Monday, May 24, 2010

Interrogating Indifference

I found last week particularly challenging as a resident of Franklin Avenue and a blogger trying to do right by whatever small measure of information I provide. Thanks to all who posted, including those who were attacked during this high-stress period (I don't know what I'd have done on Saturday if I'd been shot at from a rooftop with a water pistol, much less with a BB gun). Thanks in particular to Nat for emphasizing the importance of seeing the bigger picture and not reducing the incident to a gangland shooting. Apologies to Sue Rock and Ophra at Force and Flow, both of whom had great events last weekend that I forgot to run because I was too fried from the week to post anything beyond a dumb joke on Saturday. There are more great events coming up that I'll be posting about tomorrow, I promise.

What follows is something new for me, a long-form reflection on last week's various encounters with race, class, and violence in Crown Heights. I'm offering it up here (if you've got the time to read 2,300 words) as fodder for any and all comments, and I'll say from the outset that it's neither well-argued nor resolved, in any sense. I don't mean for it to be a manifesto or a final word on the state of the Avenue, just a reflection on a moment in time and space from a vantage point that felt difficult to occupy over the past week. Without further ado:

Interrogating Indifference


On the A train, coming home, I doze and the lady lets me rest my head on her shoulder. It’s a long ride from Inwood, but I sleep almost the entire way, waking once at Columbus Circle when an irate man boards the train screaming at his companion, gesturing wildly and threatening violence. I nod back off, but the lady watches, and makes eye contact just as he raises his shirt to show his companion the handgun tucked in the waistband of his jeans. She looks down hurriedly, but he knows she saw it, and to keep her from saying something (having seen something), he ambles over and stands above us, clasping the aluminum rail and glowering down at her. Oblivious, I snore on, until a screeching stop a Jay Street wakes me. “Hey you,” she says, “let’s get off at Lafayette. I want to go to Target.” I shrug, and we get off at Lafayette, where I promptly get a talking-to for being the worst knight in shining armor ever. I shrug again. What could I have done?

All of this is prelude to an encounter at MoCADA, the Museum of Modern Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, which we pass on our walk. I poke my head in and discover that this is the last day of their much-discussed show, “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks,” a show I told myself I would get to, an exhibition I wanted to think about. “I’m not feeling up to it right now” says the lady, and heads for Target.

Inside, three works affect me. The first is a film in which a young woman of the African Diaspora talks confidently on her Bed-Stuy stoop about the effects of neighborhood change. “We’ve been in this building for fifty years, this is our building, and they’re trying to force us out, raise the rents, so new people can move in.” She wears an Assata Shakur t-shirt. “We used to know everyone on this block. People would be outside grilling, kids playing, everyone talking to everyone. People move in, and they’re nasty to us, and then the police come around, talking about noise complaints, which we never had before. Now there’s no one out on the block anymore.” She is angry and articulate. This is her neighborhood, her stoop, and forces she cannot control are destroying it.

Above the second section of the gallery hangs a simple sign, done in faux-olde-english style, with a hand poking forth from a lacy cuff to words we are meant to mind. It looks like something that would hang in a new old-timey pub on Vanderbilt. It reads simply “Don’t Move to Crown Heights.”

But who’s talking to who? Locals to newcomers? Newcomers to other newcomers? Black to white? And why?

The third piece, a triptych by Queens artist Oasa DuVerney, is the hardest to absorb, the most searing. In the middle panel, an exaggerated gold chain three feet high holds a big gold skull and crossbones, with eyes large enough to hold sketched images of an older woman (in one eye) talking to a younger woman (in the other). To the left, a large panel holds a disturbing vision of a black woman screaming, her hair being pulled, her arms twisted behind her back. She is drawn gesturally and vividly, while her aggressors, two police officers, are outlined, emotionless, figures from a graphic designer’s drafting table. Underneath them, in flashy, motorcycle-gang script, runs the caption, “Remain Indifferent.” The rightmost panel reads “Remember They Are Indifferent.” The image is of drinkers at Franklin Park (the sign in the garden visible behind them), all outlined. This is an indictment.

