In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Hannah, the character played by show creator Lena Dunham, has a late night phone chat with her sorta-boyfriend during a pilgrimage to her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan. The most notable thing about her trip isn’t that she’d just had sex with another dude, but that said dude had a giant apartment. “Why doesn’t everyone who’s struggling in New York move back here and start the revolution?” she muses. “It’s like we’re slaves to this place that doesn’t even really want us.”
Hannah, like every New Yorker, is alternately obsessed with and crushed by real estate. Craigslist ads for luxury apartments with laughable rents really do amount to the city giving young, broke people the finger.
But to me, this throwaway line is less funny than heartbreaking. I grew up in New York. When I tell new friends I was a kid in Park Slope and a teen in Greenwich Village, people assume I’m rich. When I tell them I live in Harlem, the most famous black neighborhood in the country, they look at my white skin and label me the worst kind of gentrifier.
Only a decade ago, that last assumption would have been right. The rules of gentrification used to be simple: There were the yuppies, and there were the working-class heroes. While the artists, bankers, graphic designers, or doctors regarded the neighborhood as a blank slate, the working class and poor people got pushed farther to the margins. But for middle-class kids coming of age in the worst recession since the Great Depression, the dynamic is far more complicated. Downwardly mobile Millennials—especially the ones who are natives of increasingly expensive cities like New York or D.C. or San Francisco—are rewriting the rules of gentrification.