How Racism Is Driving New York City's Gentrification


With the snow finally thawed and spring officially in full gear, New York is back in the swing of things and residents are remembering why they endure five months of tundra bullshit and exorbitant rent to live in (maybe) the greatest city in the world. Now that spirits are high again, it seems like a good time to look at one of the most horrifying pictures of gentrification in New York City.

DW Gibson’s story for the Daily Intelligencer profiles the racist, classist real estate hell that has engulfed much of New York, as excerpted and adapted from his book The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century. Gibson follows a Brooklyn landlord, who he calls Ephraim. As Ephraim explains the industry and the way he conducts business, the 26-year-old Hasid reveals the unbelievable racism of the system of gentrification, (and his own racism as well) and repeatedly employs anti-Semitic stereotypes to to defend the shitty actions of himself and others.

Ephraim’s work focuses in the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. He began what I assume has to be a fairly short career (how is this guy only 26 years-old?), buying the deeds from owners of soon to be foreclosed upon houses. The shady practice allowed him to collect rent on buildings that were technically owned by banks.

It’s not 100 percent — I mean, it’s legal, but sometimes in the mortgage there’s a clause that says if you sell the deed, you have to notify the bank and if you don’t notify them the bank can take the property. But even if you didn’t notify them, the bank has to go through the whole process of getting the property and that takes some time.

He claims to have bought one hundred deeds over the years but eventually stopped when he became tired of hassling people for rent payments where he says he was often meant with anti-Semitic insults. What follows is his bizarre defense of those anti-Semitic feelings by claiming that some of the Jewish developers the are, in fact, trying to screw over the tenants because they’re Jewish.

I got used to it. And I understand it. Not all Jewish people are nice people. Every tree has a bad apple. Some of them are really nasty and can trick their tenants. But some of the tenants put up such a fight that you have to trick them. I used to do that — but I don’t do that anymore. I did that once four years ago. I told someone, “I’m going to give you twenty grand to move — just move out first, and then I’ll give you the money.” And then I screwed them. I gave him something but not the money I told him. And he couldn’t come back to me because he wasn’t even legally supposed to live there.

Now, I must say, Ephraim ability to offend across the board is rather impressive.

Some Jewish people, they’re going to come in and they’re going to try to rip off the black tenants — and the tenants know it, there’s word of mouth. So it’s like, “Oh, a Jewish guy again?” There’s a lot of Jewish guys moving around. Like a lot, a lot, a lot of investors who are either Hasidic Jews or a little bit less, but they’re Jewish. They’re holding Bed-Stuy like this — he squeezes at the air in front of him, strangling it. So sometimes it’s like, “Hello, this was our neighborhood. What are you doing here?

Let’s take a step back because there are a lot of murky assertions and assumptions here. There is no doubt that the real estate practices that lead to and support gentrification are racist as hell. While it’s reprehensible, much of it stems from the demands of the market. Rich white people don’t want their property values to be lowed by the presence of black tenants. The developers in the area (who happen to be Hasidic Jews “or less,” to borrow the words of Ephraim, in this case) honor those demands because they want to make a profit—as do all developers.

Willingly complying with racist practices in and of itself is a damming display of racism, but I think it goes without saying that there’s a better way to approach what is clearly a thorny conversation about the relationship between the mostly Jewish developers and the black residents.

Ephraim goes on to describe his current work where he purchases buildings in up-and-coming neighbors and buys out the “$1,300, $1,400” black tenants in favor of “$2,700, $2,800” white tenants.

My saying is — again, I’m not racist — every black person has a price. The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars. Everyone wants them to leave, not because we don’t like them, it’s just they’re messing up — they bring everything down. Not all of them.

Oh, well at least it isn’t because they don’t like black people—it’s just that black residents worthless parasites who are fucking up the property values of neighborhoods they’ve inhabited for decades.

If there’s a black tenant in the house—in every building we have, I put in white tenants. They want to know if black people are going to be living there. So sometimes we have ten apartments and everything is white, and then all of the sudden one tenant comes in with one black roommate, and they don’t like it. They see black people and get all riled up, they call me: “We’re not paying that much money to have black people live in the building.” If it’s white tenants only, it’s clean. I know it’s a little bit racist but it’s not. They’re the ones that are paying and I have to give them what they want. Or I’m not going to get the tenants and the money is not going to be what it is.

Ephraim’s biggest professional fear is that black people in these neighborhoods will start to realize the high value of the property and will turn the tables to become the beneficiaries of sorts of gentrification.

The scary part is they’re going to realize they can get the same exact house in East New York for $400,000, $500,000 and they can get paid $1.5 million for their home in Bed-Stuy, they’re going to start dumping houses on the market and the market’s going to be flooded and it’s going to cool down. It’s already cooling down.

When you strip away Ephraim’s personal biases, what you get is a look at an operation—employed by many types of people—that wants to see non-white residents kicked out of their homes in order for rich white people to feel safe and comfortable. This is far from new information but that doesn’t make it any less depressing.

If nothing else, the story is an excellent example of the horrors of systemic racism. To many people, Ephraim seems pretty fucking racist even though he himself doesn’t think he’s racist. Howerver, he operates and benefits from an obviously racist system. There’s no moral high ground in not hating black people personally but screwing them over so white people can live in happily in restored brownstones. The market demand is undeniable but hiding behind it as an excuse for bigotry is inexcusable. As always, the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

Image via Getty.

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