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Mobile or Stuck? Two Sides of New York City Gentrification

• September 20, 2013 • 4:11 PM

The New York City Subway. (PHOTO: ADAM E. MOREIRA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

What are your options when increasing real estate costs price you out?

Appreciating real estate can displace just about anyone. The tale starts there. What are your options? The captive female labor force:

“I feel stuck,” said Ms. Manzueta, 37, who has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and who, on a recent Wednesday, looked crisp in her security guard uniform, waving traffic away from the curb at Kennedy International Airport. “You try, you try and you try and you’re getting nowhere. I’m still in the shelter.”

With New York City’s homeless population in shelters at a record high of 50,000, a growing number of New Yorkers punch out of work and then sign in to a shelter, city officials and advocates for the homeless say. More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs.

Mostly female, they are engaged in a variety of low-wage jobs as security guards, bank tellers, sales clerks, computer instructors, home health aides and office support staff members. At work they present an image of adult responsibility, while in the shelter they must obey curfews and show evidence that they are actively looking for housing and saving part of their paycheck.

This problem would look familiar to geographer Susan Hanson. Responsibility for children limit the distance a woman can journey to work. This is why well-educated women will move downmarket for employment:

A suburban woman gives up a challenging desk job downtown and switches to the assembly-line tedium of stitching labels on sweaters in a factory closer to home.

It`s just another example of how geography restricts the role of women in the workplace.

Despite the prevalence of such episodes, geography has been almost completely ignored in studies of why women work where they do and why many find themselves in occupationally segregated situations, says Susan Hanson, director of the School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

In general, the geographic mobility of women is much more restricted than that of men. Reading Hanson’s research while an undergraduate at the University of Vermont got me to thinking about the connection between geographic mobility and wealth. Someone able to move easily across borders to different labor markets doesn’t need a union. The stuck do.

Not all women are stuck. Take the example of New York City native Cari Luna. She wrote about her experience with the rent being too damn high in Salon:

When I go back to visit New York I feel at home in a particular way that I know I will never feel in Portland, no matter how lovely it is and how easy a place to live it is. Yes, I miss New York. I miss New York on the level of bone and blood. I began writing this essay as an exploration of how I fell out of love with New York, and what I found in the writing of it is that I never did. …

… The New York of my 20s is gone, as my 20s (and, now, 30s) are gone. Those 20-somethings living six to a room in Bushwick or whatever the hell they’re doing to get by are every bit as enamored of their version of New York as I was of mine. But I had to leave it, so I could build a life for my family.

And so I cede New York to you, broke 24-year-olds who still find validation in the struggle; and to you, obscenely wealthy bankers for whom the city’s been remade. You can have your New York. I’ll make do with the one I carry with me still. If you need me, you’ll find me, my husband, and our two kids in Portland, Ore., growing asparagus and tending our backyard chickens.

When Bushwick popped, Luna hightailed it to Portland instead of a homeless shelter. She wasn’t tethered to a job in a limited geography. She had options as to where she could build her family. Our challenge isn’t to deal with the people forced out of New York City. They will be fine, save wounded pride. Our concern should be those who are stuck, moved from home to homeless shelter without changing zip codes. And what about the suburban working mom in the industrial sweatshop? Same captive labor problem without hipster gentrifiers to scapegoat.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

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