I must’ve have been 10 years old. I had just moved to the Dominican Republic from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I was spending the weekend at our family’s beach condo.
My father had said I could venture to the beach across the street on my own. That it was safe. I only needed to go through the hotel which was built in front of the beach and had since claimed it for its guests. I just had to let them know I lived in the condos across the street and I would be given a wrist band to wear to show that I belonged there.
As I sat on the beach, I noticed security guards along the premises and asked one of the women serving me my cold lemonade, why they were there.
“Well, it’s to keep the locals off the beach,” she said.
“But, wait, isn’t this their beach as well? Why can’t they enjoy their beach?”
“Because,” she said almost in a whisper, “it makes the tourists nervous and the rich locals don’t want them around.”
I was both enraged and embarrassed. I was one of those “rich locals” and she was right, my father wouldn’t want them around if he were there. The reason he felt so secure in sending his preteen daughter to the beach alone was because he knew security would make sure to keep them out. (Now as far as feeling safe, it was all touch and go. As a girl, I was regularly sexually harassed by affluent older men, both local and foreign, almost everywhere my father assumed I would be safest – but that’s a story for another time).
The way my father and others in his community processed this reality was by saying that legally, locals had access to the beaches, that no one had taken it away from them, and that they could go as often as they wanted. Except that the hotels, resorts, residences, and country clubs that started popping up in front of these beaches also built huge walls that blocked the access to the beaches from those on the other side. Often times, you would have to go into the hotel lobby, pay a fee to have access to the hotel or resort grounds – which rich locals easily paid, but was prohibitive for the low-income residents of the area. If the hotel didn’t let you through – because it made the tourists uncomfortable – you pretty much had no beach. This remains to be the case even today. Walk onto any resort, on any Caribbean destination, and you will find that the only locals on the beach are those serving you your mojito. And a lot of tourists like it that way, even though they have chosen to visit a country not their own.
I would travel and live in both Brooklyn and the Dom. Rep. on and off over the years and became sensitive to the realities affecting the communities in both places.
In order for me to experience the most authentic of Dominican experiences, I had to break almost every rule my father ever had, starting with hanging out on the other side of the tracks. But this is where I learned to dance, how I tasted some of the best Dominican food ever, and experienced Dominican culture in its purest form. My time in Samana, surrounded by local fishermen and their families, was one of the happiest during my living in the country. Though visiting Samana now reflects a spread of the very transformation that I saw in other parts of the country growing up.
Coming back to New York City, I have witnessed similar changes. Entire communities displaced and out-priced from their homes. Those native to our neighborhoods are now the interlopers who should be feared and avoided at all costs (read my experience upon my return to my old stomping grounds in Sunset Park). The way people see it is that they are improving the neighborhood, they are bringing a sense of organization and order that didn’t exist before, they are bringing businesses and helping to lower the crime rates and clean up the streets.
But what they fail to see is that when they move into a new area, anywhere in the world, they can’t move in with the mindset of completely eradicating those things that make them feel uncomfortable. Newcomers may have the power and the resources to change things but ethically, they don’t have the right – certainly without consideration of those who have been there before them.
When we travel or move somewhere, we are bound to the newness of those experiences or at least should be – or we shouldn’t move there (have you ever watched those International House Hunter shows and how infuriating it is to hear those moving go on and on about how much they love the destination, but seek out the gated communities because they “fear for their safety”? Seriously, just don’t move there). Travelers who demand that their experiences be molded to those things that they are most familiar and comfortable with, simultaneously affect the natural landscape – demographically, economically (which is only good if everyone benefits from it, not just a select few) and environmentally – of the place that they visit.
What can we do?
It’s really difficult to stop change, also called progress by those most invested in the economic growth of an area. Truth is we do want better for us and our families.
But what does that mean?
For some people, “better” or “good” is moving into a place where people are just like them, where the unfamiliar is not something they have to adjust to, learn from, or live with.
But for some of us, “better” is living and raising our children where diversity of all kind lives. Where we are forced to deal with the uncomfortable aspects to the point where we feel compelled to become involved with our community and for our community. Where we aren’t always in the familiar, because life and travel isn’t supposed to be about always being comfortable, never being challenged, and never have to question our humanity.
Maybe if more travelers demanded the experiences authentic to the local culture, resorts would be forced to knock down the walls that keep those experiences out. Maybe if we protested in defense of those communities in jeopardy of being ostracized, businesses and landlords would have to find ways to include everyone in their growth plans. Maybe instead of willingly paying property prices, whether in mortgages or rent, that excludes those of lesser means but with a longer history in the area, we can use our financial resources to give back to the community we are so longing to become a part of (and, sorry, a high-end espresso bar and Whole Foods is NOT giving back to the community – but a community garden is, time at the local recreation center working with teens is, building a community playground is, coaching teens in sports and tutoring is. Investing in the local public school of the neighborhood we move into is – as opposed to sending our child to a private school to keep them away from the others).
Maybe if we took the time to understand why suddenly requiring a paid-for permit to use a neighborhood play area is a bad thing (and not support it), we could learn what it’s like to really be a part of the community you just moved into through a simple game of soccer with those who have been there a lot longer.
The DropBox employee in this video has since apologized for his behavior.
I can’t say that I will never find myself within the walls of an exclusive beach resort. Sometimes, sadly, there are no other options in travel. But I can tell you, it isn’t my favorite form of travel nor the most enriching for me or my family (this is another reason why we love vacation rentals. They often offer the most accessibility to local culture). I often tell those looking to visit the Dominican Republic that if they never stepped off the resort, as lovely as they may be (and they often are beautiful), they never saw the Dominican Republic.
I have found myself enjoying some of the benefits that come from a neighborhood that offers the trendy cafes and shops and other resources that didn’t exist before. I am not against these things. What I take issue with is that for some reason, we haven’t figured out a way to include those before us in the process. That we have no problem with exclusion, until that exclusion affects us directly.
Any research on Christopher Columbus can tell you how terrible gentrification is. It comes at a huge price and a sad loss. And it is our responsibility, as community members and travelers of the world, to not be a part of the problem and to work harder on being the solution that considers all.