Jeffrey’s Story: A Tale of Demographic Inversion
Dr Mark Naison
During the 15 years I spent coaching and running sports leagues in Brooklyn, one of my favorite players was Jeffrey A. Jeffery was a tall, muscular, incredibly sweet Puerto Rican kid who was one of the best rebounders his age I ever saw. During the four years he spent on the CYO basketball team my friend Ed McDonald and I coached, our team always came in somewhere between 2nd and 4th in Brooklyn, in large part because Jeffrey so dominated the backboards. He also left a trail of bruises and broken limbs on opposing players, not because he was mean, but because he was so strong and hyperactive that he sent bodies flying whenever he hit the boards
But the reason I am writing this is not primarily to laud Jeffrey’s basketball skills, though he did go on to play high school and college ball, but to talk about the bittersweet residential odyssey of Jeffrey’s family , which epitomizes a phenomenon now taking place in Urban America which scholars call ‘demographic inversion.”-- the displacement of poor people and working class people from the inner city to the suburbs. This pattern, quite common in Europe, especially Paris, is now become the norm in the US as wealthy people migrate from the suburbs to the inner city and take over many communities which were once working class and minority.
Jeffery’s family turned out to be an exemplar of this trend. When we recruited Jeffrey for our team in the mid-90’s, his family lived above his grandfather’s liquor store on Smith Street near Bergen in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. During those days, Smith Street was a pretty rough place. Only four or five blocks from the Gowanus Houses, it was a tough gritty shopping strip that was an occasional gathering place for crack dealers and stick up kids who made life tough for the working class Puerto Rican and Dominican families who made up the majority of the neighborhood’s residents. Jeffrey’s father, an electrician for the city who was a member of Local Three of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Worker, wanted to get his family out of the neighborhood, fearful that his children would be victims of violence, or drawn into negative activity, so he saved all his money and bought a beautiful home in a suburban community, Brentwood Long Island. The family moved while Jeffrey in 10th grade and still our team, and he actually commuted in from Brentwood twice a week so he help lead our team to another 2nd Place finish in the Brooklyn CYO Championships.
This should have been a happy ending for this hardworking Puerto Rican family, but no sooner did Jeffrey’s family leave Smith street that it began making a transition into Brooklyn’s hottest restaurant district, filled with chic cafes which served French, Spanish, Italian and Caribbean cuisine to a population of mostly white brownstone owners and apartment dwellers which swelled the population of adjoining blocks. And as for Brentwood, the arrival of Jeffrey’s family coincided with a wave of white and middle class flight which turned Brentwood into a majority Black and Latino town plagued with violence and gang problems which Jeffrey’s father thought he had left behind in Brooklyn.
This transition did not overnight. It took a full ten years for Smith Street to evolve into a place where wealthy young white people live shop and eat, and it also took that amount of time for Brentwood to deteriorate to the point where it was a place upwardly mobile minority families wanted to avoid, rather than migrate to.
But this transition was not idiosyncratic. It mirrors a trend that can be found not only in neighborhoods like Harlem, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, but in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other post industrial cities where the FIRE ( Finance, Insurance Real Estate) and Health Care sectors create high paying jobs in the Center City that attract wealthy people back while causing rents to rise in ways that drive working class people out.
More and more, American cities are going to resemble Paris, where the wealthy people live close to the Center, and poor people live in the suburbs. Social policy, and urban policy, had better adjust to this transition.
March 25, 2011