Monday, November 03, 2008

Danny Hoch on Gentrification

The Brooklyn Rail features a fascinating interview with playwright and longtime Williamsburg resident Danny Hoch this month. Hoch is about to kick off a solo show, Taking Over, at the Public Theater, in which he deals directly with the impact of gentrification in Williamsburg. The interview covers the same territory, and Hoch is clever and incisive in his analysis: he credits the frontier impulse in the Western psyche for driving the forays of young white suburbanites into Brooklyn’s various neighborhoods, as well as a need for “affirmation of their simulated struggle” in the edgy locales they settle. He’s unforgiving of the problems of rapid gentrification, and he notes that audiences of gentrifiers have felt betrayed and indicted by the piece. When pressed by the interviewer for a message or moral, he offers up the idea that gentrifying behavior is essentially “every man for himself,” with those moving in feeling just as economically pinched, albeit differently, than those they displace. In the show, his alternative vision, which he touches on briefly here, is of people staying in their hometowns to make a difference, rather than erasing, as he sees it, the communities and stories of New Yorkers with their arrival.

The interview is a great read, and the show sounds fantastic. I think Hoch is absolutely right when he says that it would be seriously strange for people to walk out of a show about gentrification feeling good about themselves, and I think his honesty about the impact of gentrification (at one point he rattles off a damning list of trends) is something anyone moving into the littoral zones of the city needs to face down. Still, I don’t share his conclusion or his vision of “returning home.”

There’s a paragraph in the interview where Hoch uses the Williamsburg Art Fair as an example of the way in which gentrifiers create a “vacuum community” that damages existing communities. He cites the absence of Poles, Haisids, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, and African-Americans at the fair as evidence, arguing that instead of continuing the development of “indigenous and organic” institutions from the community, gentrification spawned a separate world that competed with and ultimately began destroying the one in which Hoch lived. There are a couple of obvious gotchas to be had in disputing this line of reasoning: first, all the groups he names are identified by their migrant status, meaning they too were invaders once, and second, these groups historically maintained separate institutions (the kosher butcher, the specialty grocer) that would have been at least as segregated (often by language as well as habit) as today’s hipster hangouts when the migrants were first arriving.

Of course, these migrations brought changes that were significantly different than the one that concerns Hoch—it is doubtful that the arrival of Poles to Williamsburg either priced people out or put longtime residents in the path of amped-up policing—and the point here is not to pull the rug out from under a real set of concerns but merely to introduce another element to the conversation: temporality. Communities, often understood as geographic and social units, are historical units as well: people exist in groups not just of a certain common ilk in a certain place, but also in a certain time. Moreover, the temporal lines are not so cleanly drawn as the major streets on a map, and communities frequently bleed together with the passage of time, a phenomenon that allows Hoch’s description of an indigenous Williamsburg community composed of a patchwork of ethnically-defined groups.

Before I finish that thought, I want to jump to Hoch’s conclusion, which he freely admits is far from progressive—essentially, it amounts to the ancient question “why don’t you go back where you came from?” There are a million potential answers, from “it’s a free country, buster” to “I’d love to be an Ohioan playwright writing about Ohio in Ohio, but it happens that the only place I can make a living doing this is New York City,” but most of them dodge the root of the answer, which is that going home isn’t always that easy. Community, despite its typical usage, is a neutral term, and communities are not always healthy, nurturing environments. This is, to some social theorists, the unique problem of modernity: how do we reconcile the values of openness, social mobility, and freedom with the tangible benefits of close-knit, stable social organization? What is to become of those who don’t fit in, or don’t want to fit in? As long as there is mobility (and mobility is a major hallmark of American society, despite the widening gap between rich and poor) there will be people moving in, and making an impact on pre-existing communities. Some see increasing mobility as a march towards an inevitable telos of individualism, but I think that misses the temporal nature of community from the other side of the table.

These two points are driving at the same thing. Geographic areas, not just in New York City but everywhere, are in constant social flux as time passes, and changes bring friction in myriad ways, from the prejudicial to the economic. New Yorkers who think their neighborhoods are changing overnight might be astonished at the pace of change in middle American meatpacking towns such as Austin, Minnesota, where, at least by percentage, population turnover has far outstripped that of major American cities. The changes that are vested upon each group in each place and time are different, but at some basic level, the challenge is the same: how do we cope with this turnover? How do we retain continuity in the face of this change?

There’s clearly no single answer to this question, but I think any hope has to lie with a combination of resignation that change is inevitable and a belief that new neighbors can be folded into existing communities. This can never happen seamlessly, but if both those moving in and those watching them do it commit to the reality that at this time and place, they have to live together, they might be able to accomplish something resembling a new, functional community. In the process, they might be able to use the solidarity they build to manage, in part, the nature and pace of change (both through the local stability that comes from neighborly sentiment and the political power wielded by an organized voting bloc).

I’m not sure Hoch would think I’m wrong, but he might well think I’m sentimental and naïve. It’s all well and good to do an Obama impression when I’m not the one being priced out or picked up for loitering in the same place I’ve loitered for the past few years. Still, despite Hoch’s suggestion that we try our hands in our hometowns, most of us who have moved in as gentrifiers are sticking around, at least for now, and as long as we are we might as well try to be constructive about it. It’s not a vision I seek so much as a practical approach to the real problems that Hoch details so well. I want to believe that if we recognize that temporality composes our communities as much as prior union and geography, we, gentrifiers and gentrify-ees alike, might be compelled to seize the day and share in what each might have to offer.

Taking Over opens at the Public Theater on November 2nd. Tickets and showtimes are available
here. Go check it out!

No comments:

Post a Comment