a macaulay honors seminar taught by prof. gaston alonso

Gentrification and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The readings for this week were all centered around gentrification, but each highlighted a different argument concerning displacement and its being an accurate indicator of the overall effects gentrification has on residents. In “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City,” one point raised about the effects of gentrification is that “Longtime residents are frustrated that after years of fighting to improve their neighborhoods during periods of severe disinvestment, now that the neighborhoods are improving, these residents will not be able to stay.” This presents a paradox that gentrification brings. Residents want their neighborhood to improve, but they don’t want to be pushed out.

This reminds me of the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show which features one ongoing storyline about the gentrification that is coming to the area. One quote from the show is very similar to the one aforementioned:

“This neighborhood is changing, and none of us are gonna be able to live here.”

It’s one of the few shows set in the city that actually discusses problems real New Yorkers face. The show highlights the good and bad that gentrification can bring to a neighborhood, demonstrating, as these readings did, that gentrification is a tricky problem. In one instance, the characters don’t want a huge food store to be built because they know it will raise the value of the area. The owner of the store claims that he just wants to bring fresh produce into an area that severely lacks it— this would be a good thing for residents. But residents can’t see past the fact that improving their neighborhood in any way will lead to gentrification. When graffiti of Biggie Smalls is painted over, one of the characters goes out and spray paints the wall again. When an open manhole is covered, it is cause for panic:

“Well, there goes the neighborhood, they covered that open manhole….Kids, this can only mean one thing. Gentrification is coming. I mean, pretty soon, we’ll be out on our asses ’cause some yuppie thinks the building has ‘good bones.’”

In the last episode of the show, the main characters find out that their building is going to be blown up and they’re put out on the street. All of the characters are homeless now, effectively displaced by the gentrification making its way through the neighborhood. Although the characters go on to better things in the last few minutes of the show, it ends the series with an accurate, and rather bleak, depiction of New York City and the effect gentrification has on residents.

  1. Is it possible to welcome positive changes to a neighborhood without the fear of gentrification displacing residents?
  2. How do you make a neighborhood nicer without increasing market values?
  3. What determines the basic aspects of a neighborhood that residents should have access to vs unnecessary improvements that make way for gentrification?

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