The NY Times Real Estate Section Is an Appalling Cheerleader for White Gentrification

The New York Times Real Estate section is written for the rich by writers who are either themselves rich or very good at faking it. The tone is one of “oh, what inequality?” matter-of-factness, where $2 million loft purchases are thrown around like Seamless thai food orders. It’s a style of journalism where the writer uncritically adopts the class and corporate tone and verbiage of those they cover: the affluent and the cottage industries that emerge to suit their whims.


This is to be expected. Real Estate sections are a significant source of revenue for a news business increasingly desperate for it, and those reading Real Estate sections on a quiet Saturday morning aren’t expecting in-depth investigations. But the uncritical adoption of industry language has the paper of record either repeating or allowing others to repeat rather tone-deaf colonial language and tropes.

Take, for example, Friday’s whimsical New York Times piece (5/1/16) on young rich people buying multi-family homes and becoming “accidental landlords.” After writing glowing recaps of a handful of white millionaires buying up property in neighborhoods historically associated with African-Americans or other communities of color, the piece allowed a real estate agent to describe Harlem thusly:

Any area of the city can suddenly become the next housing hot spot, and young people have always been the pioneers, because often they can’t afford anywhere else.

A “pioneer,” according to Merriam Webster, is “someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area.” Which raises the question: If these “young people” are the “first people to move to” Harlem—who was there before?

The author went on to refer to one of the wealthy brownstone-seekers, Matthew Trebek (son of Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, naturally), as engaging in “explorations” of Harlem, as if it were an undiscovered wilderness.

It may seem like PC parsing, but this type of language helps normalize a racist mindset in an already racist industry. A 2012 report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that discrimination and redlining, while more subtle than in decades past, is still rampant in the real estate business. Racially loaded terms like “pioneer” and “exploration” help reinforce the notion that long-existing communities of color are untamed frontiers needing to be settled.

The New York Times has previously allowed this type of colonial language. In 2014 it referred to a friend of actor Michael Shannon as a Red Hook “pioneer” (6/22/14). In 2013, one resident described themselves as a DUMBO “pioneer” (9/1/13), and in 2012 the Times uncritically quoted a real estate agent talking about “urban pioneers” (12/19/12).

Other problematic tropes include the ubiquitous “up-and-coming neighborhood,” which implies that the neighborhood’s previous status was down. Its use in a 2015 story (11/8/15) about a white millionaire moving to Harlem dripped with racial insensitivity:

[One apartment-seeker’s] measure of a place that would increase in value? A nearby Starbucks. So he made good use of Google Maps, checking locations. “I think Starbucks is a harbinger of an up-and-coming neighborhood,” he said. “They do a lot more research than I could.”

In 2014, Aaron Cantu reported for FAIR on the media’s use of the euphemistic “melting pot” to gloss over the influx of white New Yorkers into neighborhoods of color.

The use of colonial language to describe gentrification isn’t new. Indeed, one wealthy highrise in 2014 in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood took this thinking to its logical ends, naming its lofts “Colony 1209” with its marketing materials reading:

Here you’ll find a group of like-minded settlers, mixing the customs of their original homeland with those of one of NYC’s most historic neighborhoods to create art, community and a new lifestyle. Let’s Homestead, Bushwick-style.

This is obviously on the more extreme (and oblivious) end of the spectrum, but it’s the context in which the New York Times operates. While improvements have been made (one 1986 article refers to those venturing above 96th street as “settlers”), terms like “pioneer” and references to “explorations” should be dropped altogether, especially when casually discussing millionaire white people gentrifying a neighborhood synonymous with African-American culture and history.

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