Of all the neighborhoods to gentrify in Manhattan, the Lower East side is one of the most controversial. Not because the Lower East Side is any more important than say Bedstuy or Williamsburg. Mainly, because the forces that gentrified the Lower East side perfected their process in the Lower East Side first before applying this to another neighborhoods. I saw the changes first hand, as a New York City resident. And as a historian, I enjoyed noting and documenting the various changes.
The Lower East side was a working class neighborhood, full of various immigrant groups as East European, some African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and by the '90s, other Latino groups such as Colombians and Mexicans. Issues with poverty hit the neighborhood hard, as crime, drugs and AIDS devastated this community. But its tenement housing provided cheap living space for artists, students, and gays who were brave enough to deal with the Lower East Side's problems. The area also attracted a number of intellectuals, activists, and community organizers. When the neighborhood was considered ghetto, it attracted a number of bars and had a thriving nightlife.
But the real estate industry used the bars, the gays, the artists, and the hipsters to market the neighborhood. Particularly under Bloomberg, this marketing was used to attract investors. Investors purchased tenement housing, kicked out poor people, and build massive condos. Other tenements were converted into mansions for individually wealthy families. Major retailers, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes, entered the neighborhood. More bank branches and big drug stores like CVS and Walgreen's appeared. While it;s great to have much better food options and choice in retail, it's not great to have this at the expense of all small businesses. Obviously, the coolness of the Lower Ease Side not only was used to attract major residential developers, it led to the development of commercial real estate as well. With escalating prices, many of the gays, students, and artists were priced out of the Lower East Side. They moved to Williamsburg, until they got priced out of that by the exact same developmental forces which tear down of run down real estate to build expensive luxury housing and corporate retail businesses. The hipster crowd is now in Bedstuy.Pete Dolack elaborates more on this systematic and deliberate process. Yes, there were bad things about the old Lower East Side, such as the crime and poverty. However, the city didn't try to do much about the crime when the neighborhood was full off poor people. They sent the police out in force in order to wipe the neighborhood clean, as a part of a plan to market the neighborhood to wealthy people around the world. But what the corporate investors are not considering is, are they killing off the things that made these neighborhood's trendy? Max Fish, a famous Lower East Side hotspot, is moving to Brooklyn due to high Lower East Side rents. At the intersection of Second Avenue, space which once contained three bars, one dive straight bar and two gay bars (Urge and Woody's) is now being converted into condos. So as the nightlife scene in the Lower East Side continues to be wiped out of the neighborhood, what will justify the high prices of real estate their long term? Trendy restaurants are cool, but who wants to eat out at a trendy restaurant all the time? Not just nightlife, but a number of ethnic restaurants are being priced out. Ethnic restaurants have long had affordable, cheap food. So yes, for now, the Lower East Side is a popular hot spot. But what happens when the nightlife scene and small businesses are entirely wiped out? Will it be trendy to live in a congested version of a well off suburb, with all the major national retailers, but nothing else? If everything that made New York, New York is wiped out, what are we left with?