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This text is by Syed Ali in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Fast gentrifying neighborhoods, slow gentrifying schools

Syed Ali

I am a gentrifier. I have been one since I graduated college and moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn in 1989. Park Slope was already pricey and bourgeois then, but the area down the hill from Prospect Park between 5th and 6th Avenues wasn’t so much, so there I went. Fifth Avenue at the time was all bodegas and 99 cent stores, and none of the upscale restaurants and boutiques and cafes you see today existed then.

Today, Brooklyn is cool, desirable. It was not really when I first moved, but it certainly is now. I know because back in 1989, if I wanted to see my Manhattan friends, I had to go to “the city.” But when I moved back to Brooklyn in 2002, they volunteered to come visit me.

I also know Brooklyn’s desirable because the New York Times tells me so. The Times has recurring stories on the exploding real estate values in my neighborhood of Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant). Every article means a rise in property values—good for owners and sellers. Today, there are upper-middle class White women pushing their babies in strollers. At night. This is decidedly not the “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die” of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing”.
Gentrification is an old story going back to the 1960s, and it plays out similarly over time and place in a handful of “desirable” cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. (It is not a universal process in cities, as many scholars and journalists note.) First gays and artists move to an “edgy” (read: ghetto) neighborhood, followed quickly by college students and young, not-so-rich professional “pioneers.” The natives, Black usually, sometimes Latino or even White, but generally poor or working class, provide some background ethnic ambience for new arrivals.

Soon the amenities required by gentrifiers pop up—restaurants, bike stores, bars, cafes, bike store-cum-bar-cum-café combos. (No bike stores are around me, yet. But a café, a bakery, and a fancy French restaurant just opened recently.) Developers smell the shift quickly, buying up housing stock and redeveloping in a way to lure the deeper pocketed yuppies. The natives, if they don’t own their places or have rent stabilization, rent control, or live in housing projects—specifically, those without leases or who are renting market-rate apartments—will move somewhere else. As Urban Studies specialist Lance Freeman notes, usually the non-gentry are not forced to relocate (though some are). He actually found that poor people move from gentrifying neighborhoods at a lower rate than they do from non-gentrifying neighborhoods.  (Which makes sense—why would you leave a neighborhood that’s getting safer and has more conveniences?) When they do move, the twist is instead of other poor people moving into gentrifying areas, a wealthier class replace them as rents and property values rise. The first-generation gentrifying pioneers often move too, all the while loudly complaining, crying even, that the neighborhood has changed so much they cannot afford the cost of living. Irony is sometimes lost on the ironic hipsters.

One big shift in gentrification patterns today is that youngish couples—straight, gay, inter-ethnoracial—who move into ghetto neighborhoods are increasingly staying once they have kids. (Like my White wife and I and our half-breed kids.) In the 1980s and 1990s, once the gentrifiers spawned, many if not most admitted defeat and left for suburbia. Violent crime was a major reason gentrification proceeded relatively slowly from the 1970s to 1990s—would-be gentrifiers were often too scared to move to the next “up and coming” neighborhood. On a husbands’ night out on Myrtle Avenue (or Murder Avenue, as it was known back in the day), my friend, who is Black and grew up in the Clinton Hill neighborhood in the 1970s-1980s, gave me a guided tour of Myrtle Avenue: “I was shot on this corner… shot on this corner… oh, and stabbed on this corner.” He told me he left because it was too dangerous, and returned in the 1990s when he saw that it was actually a pretty nice place.

Today, such violent crime is way down. In 1991, there were 2,245 murders in the city. In 2013, there were 333. There is just not the same palpable sense of fear in the city today as there was then. In large part because of dramatic drops in violent crime and the improvement of public schools in parts of the city, these urban dwellers are more often staying put with their kids. They love the city, and want the “diversity” gentrifying neighborhoods have to offer.

Gentrification, by bringing White yuppies into the city, should, in theory, lead to more social integration. But there is still a tremendous degree of racial segregation in American cities, and there is often an even larger degree of segregation in the public school system—especially here in New York City. This makes dealing with schools a harrowing experience for all parents of young children—rich and poor, Black and White and everyone else—in the elementary public schools, as so many schools are awful. (Getting your kid into a “good” middle school is even more stressful.) In New York City, as elsewhere, the default is to send your kid to the local, zoned school. In the past few years, it has become easier to send your kid out of zone, and even out of district to a different neighborhood K-5 public school—assuming they have space. There’s also the option of “gifted and talented” programs at various schools in or out of your zone, assuming your kid tests high enough. Or else you can send your kid to private school. In the past few years, many charter schools have popped up, but they’re located mostly in ghetto neighborhoods where there are precious few charter schools in New York City that White parents send their kids to. You can see why young, gentrifying parents who are not wealthy (good private schools in New York cost as much as many private universities) would decamp for suburbia.

