New York City Can’t Just Gentrify Its Way Back to Normal

On the rare occasions I have left the city over the past few months, I have been asked the same question repeatedly: “How is New York?” People want to know whether they should visit and what it will be like when they do, and I tell them that they should come immediately because they will find a place newly awakened to pleasure — to biking everywhere, to dining sheds covered in peonies, to jazz bands turning up in Prospect Park on random weekdays, to Little Island and drinking orange wine at lunch.

In the city’s most prosperous quarters, people are still at home — much of the professional class is not expected to return to the office until September — and the pursuit of the good life, aided by vaccination, has now resumed unimpeded. On a recent Friday afternoon, I walked the length of Court Street in Brooklyn, to find an outdoor dining scene with the vibe of a late night in Madrid. New stores had already taken up residence in vacant spaces. March in Cobble Hill saw the arrival of Tavola Italian Market, for example, a purveyor of truffle cashews, truffle pecorino cream, truffle Gruyere and many other things that most of us were surely unaware could serve as repositories for mushroom-adjacent flavoring.

The late-stage pandemic lifestyle is hardly a reality for most New Yorkers. To the contrary, a recent survey of 700 workers in Astoria, Queens, conducted by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, found that of the third laid off during the past year, only 38 percent have returned to work. And yet from certain angles, a city once driven by ambition now seems to run on a vaporous languor. I suspect that this particular consequence of the pandemic, more than any other, explains the ocean of apathy surrounding the mayoral race, the most important election New Yorkers have faced in more than half a century. The pervasive sense of detachment has not changed even with the election a little more than two weeks away. Eight years ago, when Bill de Blasio was first campaigning to run the city, you could spot signs for his candidacy in apartment windows all over Brooklyn. Now you can walk your pandemic rescue dog around for hours and see posters for virtually no one.

Embedded in the sort of neighborhood that is thriving, the high-information voter is distracted by the groove. The kind of Democrat already anxious about Abigail Spanberger’s prospects for re-election in Virginia’s crucial Seventh Congressional District next year is struggling to find evidence of a city at the brink of existential undoing. Without a reason to go to Midtown, she has little sense of how desolate it can feel. No longer in a consistent relationship with the public transit system, she might read about rising crime on the subway, but she isn’t feeling it. Whatever her worries, they are easily eclipsed by the realities of a robust housing market and the seeming permeance of the takeout margarita.

What is at stake is what is always at stake — the fate of struggling communities that have only been further devastated by the pandemic, wrecked by lost lives, lost jobs, lost housing. Mayor de Blasio famously ran on a platform of mending an economically divided city, but he is leaving behind a place where the gaps between rich and poor have become only more obvious and horrific. The Covid death rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, historically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, was more than twice as high as it was on the Upper East Side. Gun violence has been a problem in the city, but in Brownsville, the number of shooting victims has more than doubled since January, compared with the same period last year; over a two-year time frame there has been a 300 percent increase.

During the height of the pandemic, Rodney Frazer and his organization, Collective Fare, made hundreds of thousands of meals for people in the neighborhood out of the Brooklyn Community Culinary Center on Belmont Avenue. I met him in front of the center recently, where the crack trade resurfaced last summer as people in the area desperate to make some cash found an eager market among drivers passing through Central Brooklyn looking to buy drugs. What was different about Belmont Avenue all of a sudden, Lucas Denton, who runs a related organization, the Melting Pot Foundation, told me, was the parade of out-of-state license plates.

I asked both of these men and others deeply invested in Brownsville what a new mayor could do to make a big difference and their answers were consistently simple and specific in a way that made it painfully clear how little the city’s ruling political class has really listened to people with deep roots in the community. Mr. Frazer wanted to know why the native tech talent of so many teenagers has not been harnessed and deployed to serve a food industry now ever more dependent on app-enabled delivery and digital marketing. “I mean you have a problem with your phone and can’t figure something out and you hand it to your kid, right?”

Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race

    • Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people still in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
    • Get to Know the Candidates: We asked leading candidates for mayor questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel order and workout routine.
    • What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.

    Daniel Goodine, a longtime activist in Brownsville, who lost one son to gun violence 17 years ago and another to prison, continues to be astounded by the fact that there is no trade school in Brownsville, something that would have a huge and immediate impact on the lives of teenagers who might otherwise be drawn to gang life.

    “Why don’t I have a trade school, like the one on 96th Street, when I can take a pistol out of a kid’s hand and give him a nail gun?” he asked. Mr. Goodine was very involved in getting food to the hungry during the pandemic, and what struck him was how this effort was nearly thwarted almost from the beginning by inadequate storage capacity. A lack of warehouse space in the neighborhood meant that the emergency operation had to rely on trucking, which complicated a process already full of logistical difficulties.

    That same effort revealed again the extent to which poor neighborhoods are regarded as dumping grounds for a broad range of economic problems. During the height of the Covid crisis, dairy farmers were in a panic; schools and restaurants were now closed to them. As a result, a lot of surplus milk ended up in Brownsville. “There was all of this infusion of dairy, and there was no infrastructure to receive it,” Rae Gomes, the executive director of the Brownsville Community Culinary Center, told me. “People didn’t necessarily want it. Because what do we know about Black and brown people? A lot of us are lactose intolerant

    Wednesday night’s mayoral debate focused on crime and public safety with not nearly enough discussion of the economic conditions that are intricately linked to their rise and fall. Eric Adams, who has strong support in Brownsville, did make the connection. But no candidate really has a comprehensive plan to eradicate deep poverty in neighborhoods where rates have remained virtually unchanged since the 1970s. No one really knows what to do with a neighborhood that cannot gentrify its way to glory. Brownsville isn’t struggling with the question of whether or not to keep outdoor dining sheds. It doesn’t have any.

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