Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"At Risk"? the Fed Up Honeys Re-Present the Gentrification of the Lower East Side

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"At Risk"? the Fed Up Honeys Re-Present the Gentrification of the Lower East Side

Article excerpt

I was standing behind, I was walking down Columbia or something, and there were these three white frat boys in front of me and they were like (she imitates their voices) "Look at these people they totally don't understand like the value of the space around them. Like they got a lot of real estate value here. They don't know what they got. "And I'm like yeah we do. We just value it differently-it's a different kind of value. You see dollar bills when you see that building. I see that that's my grandmother's house, you know. That's like, this is my history! This is my place! You know, and you just want to step in because you think I'm stupid because I'm living in the projectsRiverfront property! You know, "prime real estate. "-Fed Up Honey

While gentrification is often represented within the framework of real estate capital as evidence of urban progress, this emphasis loses sight of not only its role in processes of community transformation, but also how it is experienced within a broader context of disenfranchisement by working-class communities. In this essay I consider the experience of urban economic restructuring from the "inside" perspective of young working-class women of color who have grown up in the neighborhood of the Lower East Side in New York City in the 1990s, a time of intensive gentrification, witnessing their neighborhood change while still living in it. In a participatory action research project titled "Makes Me Mad: Stereotypes of Young Urban Womyn of Color" (2005; see http://www.fed-up-honeys.org), six young women researchers (the Fed Up Honeys) investigated the relationship between the disinvestment and gentrification of their community, public representations, and their self-understanding.

Questioning the valuation of the economic over the personal, of dollar bills over her connections to place, of profit-making over communitarian ideals, one young woman researcher conveys a sense of moral outrage that her history, her grandmother's house, is now considered "prime real estate." Why do the rights of property ownership trump her rights to stay in the neighborhood (Mitchell 2003; Harvey 2003)? Challenging the commonplace perception of gentrification as an inevitable or natural process, this young woman foregrounds the contested status of her neighborhood. Just like the signs neighborhood activists carried proclaiming, "Lower East Side-not for sale. This land is ours!" as they marched on city hall more than twenty years ago to protest the city's auctioning off properties to private interests (AbuLughod 1994), she expresses ownership-"This is my place!"-of the community where she has lived her whole life. After weathering years of disinvestment, now her family is threatened with social and spatial exclusion as the Lower East Side is gentrified.

If gentrification is "the new urban form of globalization" (Smith 2002), then its analysis is vital to our understanding of how neoliberalism reconfigures the urban scale and processes of exclusion. Critical is the role of representations that legitimate the contradictions of the new urban geography of inequality (Wilson and Grammenos 2005). My research focuses upon what Robin Kelley identifies as "the culture wars in urban America," "the ongoing battle over representations... and the significance of the cultural terrain as a site of struggle"(Kelley 1997, 8). This is not just a matter of theoretical interest, Kelley argues, as the culture wars "continue to rage each day in the streets of urban America" (8). For young women living on the Lower East Side with whom I did research, the issue of public representations was of the utmost concern. If stereotypes of the underclass and risk travel widely, distributed and produced at national and even global scales, they are also experienced as viscerally local and intensely personal. The representation of risk cuts both ways, justifying both the disinvestment and reinvestment of the Lower East Side, and are experienced by the young women as both a social betrayal and a public assault on their subjectivities. …

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