You know a neighborhood is still gentrifying when the carpetbaggers won’t send their kids to school there. We can map gentrification lag by comparing changing rates of White kids in the neighborhood schools relative to the number of Whites in the neighborhood. For instance, in P.S. 20 and P.S. 11, my neighborhood schools in the Clinton Hill neighborhood when my first kid started pre-k at P.S. 11 in 2007, a few White faces were visible in the schoolyard. They were in pre-k and kindergarten, but their numbers dropped steeply and by third grade, hardly any were left. (The same was true at P.S. 20.) But today, you find more White kids in the higher grades. At P.S. 11, the school’s White population went from 6.6% to 10.2%, and at P.S. 20 it went from 4.6% to 10.9% between the school years 2007-2008 and 2013-2014.1 These huge jumps are indicative of how White parents are comfortable enough in the neighborhood to send their kids to school there. (In 2013, non-Hispanic Whites slightly outnumbered non-Hispanic Blacks in the neighborhood, 1,360 to 1,280, out of a population of 4,260.2)
This change happened relatively quickly, and recently. The neighborhood started gentrifying in the 1990s, and really exploded (i.e., Whitened) in the mid-2000s. (One of our neighbors in our apartment complex in Clinton Hill said she was the only White person when she moved there in 2000.) When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005, as happens with couples with young children, we befriended other couples with same-age young children. Out of thirteen college-educated, professional gentrifier friends whose kids started school between 2009 (when our son started pre-k) and 2011 (when our daughter started pre-k), only five sent their kids to P.S. 11 or P.S. 20. One sent her kid to a private school, and the rest sent their kids to public schools (with more White kids) outside of the district. After pre-k, two of the five at P.S. 11 or P.S. 20 sent their kids to schools in other districts (as we did with ours). You might be thinking, well, race definitely played a factor. It did not. We only had one White couple friends (they sent their kids to P.S. 20). Most were mixed, a couple of Black couples (one went to a charter school, one to the local school), and a single, Black mother whose child went to the fancy private school. (Note: Not all gentrifiers are White!) Now this of course is not a scientific, random sample, but it is indicative of what the gentry are up to.

The Clinton Hill neighborhood today is no longer gentrifying; that’s done. But as we can see from the school numbers, their schools are still in the process of gentrifying. The fast rate of turnover could indicate that the schools would increasingly whiten, maybe even to the point where Blacks would become a minority. Perhaps, but I doubt it would happen to that degree, as the city is about 45% White, and the school population of non-Hispanic Whites is a little more than 14%. My kids’ school, for instance, in the overwhelmingly White (and wealthy) Boerum Hill neighborhood is a little more than a quarter Black, a quarter Hispanic, and 38% White. (Like a Benetton ad.) And not completely rich – 44% of students qualify for free lunch, an indicator of relative poverty.3

It is instructive to compare Clinton Hill’s experience with schools to its eastern neighbor Bed-Stuy, where gentrification to that level is still a few years off. We moved to quickly gentrifying Bed-Stuy from Clinton Hill two years ago, and like many parents in Bed-Stuy, like I mentioned previously, send our kids to a public school in a different neighborhood outside of the district. (There are probably a couple dozen kids—if not more—from our neighborhood in this Boerum Hill school, five miles away from our house. In Brooklyn terms, that is planetary distance.) Brownstones in Bed-Stuy today sell for over a million dollars (a bargain compared to Clinton Hill), and the population of Whites is growing rapidly, though in my area, Whites are probably no more than 10% of the population.4 Most of the public schools in the neighborhood are charter schools, which, in American cities, are mostly located in ghetto neighborhoods.5 There are 22 neighborhood and charter schools in District 16 (which covers a huge chunk of Bed-Stuy), and none of them have populations of more than 4% White kids. They are overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. Some have a few Asian kids; many have no Asians or Whites at all. And importantly, 75% or more of students in the schools across the board are eligible for free lunch. Such a number means that it’s likely that many upper-middle-class Black parents—and there are a lot of them in Bed-Stuy—are also sending their kids elsewhere.

Will Bed-Stuy see the changes in the schools that Clinton Hill did? My guess is yes, in about a decade. It’s becoming harder and harder to get into schools outside of one’s district and parents will increasingly face the decision to send their kids to private school, move, or go to the local public school. It’s pretty inevitable now that the local public school will be the option many choose, just like it was in Clinton Hill.

Does it matter? Yes. Many of my parent friends in Clinton Hill, including my wife, wanted to send their kids to schools other than the local ones because they felt teachers were better and test scores were higher elsewhere. The reason I wanted to send my kids to their current public school didn’t have to do with race, teachers, or test scores; it had to do with peer culture. The kids in P.S. 20, our zoned school in Clinton Hill, got in fights, threw desks, and, in general, there was a lot of bad behavior. (Not all kids, obviously. But enough to make a difference.) The principal was arrested for beating up a kindergarten teacher in his office. On the other hand, the kids in our school now almost never get in fights, and you rarely hear them cursing. The kid culture at this school is dramatically different.

