The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 30, 2016

How can we make growth work for everyone?

September 30, 2016

Since the High Line opened in 2009, New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood has seen a boom in tourism, development, and real estate prices. The park has been lauded as a major economic generator for the city, expected to bring in $900 million in revenue over 30 years.

But what is it doing for the people who’ve lived in the neighborhood all along? For some residents, the effects haven’t been so positive. As one put it, “If you don’t have the big dollars, they want you out.”

Earlier this week, Urban hosted a preview screening of Class Divide, which airs on HBO on Monday, October 3. The documentary explores the effects of gentrification and economic disparities on the young people of West Chelsea: residents of the public housing project Chelsea-Elliot Houses and the affluent students of Avenues, a private school across the street.

After the screening, the film’s director, Marc Levin, joined Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell, LISC DC vice president Oramenta F. Newsome, and director of the 11th Street Bridge Project Scott Kratz for a discussion on the issues raised in Class Divide. Hyisheem Calier, a Chelsea-Elliot Houses resident featured in Class Divide, provided opening remarks.

The film explores “the issues we study every day” through the stories of individuals, Wartell said, and gives us “an opportunity to have these important conversations” about opportunity, access, and mobility. How do we make sure that these “engines of growth,” like the High Line, lift everyone, not just those who are already at the top?

“At times, you think, what can we do? These [economic] forces are so big,” Levin said. But “there are local groups, community groups, individuals, community boards taking a stand because you can do something. You can find a balance. Chelsea is struggling to do that.”

Washington, DC, is awaiting its own version of the High Line in the 11th Street Bridge Park, an elevated park to span the Anacostia River and connect distressed neighborhoods on the east to more affluent neighborhoods on the west. In the meantime, local groups are doing their part to achieve that balance. According to the 11th Street Bridge Project’s Kratz, the first step is to engage local communities.

“We spent two years and over 200 meetings asking two really simple questions…Should we do this? Is this something that the community wanted, first and foremost?” Kratz said.

Once the community was on board, Kratz and his organization leaned on residents to help them shape the plans for the 11th Street Bridge Park “to make sure that it reflects the needs and desires of those communities.”

But even with the community’s support, there’s always a risk that new development and demand could lead to the displacement of longtime east-of-the-river residents, cutting them off from the economic opportunities the park could provide.

It’s a familiar threat for those who live in the Chelsea-Elliot Houses and have watched their neighborhood drastically change over the past decade. “Will Chelsea Towers still be there in 10 years?” asked Class Divide’s Calier. “I don’t know.”

With partners, the 11th Street Bridge Project has explored the idea of a community land trust and helped bring the first homebuyers’ club east of the Anacostia River. The project is also working to ensure that area residents will have the skills they need to obtain jobs associated with park construction and the economic growth that will follow.

To further combat displacement, LISC DC, a community development support organization, is investing $50 million to help those living near the 11th Street Bridge Park secure affordable housing, education, food, and health care—and stay in their neighborhoods.

“We as a city have a responsibility to provide for the breadth of those who live in the city. We have a tendency to lump [together] ‘low-income people’ [but] they’re home health aides, they’re bus drivers, they’re cab drivers, they’re cafeteria workers. They are people who are the fabric of our economy,” LISC DC’s Newsome said.

“In this city, we’re going to have a place for those who make up the fabric of this city, make it work; who have lives here, who have history here.”

From left to right, Sarah Rosen Wartell, Mark Levin, Oramenta F. Newsome, and Scott Kratz speak at the GALA Hispanic Theater in Washington, DC, following a screening of the HBO documentary film Class Divide. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute


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