Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Dear New York Times Real Estate Section

Dear New York Times Real Estate Section,

Your front-page article this weekend, with the headline “Finding Washington Heights” and gauzy illustration of a beatific white woman framed in a sea of darker faces, went too far.

Why bother to write to you, Real Estate Section? The obvious answer is that the headline is offensive; Washington Heights is a long-standing, vibrant community with a concentration of working-class, Spanish-speaking New Yorkers that was not, in fact, first discovered by the woman in the illustration. The title and illustration makes the unspoken racial dynamic of the article clearly, painfully, and distressingly clear. These days, this is called the ‘columbusing‘ of long-established communities of color and immigrant neighborhoods. There was no discovery; people have been there for generations.

But here is the larger point, Real Estate Section: you are part of an important news organization that sees itself as “the paper of record”.  You have an obligation to be more than a glossy supplement for the real estate industry, pushing juicy articles designed to excite the market in whatever neighborhood the industry wants to make the next frontier of gentrification.

Any responsible article should include the context that many neighborhoods across New York City are reaching a crescendo of concern about the crisis of gentrification, displacement, and tenant harassment that people and neighborhoods experience when they are pushed out of their community against their wills to make way for people with more economic power and social capital.

Washington Heights is one of the neighborhoods at the epicenter of this crisis. Developers have driven up the price of residential real estate in that neighborhood by 96% in the past five years, while the incomes of current residents have gone up by only a fraction, and thousands of Washington Heights residents have been pushed out of their affordable apartments. The neighborhood has lost more than 5,600 rent regulated units since 2007, a devastating blow for a working class community in a city where affordable housing is vanishingly scarce.

This matters to our city. It matters because it is brutally unjust to the people who are displaced, and harassed out. It matters because the people being pushed out are too often from working-class, immigrant, and communities of color that are part of the economic and racial mix that we all value. It matters because in this day and age, cities have increasingly become the essential centers of economic opportunity, and when whole communities are pushed out to the margins and beyond, they are locked out of that opportunity and fall further behind.

But, Real Estate Section, instead of giving us the service of an article that acknowledges this social and political reality, you give us an article that is a colonialist travelogue with the first-person point of view of a privileged person touring around a neighborhood that she can appropriate merely by looking at it.

I know you say that you are just a real estate section, and your job is to show attractive things to people who can buy real estate, so of course your point of view skews to people who tend to be white and wealthy, and naturally you write for those who are able to afford an ethnically exotic “new” neighborhood that you show as ripe for exploitation.

What would an article titled “Finding Washington Heights” be if it were written from the point of view of a long-time resident in a rent-regulated apartment writing about her neighborhood?

You are a part of a great newspaper with significant influence. Dear Real Estate Section, you should be more than a vehicle for real estate sales. You can cover the real estate market like a real newspaper and not be an active agent for speculation, displacement, and gentrification.

Thank you for considering this advice, Real Estate Section.

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