Who your kids hang out with affects who they become. In my research on immigrant assimilation, I have found peer effects to be an important factor in understanding why kids turn out the way they do.6 Peers affect educational achievement, and also affect economic outcomes later in life. Going to school with middle- and upper-middle-class White kids, who tend to do pretty well in school, can be good for educational outcomes of children from lesser privileged backgrounds. Lots of Black parents think so, too—otherwise they, especially the ones who are sending their children to school outside of their districts, wouldn’t bother sending their kids to schools like my kids’.  The parents who look for schools like my kids’ school—with at least a significant minority of White kids—may say they have other reasons for sending their kids there. But the schools they opt for have a good number of White kids. The schools they find “undesirable” don’t.


Is gentrification the answer to the problems of public schools? A lot of schools that are in gentrifying neighborhoods that see an influx of upper-middle-class parents do get better, and the poorer Black and Latino students seem to perform better, possibly through peer influences of their higher-performing classmates. So maybe, yeah?

Probably not. Large swaths of New York City over the past two decades or so have fully gentrified, and many more areas are in the thick of it.  And yet, the school system in New York City is more segregated than it has ever been. Gentrification benefits carpetbagging residents who move into the neighborhoods, and natives who stay, and it benefits to a degree poor and poor performing students who rub elbows with wealthier and better performing students. But it is not, and cannot become, a cure-all for the system as a whole. To achieve properly integrated schools, like in Louisville, Kentucky, takes political spine and community support, both of which are in short supply in most places, and definitely in New York City.

link - footnotes

1 Insideschools.org generously provided me this data.

2 This is from the 2013 US Census’s American Community Survey (ACS) data for Census tract 195 in Clinton Hill. This is a huge shift from the 2000 US Census data for Census tract 195, which counted a little less than 1,000 Whites and almost 2,200 Blacks.

3 Though this can be a misleading indicator—our school has a P.T.A. that raises a lot of money, way, way more than either P.S. 20 or P.S. 11 raises. (Some P.T.A.s raise over a million dollars a year.) This is critical because P.T.A.s often pay for teachers and librarians and other amenities. So close to half of our kids may be poor, but our school is doing okay relative to other schools.

4 The 2013 ACS data for zip code 11221 (which covers much of Bed-Stuy and neighboring Bushwick) estimates non-Hispanic Blacks at 48% and non-Hispanic Whites at 6% of the population. (The Hispanic population of any race is 42%, reflecting Bushwick’s large Hispanic population.) The White population today is doubtless larger. In the 2010 Census for the same area, non-Hispanic Blacks were about 53% while non-Hispanic Whites were about 6%. In the 2000 Census, Blacks were 61% of the neighborhood, and non-Hispanic Whites only 1%. So in a mere 13 years, we see a phenomenal shift in the population demographics. Zip codes though, can be misleading. The White population in Bed-Stuy is more heavily concentrated near the border with Clinton Hill, and there are few Whites in my area. Though that is changing rapidly. In my part of the neighborhood, Census tract 383, in 2013 the non-Hispanic White population was estimated at about 98, while the Black population was about 3700. In these two years though, it’s likely the White population has grown much larger in my part of Bed-Stuy.

5 Charter schools in New York City are even more highly segregated than neighborhood public schools. In a study of charter schools nationwide, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles found 73% of New York City charters were “apartheid schools”, with less than 1% Whites in their student bodies. And their performance is no better overall than public schools. What they do have is political support and funding from billionaires. See a recent article in The Nation on billionaires, charter schools, and Governor Cuomo.

6 This idea has a long pedigree in research on education. In 1966, in the wake of civil rights legislation, sociologist James Coleman was tasked by the U.S. Department of Education to write a report on educational equality in the country, titled the “Equality of Educational Opportunity”, also known as the “Coleman Report”. Coleman thought that he would find that Blacks were worse off because they have worse facilities. He actually found that this was not the case. The decisive factors were home, neighborhood, and importantly, peer environment.  Interestingly, he found that students from deprived backgrounds who formed close friendships with those from more favorable circumstances were likely to be more educationally successful.  Judith Harris, in her 2009 [1998] book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, pushes the argument harder: peers matter most for kids’ behavioral outcomes, including education. Parents, not so much. (See especially pp. 227-237). Statistical analyses of large-scale data on peer effects are mixed, so I don’t want to make it seem this is a settled question.


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This article is part of a series on art and gentrification organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – June 2015.
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link - issue 17: May 2015