Maybe it’s because words are my job, but I like to believe that they still have meaning, and that if you use a certain word, you do so with intention and purpose. Some words, of course, are more loaded than others—particularly at this specific point in time and in this specific place—it’s best to use them appropriately, lest they lose all their original meaning and become nothing more than a punchline (ahem, “hipster”). And, for many New Yorkers, perhaps no word is more fraught right now than gentrification, a word which Webster’s Dictionary defines as… no, I’m just kidding. You know what gentrification means, right? Right! It’s when low- and middle-income residents and businesses get pushed out of their neighborhoods due to an influx of newcomers—both residential and commercial—who drive up prices and decrease the amount of available property. Like, you know it when you see it! We all do, at this point. And yet, recently, the word gentrification is being used in contexts which are not only inappropriate, but also insulting to the real victims of gentrification.
It was reported last week that 92-year-old confectioner Li-Lac Chocolates would be leaving its decades-old residency (80+ years on Christopher Street, and another ten on Jane) in favor of a larger space in Sunset Park’s Industry City, a relatively new, waterfront complex which houses companies like Liddabit Sweets and Blue Marble Ice Cream. Industry City also happens to be located on the fringes of a neighborhood that is one of the most diverse in the city (mostly Asian and Latino), but that has seen a recent—and rapid—rise of its white population in the last decade. And so, when Li-Lac Chocolates announced via Facebook that it would be holding a grand opening party, perhaps it was only natural that some community members would respond by urging a boycott and accusing the company of being an agent of gentrification, little more than a worrying omen of an upcoming rent apocalypse.
But here’s the thing: Not all change is gentrification. Li-Lac Chocolates is an almost century old company which, as the New York Times points out, was founded by Greek immigrants and is currently owned by three men, two of whom are immigrants, and one of whom “migrated from Lebanon to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, nearly three decades ago and worked as a taxi driver before becoming Li-Lac’s master chocolatier.” Another of the owners, Anthony Cirrone, told the Times, “We’re not an unknown corporate entity owned by unnamed people in faraway places.” He also pointed out that many similarly sized New York companies have opted to move out of the city entirely in order to turn more of a profit. But because Li-Lac chose to stay in New York City—and hire locally from the population of its new neighborhood—it has been lumped in with the J. Crews and the Starbucks of the corporate world, a label which Li-Lac does not deserve.
Of course, the face of gentrification does not only have to be that of a white mermaid against a green background, it can come in all forms, including companies founded and run by immigrants. But to simply label as threats and encourage boycotts of all incoming businesses is to risk the wholesale demonization of all change, even that which has the potential to benefit the community via the creation of jobs and the patronization of existing local businesses. It also winds up creating a gentrification straw man, because it risks alienating the many people who might then think that the current, wholly legitimate fear of rapacious development and a city government which for decades has incentivized said development with little to no thought of the destruction of existing communities, is itself an exaggeration. Simply put, using a word like gentrification to target a company like Li-Lac could lead to people dismissing gentrification as a concept in its entirety, not least because the sad fact is that the gentrification of Sunset Park had begun long before Li-Lac moved there. The sad fact about gentrification is that by the time it becomes something that is easy enough to point to on the ground, it’s usually too late to stop it entirely anyway. So rather than sound the gentrification alarm against a business like Li-Lac which is part of a stand-alone complex far from the primary retail and residential areas of the neighborhood, perhaps work on protecting those existing areas and their residents from the actual prospective encroachment by developers who have no interest in producing anything, other than profits for themselves.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen