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Power at the Roots: Gentrification, Community Gardens, and the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side.

Power at the Roots: Gentrification, Community Gardens, and the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side

By Miranda J. Martinez

Lanham, M.D.: Lexington Books, 2010

180 pages; $60.00 [cloth]

This is a superb and compelling story about community gardens and casitas in New York City's Lower East Side, the people who created them by reclaiming abandoned property and nurturing them into vibrant social spaces, and their struggles to save the gardens from developers, developer allies in government, and gentrifiers. It is not one story but a collection of stories, each with its own drama and appeal. It focuses especially on the role of Puerto Ricans in Loisaida and the intersections between class and culture as they play out both in the gardens and community politics.

Unlike many scholarly works about gentriffying neighborhoods, Miranda Martinez sees the economic and political transformation of communities up close, with believable examples involving real people with whom she has talked. Most importantly, her characters are people who have agency: they engage in struggles and resistance and they have had an effect on the future of their neighborhoods. They are neither passive nor invisible victims, but players in a larger political and social environment. They show resilience even as their social and cultural institutions are assaulted and weakened by the homogenizing structures of globalized real estate and finance and assimiliationist public policies. Martinez emphasizes how praxis by committed long-time residents and activists has forced developers and their government supporters to change their strategies and restrain the appetite for new luxury housing at the expense of community gardens. Even while gentrification and displacement may continue to transform the neighborhood, the outsiders are unable to proceed in steamroller fashion. Many community activists are also united by what Martinez calls latinidad.

Many studies of gentrification look at events from a distance and consequently minimize the role of people who interact with and resist it. They fail to see the community organizing or the various ways that people react to gentrification, with both exasperated resignation and conscious resistance. They fail to hear those who say, in effect, "Hey mister, we're still here! Y nos quedamos!" A host of books on the Lower East Side add up to the impression that the older low-income residents are gone and the fight to stay is inevitably a losing one. To many analysts, gentrification has been a totalizing process, overcoming and dominating poor residents and their places of residence. In their view, the remaining Latinos and others are virtually invisible. But Martinez talks about the "taming" of the neighborhood, not its total destruction. She talks of ongoing fights against rezoning to promote new development and protect gentrified areas. Her book tells a different story because it is filled with complexities and contradictions and leads to no facile or simplistic conclusions about transformations in urban neighborhoods. It looks at change from the vantage point of the neighborhood itself, a perspective often lacking in studies that pretend to be objective.

The stories in this book are not simplistic portrayals of uniformly heroic activists facing down evil developers. While Martinez clearly sympathizes with the gardeners who help create a rich local community and who feel powerful connections with the land and opposes the unjust displacement pressures unleashed by developers and government supporters, she also shows us divisions and contradictions that affect the way gardeners relate to the broader economic and political environment. She analyzes the sometimes sharp differences among progressive whites in the Lower East Side, whose strong support for new affordable housing has at times resulted in open conflict, the eviction of gardeners, and an exacerbation of ethnic conflict. For example, the recent rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side opened up a political breach in the community, which led to a lawsuit by a coalition of Chinese and Latinos charging that the failure to protect public housing and low-income areas left open the possibility of massive gentrification. The "housing progressives" largely supported the rezoning, which included promises of "affordable housing" amid the potential new luxury high rises.

Other accounts of gentrification present census information and look at housing prices to describe the changes wrought by unrestrained market development. They may offer data to show adverse effects on people of color. But few address the class, ethnic, and racial significance of the process at the neighborhood and personal level, thus missing the contradictory meanings and impacts of gentrification for people who live and work in the neighborhoods undergoing change. This is not to say that gentrification is to be welcomed; its main thrust is the involuntary displacement of entire communities made up disproportionately of people of color with low incomes, people who have invested their own energies in creating social networks that cannot be easily rebuilt.

Too many stories of gentrification have glossed over the ways that the homogenizing forces of gentrification consume and obliterate the history and culture of Puerto Ricans and other minority groups. By going to the roots, this book vividly demonstrates how Puerto Ricans interact with the global and local trends involved in gentrification, and how they have changed the process. Community gardens play a role when they are sanitized and their diverse cultural meanings are reduced to insipid "green spaces." The symbols of Puerto Rican independence are replaced by "open space amenities" for new condo dwellers, or new condos.

Power At The Roots gets inside the community movements and shows how they change the calculus of local real estate development and housing policies. It shows the breadth and diversity of the community gardeners and how they inserted themselves into local politics and changed the outcomes. These truly empowering stories do not idealize the participants but show them to be actors within real, complex, and contradictory social forces. The book points out the conflicting sentiments people have about gentrification; for example, improvements like better services and safer streets are welcomed at the same time that they trigger a fear that people with limited incomes will be unable to stick around to enjoy the benefits. The author moves us to a more dynamic understanding of gentrification that has real roots on the ground and in people's hearts, but at the same time never forgets the central role of political, economic, and social inequality.

Martinez focuses solely on the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side, leaving out Jewish and East European and Chinese communities, each of which has played an important role in the struggles and the imagination of public places, and each of which brings cultures and practices that have been at times at odds with the commodification of space and gentrification. She does not pursue in depth the role of assimilation and generational and class differences within the Puerto Rican community, nor does she explore the implications of increasing transnationalism and the pan-Latino identities. However, she does consider the broader trends of globalization and the rising claims for the right to the city.

While the book looks at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policies promoting "the luxury city," it would have been interesting to contrast his extensive efforts to brand himself as a "green mayor" through his long-term sustainability plan (PlaNYC2030) with the "green" instincts of the gardeners. Bloomberg's proposals to plant a million street trees while laying more concrete and asphalt for a million new residents are significant. There is no place in the long-term plan for community gardens, local food, or the growing community-based movements to improve access to healthy, culturally appropriate food and open space. The city is going from casitas to condos.

In sum, this is new and important scholarship that makes a significant contribution to the literature on gentrification and Puerto Rican New York. It is truly multidisciplinary; it should be useful in the classroom and also appeal to a broad audience. Power At The Roots would be an excellent text for urban studies and social sciences (including sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology), as well as Puerto Rican and Latino studies, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. There are other books on the Lower East Side, including From Urban Village to East Village, edited by Janet Abu-Lughod (Blackwell, 1994); William Sites' Remaking New York (University of Minnesota Press, 2003); and Christopher Mele's Selling the Lower East Side the city as a whole. But none of these focuses on the process "at the roots" or is written from the vantage point of Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Lance Freeman's There Goes the 'Hood (Temple University Press, 2006) makes an attempt to dig deeper in Harlem but is too simplistic to be convincing. Power at the Roots belongs in a small league of nuanced works, such as Arlene Davila's Barrio Dreams (University of California Press, 2004), which focused more on East Harlem but also got close to the roots.

REVIEWER: Tom Angotti, The City University of New York--Hunter College
COPYRIGHT 2011 Hunter College, Center for Puerto Rican Studies
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Author:Angotti, Tom
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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