps to understand and convey how a community manages to handle the crucial effects that gentrification has on an entire group of people. The economic lens allows for one to understand the economic impact gentrification plays for both business owners and employees within the area. The psychological lens illustrates the devastating mental health impact encroached in communities that are impacted by gentrification. These three disciplines help to raise awareness of its impacts felt in areas that had originally developed its roots and richness by the original inhabitants, a crucial understanding needed for policy makers to empathize with community members and see their value and contributions within the community they built.
Gentrification is a modern terminology that prepares communities for the arrival of more affluent people which raises rent prices, property values and significant demographic changes to a community. Unfortunately, families who have an establishment in a community are the most affected by gentrification. As rent prices increase in a gentrifying neighborhood, lower working class families are faced with displacement pressures which in many cases have led to eviction (Newman and Wyly, 2006, P25). The once neglected neighborhood with poor investments is now turned into a point of interest by “professionals” who are primarily of white decent. The new attention begins to attract new businesses and land developers (Pienda, 2017, P5). The effects of this new attention leaves families, who have established community networks and support systems with the decision to look further away from their core systems of support (Chong, 2017, P2), breaking ties to what they once knew. Families soon turn to neighborhoods that are poorly invested in order to meet their affordability needs (Pineda, 2017, P13).
The economic effects of gentrification are felt in many forms. The most visible effects that one can immediately notice are the new businesses that line Dyckman and 181 streets. What was once streets lined with small businesses are now populated by big chain stores strengthening the attraction to the area for more investments. Many vocalize that gentrification has benefits, however, the question remains, to what extent? Residents in the center of a gentrifying neighborhood tend to feel the effects more intensely.One can also look at the price of available goods such as food and see that the basic needs have dramatically increased not correlating with income. This competition for employment also becomes challenging as the need for more high skilled labor increases (Desmon, 2017, P27). Those who once worked for the small “mom and pop” businesses are replaced with English speaking, high school/college graduate individuals in order to meet the demands of the new consumer. This economic impact leaves devastating consequences for families to bare, resulting in depression and anxiety as to how they will make ends meet.
Residents residing in gentrifying neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of stress which lead to depression and anxiety. One could hypothesize as to why, families struggling to make ends meet can cause stress. A study conducted by Sungwoo Lim and Pui Ying Chan (2017) showed a close relationship between displaced families and mental health issues. They tracked addresses of patients who visited the emergency room and noticed that many patients resided in areas that reputably have families being priced out. This is not to say that these are the sole reasons of mental health concerns but rather a strong indicator that the stress of not being able to provide for one’s family can lead to such issues. The stress is so profound, families with children end up radiating it on to their children which, in turn creates a vicious cycle of depression. Children of these families tend to be found with learning disabilities because they are seen as not being able to follow course work, all resulting from the constant exposure to anxiety exhibited by their parents. Results of the study found that “compared with those who remained (within their community even though their neighborhood is significantly changing) displaced residents were more likely to make emergency department visits and experience hospitalizations, mainly due to mental health” (Lim, Chan, 2017, P1). These results are eye opening and should be an area of concern for policy makers to see how damaging gentrification can be if not approached correctly.
The effects in a gentrifying neighborhood, viewed through many disciplines, is crucial in understanding how intense a community held together by the very fabric of its cultures, families and histories can be completely obliterated. The effects are so profound, that “not only of residents who are immediately displaced by gentrification processes but also of the impact of the restructuring of urban space on the ability of low-income residents to move into neighborhoods that once provided ample supply of affordable living arrangements” (Newman, Wyly, 2006, P26), but also the family closeness they once had while living in their community. This paper took on many perspectives and its reactions by a community in the center of demographic, economic, and cultural changes to illustrate the effects that they experienced. The sociological lens, took into account how community support networks tend to be dismantled as a result of outside forces. Economically, the lens brings to light the effects of the ever rising rent prices in both residential and business stand points, while the psychological effects map out its direct connection between mental health and displacement. Connecting these three lens, conveys its devastating impacts being felt by those residing within the Washington Heights/Inwood area of Upper Manhattan, hopefully raising awareness that new approaches to neighborhood revitalization that holds into account the social and economic values that have sustained and supported the people who have built these areas, is needed in order to keep the very essence of its culturally rich community.

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