Monday, January 25, 2010

Can't Duck the Hard Questions

I got what I deserved for writing a trite MLK Day post, courtesy of an anonymous poster who took me to task for making superficial comparisons and ignoring larger questions of race and class on Franklin Avenue of the sort that actually concerned Dr. King. I recommend reading his/her comments, linked here. What follows is the post I should have written, with a pair of clarifications first:

- Referencing a few hours spent picking up trash in the same breath as MLK's support of striking black sanitation workers (who had been denied equal treatment and pay by the city of Memphis) was idiotic. I was searching for a hook, and a chance to mention a little bit of history, but I ended up equating the two.

- My initial report that the arrests at 695 Franklin were "drug-related" was based on two sources. First, I've seen deals go down on that corner before, as have several neighbors with whom I've discussed this particular apartment block, including longtime residents. Secondly, the team of officers making the arrests appeared to be a special unit, not a precinct-based team, which a former officer and a pair of beat cops later confirmed was "almost certainly" the narcotics unit. By reporting the event as a "drug-related raid," I didn't intend to presume the innocence or guilt of those in handcuffs or to comment on the conduct of the police. Were the rights of the accused respected? Was taking the door with a sledgehammer necessary? Were any narcotics found in the apartment? I can't tell you. All I can say is that the NYPD narcotics team was involved in a raid, which, to me, seems enough to describe it as "drug related."

However, my post wasn't a pure police-blotter-style report, because I used the second paragraph to relate my interaction with the gathered crowd. I highlighted the race of those in handcuffs, and the fact that I was the only "cracker" around, because it condensed the racial tension that undoubtedly exists on Franklin into a quick, easily-related anecdote, one that drew more comments than any other post I've written. I didn't offer much in the way of analysis myself because I was curious to gather responses, but I will now.

Anonymous has two key concerns: a) young white people who move into this neighborhood bring noxious assumptions with them about longtime black residents, and both their presence and these assumptions encourage authoritarian excesses on the part of police and landlords that drive people out, and b) the sanctimonious efforts of these young white people to "take ownership of" the community only further the divide, because their actions are patronizing and unwelcome.

The first concern is THE central problem of neighborhood change: people moving into a neighborhood will, sooner or later, displace those who were there before them, particularly if their arrival alters not only the ethnic but economic makeup of an area. I moved to New York City for a job, and I moved to Crown Heights because said job involved traveling in Brooklyn and I needed to find a central, affordable location. Franklin Avenue was perfect, but I knew at first glance that I would be adding fuel to a population shift by moving in, willingly or not. I can pick up as much trash as I want, but at the end of the day, I'm still a walking symbol of changes that will mean the dispersion of older communities.

The problem with the dominant gentrification discourse, however, is that it flattens complicated questions of class into simple, recognizable racial ones: white kids displace older black residents. I may be a symbol of gentrification, but I'm broke--it's my upper-middle-class African-American landlords who bought and renovated a brownstone, spend considerable disposable income nearby, and generally leave a sizeable economic footprint. They're much more likely to call the cops on unruly neighbors than I am, and they don't mince words or get nostalgic when we talk about the direction the neighborhood is going. The same is true of many local business owners I know, most of whom are neither white nor recent arrivals. They're happy to see business picking up and people moving in, and when they do gripe about newbies, it's because they don't shop locally and instead shuttle in Trader Joe's in on the 4 train.

My point is that the people on Franklin who were here before the frontier of gentrification shifted east from Prospect Heights are not a homogenous block. Several ethnic communities overlap on the Avenue (African-American, Panamanian, Jamaican, Guyanese, Trinidadian) and residents represent a broad range of economic classes, too. Some are justifiably worried that new arrivals will drive the cost of living up and price them out, while others are thrilled to see their neighborhood changing and are taking steps themselves to hasten the process. Within these communities, the question becomes one of class, a fact that MLK himself appreciated and had begun to address through his Poor People's Campaign when he was assassinated.

Franklin today is more heterogenous than ever, with a host of young, predominately (though certainly not entirely) white residents joining the already broad mix. This brings me to the second concern, captured by our anonymous poster here:

"maybe you got "stares, glares, befuddled looks" because people could tell you think that picking up litter gives you a "sense of ownership of" the public space that has been their home for decades."

