Ask city-dwellers to describe what, precisely, gentrification is you’ll get an array of answers. The term is a murky one, used to describe the many different ways through which money and development enter poorer or less developed neighborhoods, changing them both economically and demographically.
For some, gentrification and gentrifiers are inherently bad—pushing out residents who are often older, poorer, and darker than the neighborhood’s new occupants. For others, a new group of inhabitants brings the possibility of things residents have long hoped for, better grocery stores, new retail, renovations, and an overall revitalization that often eludes low-income neighborhoods.
In his new book The Edge Becomes The Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, author D.W. Gibson talks to New Yorkers on all sides of the argument—from developers and soon-to-be-displaced residents, to landlords and community activists. In their own words his interviewees talk about the tensions that drive the battle surrounding gentrification: issues of class, complexion, money, and power. I spoke to Gibson about what he learned during his many conversations and whether or not there’s a better way that neighborhoods can change without sacrificing the communities, and people, who’ve long called them home.
The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gillian B. White: How long have you lived in New York and was the idea for a book on gentrification based on things that you’ve seen first hand?
D.W. Gibson: Yeah, in large part. I moved to New York in 1995, when I was 17 years old. I lived in a motel, a single-room occupancy place at 103rd and Broadway. When I arrived, Times Square was essentially under scaffolding, and all the XXX shops were being removed, and Disney was renovating the New Amsterdam Theatre. That was my entry point to New York, and I feel like ever since I moved here it’s been a construction zone. So absolutely. I think my own time here and my own perspective definitely motivated this book and framed it.