Indifferent? We are indifferent by virtue of our difference? Can I beg to differ, to not be indifferent?


Laundry day. Four times, two up, two back, from Dean to Park. Four times past the trio of stoops that host a party every night, at the building where I walked past a drug bust, on the block that I’ve heard young single women refer to as the Gauntlet. The lady has had men follow her all the way home, some friendly, some aggressive, some angry, even one in an electric wheelchair. They call her sweetie, honey, snowflake, girl. The say things I won’t type. Surely, I say, she has a right to walk by without being harassed. She tells me that they do it to everyone, that it’s not just for her, or even just for white girls. It’s what they do, and stopping it would require chasing them off the stoop. Is that what I want, who I want to be? Is this really a choice between enduring harassment and being a cultural imperialist?

Laundry to the Laundromat

Jane Jacobs would revel in the scene. Kids tool around on scooters. Jonesy laughs with another senior citizen, while two men bring takeout back to cheers. The sun is setting. It’s a beautiful day. I want to be a part of this scene, to sit on that stoop, to share in the food, to trade stories. It reminds me of family barbeques. It looks and feels like home, like a home, if not my home.

Laundry in the Wash

It’s raucous. It’s loud. Dice bounce off the wall, brews nestle in paper bags, laughter peals along the street. It’s still fun, more fun, even, since the kids are getting hustled in to bed and grandma is dozing in her chair. I want to play. I think this makes me enlightened, but maybe I’m just exoticizing the scene, reducing it to a minstrel show as much as I would be if I crossed the street and sneered. I hope there’s more common ground here than that, that I can say this looks fun.

Laundry in the Dryer

The kids and grandma are gone. The mood has changed. I have to walk in the street to pass as one man brandishes a bottle like a club and screams at another man. Two women watching the altercation talk casually of the horrific violence they believe is about to come to pass. People walking home, black and white, young and old, are crossing the street a block up. Yikes.

Laundry Coming Home

Two NYPD cruisers bathe the sidewalk in red spinning light. Franklin is an Impact Zone, and the police are never far away these days. One man is in handcuffs, and the stoops are deserted. Two men, their shoulders hunched defensively, frustrated, walk up the street. “All these white people calling the police” says one to the other, at nearly the exact same spot where, months ago, another woman looked right at me and said “These crackers have been snitching.” The speaker makes eye contact with me, frowns, stops talking. I purse my lips, raise my eyebrows. His eyes narrow, his face hardens, and they pass. We used to know everyone on the block. We never had noise complaints before.


At the CHCA meeting, we hear from the executive board that the Association worked very hard for a long time to convince the NYPD to increase their presence on Franklin, and specifically to designate it an Impact Zone. A representative from Commissioner Kelley’s office speaks, explaining his oversight role, and takes questions. Kevin, the owner of About Time Boutique and a building on the Avenue, as well as the lead organizer for the Franklin Avenue Kids’ Day taking place in July, stands to lodge a complaint. The officers on the block are new, and they’ve made no effort to befriend local business and property owners. They don’t understand the community, and they don’t know who they’re talking to. The other day, they arrested Kevin in front of the building he owns over a misunderstanding, as he puts it. His question? “What can we do about profiling by the new police on Franklin?”

