My grandmother moved to NYCHA's Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx 30 years ago.
I would visit her and feel uncomfortable in the darkness. Lots were empty and lights were scarce. I lived with her occasionally and grew to love the silence that came from departed industry. Outsiders were rare because nobody really wanted to come here. To them there was nothing here. But this became home for my family.
There was comfort in knowing that we were forgotten, but together. Our poverty was shared. Deaths were too. But we found goodness in each other. When I headed to graduate school all our neighbors celebrated my accomplishment. When the FBI came to do my background check my success was the talk of the town.
We probably allowed the disinvestment to plague us because there was nothing to compare to. This changed when developers began focusing on the neighborhood. The south Bronx became the new frontier.
These days my neighbors are confused by the changing skyline. Luxury apartments now sit where factories did. With the arrival of each plaid shirted transplant we are suddenly aware of the difference between them and us. Gentrification has made it clear that our streets can be clean. Our subway station can be power washed. After decades of believing otherwise, we are suddenly faced with the truth, we were overlooked intentionally.
Another lesson we've learned is that success is fickle. I came of age believing that I needed to "go" in order to succeed. But now that I am back I refuse to define my success as something separated from my community. I founded Ojala Threads as a social enterprise because I wanted to make a difference in Mott Haven. I spent a decade in Hawaii amassing skills that make it possible for me to take on inequity in public housing, public transportation and criminal justice reform. When I announced that I would be making baby bodysuits inspired by Hispanic heritage the assumption was that I was experiencing a mid life crisis.
But entrepreneurship is an equalizer right? Turns out in Mott Haven even that has been perverted.
Gentification (that's not a mispelling) has signed all of the commercial leases in my neighborhood. We've become a hot zone where brown faces find "success". How is it that so many people that didn't grow up in my neighborhood have found success in it, as entrepreneurs!? But if you look past the New York Times articles on emerging brands located in Mott Haven what you find is funding from developers intent on rebranding us. As if realizing that we're not worthy of investments isn't upsetting enough, we are now forced to question our own abilities and ideas.
Before uncovering the role of developers in these new brands I couldn't understand why my efforts didn't lead to the same attention, accolades and income. I have had financial success in the past; made six figures. But the trajectory was clear when I worked for the Department of Defense. It got murky when I began researching brands like The Lit Bar, Empanology, and Beatstro...
But that is the thing with gentification and gentrification, it makes things murky. It forces long time residents to accept that their neighborhood was overlooked on purpose. It encourages communities that once cleared rubble and made roads to compete with each other. It makes individuals question their abilities, not to succeed but to remain ethical.
Over the next five years six new luxury condos will become a part of the poorest congressional district in America. One can hope that our future neighbors will join us and learn our ways. Maybe they will appreciate the culture that has made our neighborhood so attractive? But Harlem and Brooklyn taught us that when they come, so do the calls to the cops with complaints about our music and domino games. We could also hope that our schools will improve. But I watch their children commute our of our failing district every morning, traveling south on the 6 train towards "better". Meanwhile our average income trickles north, leaving our kids in schools that will no longer qualify for funding meant to give them a chance.
So what do we get left with when gentrification strikes? a different kind of darkness, one made of shadows created by buildings that don't welcome us and the assumption that we are to blame.