Who belongs in a place and what criteria define the terms of belonging? Ownership of property? The longevity of your residence? Your economic contribution? . . . Your influence on local politics?
In October of 1977 while the New York Yankees were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in baseball’s World Series, announcer Howard Cosell famously observed, as the cameras panned over several raging fires in the environs of Yankee Stadium, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” Thirty years later, I opened up the Metro Section of the New York Times to find a two-page ad that broadcast in huge letters, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Booming.” Apparently, in three decades a sea change has occurred. The ad encourages us to believe that the Bronx has been transformed from a powder keg to a paradise. But as anyone familiar with urban ecology knows, transformation does not simply entail renovating and rebuilding; the issues at play are much more complicated than the simple progression from destruction to construction. New and refurbished buildings in urban areas do not arise in a vacuum. They are built on parcels of land where older buildings once stood, or they are remodeled for new and richer tenants. Most of the time, the people who lived, worked, played, and worshipped in those buildings are displaced. Many developers, eager for profit and armed with the very real promise of upgrading the neighborhood, tend to ignore the fact that those displaced people and those old buildings once constituted a community that, though poor and in decline, had cultural and spiritual value. The issue is not whether a community should change—change is inevitable. It is instead how new life may be infused into a community without destroying the lives and the culture of those who have long resided there.
The phenomenon of neighborhood gentrification that results in the displacement of lower-class ethnic populations fits squarely into the ecocritical field of place studies. In the words of Lawrence Buell, place studies [End Page 125] looks at the “self-consciously dialectical relation between being and habitat,” with particular attention to “the erosive effect” of rapid change on “the stability of locale and the assumption of belonging to it” (62). An exploration of the problems and anxieties gentrification creates in a specific ethnic neighborhood therefore seems appropriate for this special issue of MELUS, which is concerned with the intersection of ethnic studies and ecocriticism. In this article I look at Latino author Ernesto Quiñonez’s novel Chango’s Fire (2004), a story of gentrification set not in the Bronx but in the neighboring Manhattan community of Spanish Harlem. As the novel’s protagonist, Julio Santana, observes: “The history of all countries is the battle over land. In New York City it’s always been a battle over the slums. Real estate is to this city what oil is to Texas. It’s precious, because you can’t produce more land than already exists” (117). The poorer neighborhoods—those like Julio’s—are always the most vulnerable because their people lack the financial and structural resources that would help them resist or negotiate proposed changes.
Quiñonez’s first novel, Bodega Dreams (2000), showed his incipient appreciation of what Buell refers to as “contemporary eco-localism” and its concern with “countering threats to the bounded holistic community from the outside” (77). The gangster hero of Bodega Dreams, Willie Bodega, gains influence and loyalty in Spanish Harlem by renovating buildings for the poor who live there. His actions strengthen not only his own position but also that of his community with respect to incursions from outsiders. In Chango’s Fire Quiñonez takes up the same issue, but he ranges wider and delves deeper, factoring economics, religion, class, and ethnicity into his exploration of the importance of the built environment to the life of this community. As he tells his story, he also grapples with the broader and more complicated question posed (and then parsed) by place studies critic Mitchell Thomashow: “Who belongs in a place and what criteria define the terms of belonging? Ownership of property? The longevity of your residence...