Our poster might have this MLK quote in mind:

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

Or perhaps this one, from Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

I didn't spend my pollyanna post about trash pickup noting the race of everyone I encoutered, but perhaps I should have, if only to demonstrate that reactions varied with little regard to race. I got stares from all sorts of people (people often wonder why you're picking up trash, in my experience) glares from cooler-than-thou hipsters and from older residents when I got in their way, and befuddled looks from people who expected red vests or work-furlough supervisors. One person who thanked me was white, and one was black, and one of the bottle-collectors who I spoke with was white, and one was black. The vast majority of people, of all races, just ignored us, and while I'm sure a few of them found my do-gooderism grating, no one bothered to express it.

Is any effort to "take ownership of" or engage one's local community futile if you're a new arrival? Would it be preferable if the newbies did their best to go unnoticed, spending their days away from Crown Heights and returning only to sleep? I don't think so. The longest-serving resident of Franklin Avenue that I've spoken with, Stanley Jones, described his experience in the neighborhood as one of continuous change, and his ruminations are a reminder that communities aren't just spatial aggregations of people, but temporal ones, too. I may not have been here ten years ago and I might not be here ten years on, but I'm here now, for better or worse, and even if you think it IS worse, you have to share the streets and shops and space with me. In my experience, it's a lot easier and more fun to live with people if you feel connected to them, and they feel connected to you, and that's only going to happen if people of all stripes are willing to engage in communal activities. Is trash collection the ideal way to build community? Surely not, but it's a start, one of many that might encourage a little fellow-feeling nearby. It won't address real issues surrounding gentrification, but if we can't even pick up trash without pissing each other off, how on earth will we come together to respond to the larger challenges?


  1. Brooklyn neighborhoods, especially Crown Heights, has been in a constant state of transition. In reality, nobody can claim permanent ownership of the neighborhood. I like your message of tolerance and acceptance. Change is the only constant. Embrace it and thrive within the state of change, no matter how unsettling. For Crown Heights, hopefully, things are not getting worse... just different.

  2. In regards to your comment about Franklin avenue not being homogeneous I tend to differ. Essentially the West Indian culture you speak of does not separate themselves from the black culture. So yes when I vote I am black but when I converse with people of my nature I am Bajan and Panamian.

    Having been a Franklin avenue resident for 21 years, I can definitely see how the shift can be interpreted in a negative connotation. I have had I guess "white" tenants run from me, run inside of the building closing the door on my face that I have opened since I was able to walk. No I’m not a gigantic black guy I’m a small 5’3 21 year old girl, and to me the majority of tenants moving in ARE NOT as friendly as you, or at least they don’t act as they are. As far as you picking up trash, I don’t see the outrage in that my grandparents, great grandparents have been (when able) picking up trash on Franklin for about 30 years now (since moving into the area)

    I'm not concerned about different ethnicities moving in. I'm concerned that my grandmothers rent will be risen higher than the old twin towers(that used to be visible from washington ave) or the prices at the Associate will sky rocket so high she will be forced to move else where.

    In regards to Mitch,
    Change is unsettling when your elderly family members are forced to move into shelters. I hope if this change happens to elderly members in your family you "embrace" it as well.

  3. Hi Roni... I can sympathize with the human tragedy of having to uproot elderly family members. What is happening in Crown Heights has been the story of NYC for a couple of hundred years. The change mostly benefits the more affluent at the expense of those less fortunate. Neighborhoods change, people are uprooted. NYC, and Crown Height as I see it, is like a living thing. It grows, morphs and evolves. The wonderful thing about NYC and its neighborhoods like Crown Heights, is how it is able to re-shape itself and, as such, always stays relevant. If this stops, NYC will become like Detroit. A stunted wasteland.

    I know it is easy for someone like me to view the situation as a healthy transition while I am not impacted by the changes. Rest assured, I too have had my share of painful change-driven disruption though, perhaps, not on the same scale as you may be experiencing. I still believe that, on a macro scale, the changes are a positive and necessary thing.