Reflections on the Diaspora and Gentrification
Written By: Henry Gonzalez
This piece is accompanied by a poem, click here to read it.
Last June, I found myself eating at a nice Italian restaurant in Santo Domingo. This was the type of restaurant where valets park cars and waiters lay on formalities in excess. It was far from any eating experience I’d ever had in the Dominican Republic (like many Dominican-American kids, I was sent back to DR every summer). But my friend, a native to Santo Domingo, loves the place and wanted to treat me to a non-tipico meal.
As my friend and I were led around this packed restaurant to our seats, I started to notice something a bit uncomfortable about the room…the only people as dark as me were the waiters. This felt odd in a restaurant where everyone seemed to be Dominican, but it got me thinking about an important realization I’d had as a teenager: Even though citizens of the Dominican Republic come in every shade of brown, almost every President I had ever seen was white enough to pass for European. I understand now how both the skin color of Dominican Presidents and the skin color of people in this restaurant are reflections of the legacy of colonialism on the island, but as I sat there I began to think about the implications of this legacy for the history of the Dominican diaspora, and I decided I had to do some research.
Growing up, the narrative I’d always heard was that the first waves of Dominican immigration in the late twentieth century were driven by a stateside need for cheap labor, and a Dominican peasantry eager for any work it could find. I’ve found this misconception to be obscuring important truths about the first phase of the Dominican diaspora. The majority of Dominican immigration to the United States has come from the urban middle class, not the rural poor. Although seemingly dictated by class, this has an important relationship with colorism on the island. The richest Dominicans are, and have always been white/light skinned landowners, with enough economic and political power that they didn’t have any obvious reason to leave the island (unless they were political enemies of the Trujillato). The poorest Dominicans are those of Haitian descent or dark-skinned agricultural workers without the resources or connections to come into the United States. It has been the urban-middle class, the most racially mixed sector of the country, which has come to the United States in search of a better life. For decades, this has fed into a growing cultural and economic disparity in DR. The wealthy, light-skinned, landowning elite has concentrated its wealth, while at the same time becoming more socially distant from “campesinos” and a troubled, increasingly smaller, middle class. Considering that most Dominicans come to America through family reunification, it seems the trend will continue as the remaining middle class is trampled by the elite and continues to view America as a place of possibility.
Presently, the Dominican-American community is in the midst of the second phase of the Diaspora, characterized by shifts within the United States as much as internationally. I believe there are important parallels between the first phase of the Diaspora, from DR to the US, and the one happening now, Dominicans’ dispersal throughout the United States. Historically, most Dominicans who come to the U.S. have settled in New York City. In 1990, over 73 percent of the Dominican-American population lived in New York State, today, it is just under 50 percent (with 41 percent in NYC alone). What is happening this time? Where are we going?
Why are we leaving New York City? I’m sure most of us know the answer—the rent is too damn high! After decades of urban white flight, of keeping people of color outside of their suburbs, of leaving the Bronx to burn, white Americans are returning to claim the land and toss out the people who created communities there. Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side (where my mom lived when she arrived in the 80’s), have already been taken, and now the exploitive capitalist development and gentrification are in full force in Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American member of the New York State Senate (who represents neighborhoods including Inwood, Washington Heights, West Harlem, and the Upper West Side in Manhattan and the Bronx), says “The No. 1 complaint that I get in my district office is housing, Dominicans are renters. They live in urban areas, so housing is an important issue…because if you don’t have a good paying job then you can’t afford to pay rent. And that’s why you see migration to other states that are nearby.”
Dominicans are moving throughout the Northeast and South, especially to New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Pennsylvania, and even to the Midwest and Texas. They are moving to cheaper cities and especially suburbs. But what does this have to do with the first phase of our Diaspora?
The parallel has to do with which Dominicans are leaving the Bronx and Washington Heights. As gentrification is entering full force in these neighborhoods, Dominicans are also getting their degrees at the highest rates since entering the U.S., and the youngest generation is making significant strides economically. This is causing two distinct demographic trends to occur. White gentrifiers are coming into these neighborhoods and displacing low-income residents, simultaneously as the rising Dominican-American middle class is moving from the community. The latter trend of the geographically mobile Dominican-American middle class is aggravating the process of gentrification which has been taking place. While at first it might seem the moving middle-class is simply making space for white tenants and not displacing low-income residents, these white tenants are changing neighborhood conditions such as rent prices, businesses that are being drawn to the area, and the sorts of investments that exploitive corporations are willing to make in the area. These trends, separately, but especially in conjunction with each other, are harmful to the long term well-being of the community. But there is disagreement about which trend is causing the most harm. The truth is that both trends are important issues which need to be talked about. However, there are many local residents and community activists who feel gentrification is the larger issue, while some local community leaders believe more focus should be placed on the choice middle-class people make to leave the neighborhood. Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. recently said , “…we believe in The Bronx that for decades what happens is that you get a professional working class that whenever they make it, whenever they get a good career, they cut and run.”
We cut and run at least. I lived in the South Bronx for most of my life, sharing a two bedroom apartment with my mom and sister, aided by Section 8. My mom got her college degree and did a decade of social work before moving on to other, more lucrative, forms of service work. First we moved around the city a bit, to Bushwick, Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens, before eventually moving to a suburb of DC in Northern Virginia. For a similar price to what we paid in New York, my mom was able to give us so much of what she wanted for us. We went to a good public high school, our community had a private lake, and we had a much bigger house. But it came at a cost; suddenly my sister and I were two of three Dominicans in a high school of 2500 hundred students.
Honestly, the Bronx was often a pretty shitty place to live. We didn’t have much space, our family’s car was stolen and found scrapped for parts, and my mom didn’t feel she could trust the schools around us to provide a good education. We know there are hardly any public resources in the community, in many parts the transportation infrastructure is not well developed, and instead of parks we have empty fenced-off lots. But this situation doesn’t improve when the people in the community who have gotten an education and a stable career leave for other places.
The parallel with the first phase of the Diaspora is that again it is the Dominican middle class leaving behind the Dominican poor. The middle-class is leaving now, as wealthy white Americans are coming into the neighborhoods that we’ve made home. These white Americans are buying all of the property, creating tensions and generating distance between the gentrifying white elites and the low-income Dominicans who’ve survived there. Although more strictly dictated by class lines this time, it’s not a coincidence that it is white people playing the role of landowner, displacer, and exploiter of the Dominican working class in New York City. It is tied up in the both the legacies of European colonialism and American occupation of the Dominican Republic.
The rising Dominican-American middle class is at a pivotal point and faced with a choice. My family benefitted greatly in many ways from our move to Virginia, even as we’ve become less connected with our family and the community we were once a part of. What is the right choice? Should we fight to stay in and improve the neighborhoods we’ve made our home? It wouldn’t be easy, and we all have lives with concerns and priorities that are hard to balance. Should we run again, searching for a better place?
I guess only time will tell the answers to these questions. However, as our community within America becomes more dispersed, what will a Dominican-American community look like in a generation? As we assimilate into white America, eventually there might not be a culturally distinct Dominican-American community to care about.