Without a doubt, real estate has been one of the most enduring topics throughout New York City's history. Price and value, location, size and other factors have impacted this city since it was known as Nieuw Amsterdam. We grow up talking about housing. My teenage daughters already have strong opinions on what types of house styles they like, the amenities they prefer, and can reminisce about businesses (especially stores and restaurants) they miss that had to close due to rent hikes.

Every week I read the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times, and often discuss the stories (and their pros and cons) with family and friends. This past week the cover story was "Displaced in New York," an in-depth look at people who have been priced out of their neighborhoods that were once gritty but are now desirable and much more expensive to buy into or rent in.

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Among the neighborhoods touched upon in this article are Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant ("Bed-Stuy") in Brooklyn, Harlem in Manhattan, and West Bronx in the Bronx. The main thrust of this reportage is that these neighborhoods used to be predominantly African-American and Latino, and were not the best regarded areas for living (with aging or decrepit housing stock, substandard or scarce amenities), but now they have many more Caucasian and moneyed inhabitants, so they are more difficult to afford, and the African-American and Latino residents in particular are moving to cheaper areas.


This was an interesting article, and the issues it brings up have been dissected at length during the past several years. Gentrification has both positive and emboldening aspects, as well as negative and painful side affects. This involves political talk and policy making as well. But the article also had a notably myopic scope, in my opinion.

One theme that was overlooked was that these neighborhoods have had their ups, downs, and ups-- not just their downs and ups. And completely ignored was the fact that all these neighborhoods were heavily Jewish, then hardly Jewish, and now quite mixed.

For instance, many people seem to assume that Harlem has always been an African-American outpost. No, it hasn't. In the late 1800s into the 1930s it was heavily Jewish in the central and western areas, Italian and Irish and to some extent Jewish in the east. Those white-ethnic groups began moving out as the Black and Latino groups moved in. The Harlem Renaissance certainly was an important and identity-building part of Harlem's history, a time when the "Negro" or "colored' experience flourished as far as art, music, literature and more. But Harlem also had a Jewish past, and I have documented the many former ("lost") synagogues that still stand in the area. And I'm not the only scholar who has delved into this.

Bed-Stuy also had a large Jewish population, and there are about a dozen former synagogue buildings still standing here, which I have also documented. They have, for the most part, become churches serving the African-American community that certainly does have decades-long roots in the area. But even before the Jews lived here it was a more WASPY (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and ethnic white Roman Catholic precinct.

These neighborhoods have seen their waves of desirability, trouble and then upswing. This is not just a case of poor and working-class people and their interests being pushed out by more moneyed groups; it is much more complicated than this. I do sympathize with people who "can't go home again" because the neighborhood has become too expensive for them. But the situation has changed up and down before. And it will continue to do so. That's New York City for you, like it or not.

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