How not to gentrify a neighborhood: throw a party making fun of its poverty

Jimmy Carter tours the South Bronx in the 1970s.
Jimmy Carter tours the South Bronx in the 1970s.
Image: US National Archives/Wikimedia Commons
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Forget the hipsters and coffee shops, that’s amateur hour. A huge party in a historically impoverished area of New York City last week was so aggressive in its advocacy for gentrification that the ensuing backlash was a matter of when, not if. Developers sitting on a $58 million dollar piece of land in the South Bronx held a pre-Halloween event in a warehouse in the neighborhood, which they decorated with a crass ‘crime and squalor’ theme they termed “Macabre Suite.”

Celebrities including Kendall Jenner, Naomi Campbell, Baz Luhrmann and Adrien Brody cavorted amongst bullet riddled car bodies and burning trashcans, meant to reflect the South Bronx of the 1970s. Guests were encouraged to hashtag photos #Bronxisburning, according to New York Magazine.

The party appears to have been part of an effort led by real estate mogul Keith Rubenstein to spark interest in the area along the Harlem River where his firm plans to build two luxury residential towers next year.

To a certain extent, it worked. Vogue covered the event and caught a guest claiming the South Bronx to be “The new Brooklyn.” But many in the city who were not in attendance were unamused and unconvinced:

City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes the South Bronx, was rightfully offended.

The party perfectly captured what gives gentrification a bad rap: developers—and then residents—who come in with no regard for the history of a neighborhood, not to mention the culture of its inhabitants.

Wealthy people moving into a developing neighborhood isn’t inherently bad for the neighborhood’s poor. New residents bring tax revenue that benefits the whole community, so long as affordable housing options remain available to low-income residents as the neighborhood’s population grows. This is arguably the responsibility of policymakers, not developers, to ensure. In the recent sale of Manhattan’s largest apartment complex, Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, to Blackstone Group LP, Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiated to ensure that almost half the units would continue to be available at below-market rate, proving that in some cases everyone can win. (For what it’s worth, Rubenstein’s South Bronx development will not directly displace any residents, as it is going up in what is currently an industrial area.)

In fact, diverse communities may actually be the most stable. Unconvinced? Take the “white flight” migration of the mid-20th century, for example. When wealthy white residents left American cities to sequester themselves in the suburbs, it had devastating effects on the residents left behind. Now, the wealthy are moving back into cities, as homogeneous, suburban life goes out of style.

Queens, where new and native residents alike sing the praises of their diverse neighborhoods, is a current example of gentrification done right. “The explosion of diversity has helped foster a more tranquil community,” NPR reports of Astoria, home to the borough’s most culturally eclectic population.

Inherent to the successful growth of Queens has been its residents’ respect for their neighbors. Unfortunately, Rubenstein’s “Bronx is Burning” party set the opposite tone for the future development of the South Bronx.

After reveling in a parody of the neighborhood’s violent history, guests were ferried safely back to Manhattan on yellow school buses. Ironically, of course.