Time for a Little “Self-Gentrification”

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There is a scene depicting a Great Depression bank run in the famous holiday movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In this scene, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is sidetracked from his honeymoon by hordes of people rushing the doors of the community savings and loan bank he manages.  

The shareholders have all come to withdraw their savings in a bank run. Bailey jumps over the counter and addresses them with a speech crystallizing the conflict between large-scale market forces and bottom-up community development. 

Bailey explains to his terrified customers the cash to cover their account balances isn’t sitting in piles in the safe. The money is in their community. They’ve loaned each other money to build homes, so they don’t have to live in the slums owned by the cold-hearted real estate baron, Mr. Potter. 

Meanwhile, Potter’s private bank down the street is offering George Bailey’s members fifty cents on the dollar for their shares in the community bank. “Better to get half of my money now than none,” one customer says, as they move for the door to take Potter’s offer.

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” Bailey tells them as he blocks the exit to the door. “ Potter’s not selling, he’s buying! … We’re panicking and he’s not.” 

Shift through 80 years of time and space to the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx—an oft-forgotten, industrial corner of New York City. In Hunts Point, hundreds (or thousands) of Mr. Potters preside over a complex of large affordable housing developments, dollar stores, check cashing businesses, fast food restaurants, and liquor stores. 

It was once home to a thriving light-industrial and residential area with piano factories, an ironworks, and multi-generation immigrant families building homes across the Bronx River from Manhattan. When Robert Moses’ Suburban Experiment cut it up with interstate highways to move Manhattan workers out to the developing suburbs, Hunts Point and the South Bronx neighborhood got the exhaust, the waste incinerators, the toxic dump sites, and the industrial activities nobody else wanted. 

George Bailey and his small town savings and loan are nowhere to be found in Hunts Point, but there you will find Majora Carter. The Bronx-born community advocate is not talking customers into holding onto their investments in a savings and loan bank run. But similar to Bailey, she’s exhorting her community not to panic, not to sell. She advises them to stay put, hold on, invest their time, love their children, keep their homes, and build their businesses. But above all, says Carter, remember this: “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.” 

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