When gentrification made an unwelcome visit to Jessica Martinez’s Bronx neighborhood, it arrived suited-up and clothed in camouflaged gear. She had spent her whole life calling Dyckman, Washington Heights and the South Bronx her home, so when changes swooped into her uptown New York community, Jessica recalls immediately feeling a difference in the vibe, before actually seeing the difference with her own eyes.
“In the park we would get weird looks, which hadn’t happened before,” she recalls. Suddenly the routine of hanging out with her friends in public felt wrong. “We were going to our regular bar and we just got upset. The crowd started changing. We felt like the place itself started catering to a new crowd.” Soon enough, the subtle changes became more apparent. “Walking the streets uptown now, it’s like a ghost town. All the stores that my friends and I knew growing up, they’re mostly gone,” she says, recalling all the mom and pop shops that have now been replaced. “I was in Mott Haven and I was in shock, like ‘Where am I?’”
In recent years, the Bronx’s Mott Haven community experienced a facelift, with a slew of new businesses. Yet even with the transformation, she argues, “right across the bridge is the projects and you see the disparity.” It was that visible disparity that prompted protests in a few uptown communities, including Inwood’s Sherman Plaza. “They wanted to turn Sherman Plaza into a shopping center of sorts. They wanted to make it bigger... right across the street from the park,” she recalls back in 2016. That’s when the community became furious and residents began protesting.
Fueled out of anger and inspired by the protests, Jessica gave birth to what is now called Save Uptown; a project under her gnrtn.WHY (Generation Why) brand, committed to putting up a fight against uptown gentrification. Save Uptown is the message branded across the apparel Jessica sells, which includes hoodies, sweatshirts, crop tops, t-shirts and tote bags, sold at www.gnrtnWHY.com. A percentage of the sales are used to create care packages and lunches for the homeless. The movement that started off with stickers plastered across the neighborhood, has now expanded in the past year to a growing brand with huge support. Bronx-bred comedian, Mero of Vice TV’s Desus and Mero, has even sported the brand on his television show.
Still, even with all the love, the brand has faced hate from naysayers. “Save Uptown? You’re a little too late for that,” they’ve told her.
Many don’t quite understand why the brand does not support neighborhood change. Jessica argues, however, “we are not against change. We are against the displacement of people and the expulsion of culture.”
“People focus on the wrong thing. We’re not talking about what really matters. I get angry at what’s happening, but also angry with the misinformation that’s out there. I think a lot of people focus on the racial aspect of gentrification and when you ask someone what they think about gentrification, the first thing they say is ‘white people.’ My thing is, yes, that is definitely a side effect of gentrification, but it’s not gentrification. We should be talking more about the people that are getting displaced. Where are they going? What’s happening to them? What are they going through? Why are we so focused on coffee shops and dog walking?”
She adds that although gentrification might be bigger than herself, the goal of the brand is to start a conversation and spread resistance. “I know I can’t take on this whole societal structure. I know that me, one person, I’m not going to go against that [on my own]. My goal is to get my peers involved, even if it is through conversation.”
“A lot of people don’t like what I’m doing,” she continues. “They tell me a sticker is not going to stop gentrification and people feel like maybe I’m further racially dividing the neighborhood, because they look at this as an attack on the gentrifiers. But it’s like, are you so privileged that you feel like even this struggle is about you? I’m not doing this to attack you. I’m doing this to bring awareness to my people, to the people that are being affected by this and don’t even know why.”
Though her brand mostly appeals to young people, the gnrtn.WHY founder also worries over the elders in her uptown neighborhood. When she’s not busy with her brand, Jessica serves her local church, where she says the elderly often go to seek help. “They’re scared. It’s an immigrant community so they see a paper from the city and they get scared. They don’t know what to do.”
In the past two years, she’s observed that gentrification coupled with the English-to-Spanish language barrier has been very crippling. “I started going to the rezoning meetings to try to figure out what was really going on and in those meetings, I would notice that they really make it difficult for [attendees]. They get small rooms so that a lot of people cannot fit. They barely get interpreters even though they are in a predominantly Hispanic community.” Jessica says the interpreters are not Hispanic and for whatever reason, they always have to leave the meetings early. “Things like that make it difficult for the community to get informed.”
She’s willing to admit, however, that the failure she sees at the rezoning meetings don’t completely fall on the city’s shoulders. “There weren’t a lot of people of color in those meetings. Our people need to do better at getting informed and really putting priority on things.” Jessica hopes that her brand will help bring more awareness to her people and take away the culture of fear.
And to the people who say gentrification is good for the Bronx’s economy, Jessica argues that, “Yes, gentrification can be good, but it’s usually for a certain crowd. Yes, they might have new services available in the neighborhood, but it’s usually not even available to the people who have been [living] there. Yes, our streets can get cleaner and things can look nicer but I don’t feel like that’s ok if it comes at the cost of a whole community. Yes, there are good side effects of gentrification, but I don’t think that we reap them. I don’t think that we ever get to see that side, unless it’s [neighborhood] beautification, but I don’t need that. I want my community to be what it is. So if we’re all being wiped out so things can look nicer, I don’t think that’s good.”
Though the activism behind her brand is often fueled by anger, Jessica also receives a lot of positivity. “I get so much love, that it’s overwhelming,” she says. “People are writing to me, and then they find out that I’m a girl and that I’m young and they’re like ‘wow that’s insane.’ I have a lot of love and support from people who think it’s really cool that I’m young and that I’m interested...but really, I’m here to learn. I’m not here stating that I know everything about gentrification. I’m learning along with [the community].”
Jessica also gets messages from past residents who by now, have moved out of New York. “I grew up in the Heights...I visited and it’s completely different,” some of the messages say. “What you’re doing is amazing. Thank you so much.” The community love and support is what inspires Jessica to keep fighting for her ‘hood.