The Commish’s rep apologizes and doesn’t have much else to add. One of the CHCA leaders asks whether an Impact Zone is necessarily a “zero-tolerance” zone as well. He doesn’t know. There are murmurs of concern, of frustration. We fought hard to get the police to pay attention to us, and now they’re not protecting us, they’re arresting us. Where did this go wrong? The scene begs hard questions about policing—how exactly do local policies get made? Who has clout? Lifelong residents often complain about their pleas for protection falling on deaf ears at the local precinct, and of the hurt they feel when law enforcement seems to arrive in lock-step with young white people. The CHCA tells us that calls matter, that the only thing the Precinct Captains see is numbers, everything else gets tossed. We can get what we want, they say, if we work the phones. But what’s really happening? My instinct is that’s it’s neither calls nor young white folks calling the police (we’re not usually that skittish unless you break and enter or mug us—I don’t really know anybody in my sub-demographic who calls in noise complaints with any regularity), but rather, real estate owners with deep pockets and buildings that they want to see leased at higher rents leaning on electeds, who in turn lean on the NYPD not only to make places safe, but to make them look safe, so that the skittish folks will pay the rents. The battle of perception is the one that gets Kevin arrested, that endangers stoop life. As an economic agent, a renter paying the prices asked, I’m not innocent of this, but I’m not exactly empowered to stop it, either, unless I boycott landlords who effect rent increases beyond whatever one considers just.

Walking home, I’m back to indifference. I can sympathize, even try to empathize with Kevin all I want, but I have a choice. I can walk up and down the block and never really run the risk of experience an arrest or a stop-and-frisk unless I’m carrying a gun in broad daylight. My life isn’t political unless I make it political. Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture was arrested twenty-seven times. I’ve never been arrested. Sure, I can tell myself it wouldn’t matter, that it’s not as though I could approach the policeman and say “Excuse me, fellow white man, please cease your profiling and unhand my neighbor.” They’d tell me where to stick it, and if I kept it up, I’d be in cuffs soon enough. But maybe that’s the only way. I remember reading that when asked if he respected any white South Africans, Steve Biko replied “Bram Fischer.” Why? Because Bram Fischer was, at the time, the only Afrikaner who had actually risked everything for the struggle (and went to jail for life because of it) the way every black activist HAD to, if they even wanted to be an activist. Bram Fischer was not indifferent. It’s a high bar.


Murder. How do you write about murder?

The lady is out for a run and passes the scene—blood and gore everywhere, a gathered crowd, screaming, crying. People everywhere are talking all day, trying to make sense, trying to feel safe, trying to stop thinking about it by finding a way to compartmentalize it, to file it away so they can go about their lives. The blogs and message boards explode. Gang-related? Woman-related? Drug-related? Is the penalty for being a womanizing, drug-dealing gangster, even if it’s all true, death? We try to reassure ourselves that this doesn’t happen to strangers, that this doesn’t happen to us, that we aren’t at risk. But who is? We’re not indifferent to the incident, but we don’t know, can’t know, what it’s like for those inside it, for family, friends, for those who aren’t strangers, either to the man or to the violence that claimed him.

And is it so bad, that the first reaction is safety? Who can fault someone who says “My first concern is keeping myself and my family safe. I’ll worry about the rest once I know that.” I was freaked again—the lady was blocks away from another shooting last summer, one where a bystander did take a bullet. And yet, the minute my mind turns to this, I’m already past the dead man. Can we understand this event without de-humanizing the victim? People talk about moving out. Don’t move to Crown Heights.


- There’s an emergency meeting.

- I can’t make it.

- You have a corporate league softball game.

- That’s later, I have work.

- You could skip an hour of work. It’s an emergency.

- I don’t want to drop everything just because there was a shooting.

- That’s a dumb excuse. Someone just LOST everything, actually everything, and you’re concerned about missing an hour of work and some Coors Light in Central Park. You should go.

- And say or do what? I’m not a community activist, I have no clout with anyone, I don’t have any ideas for stopping this. I’d be a clueless face in the crowd.

- You’re a reporter. People expect you to report.

- I’m one guy with a dopey blog.

- You like it when people read your blog. You follow the analytics, you get excited when you get linked. At some level, you’re benefiting from this. The least you can do is go.

- I have work.

- You have a choice.


Work runs late, a meeting about strategy for next year, for engaging more kids in activities that, in theory, will keep them “off the streets” or “engaged in positive activity.” It’s a nice balm at the time, but still, I don’t make the meeting. Neither does the 77th Precinct (some administrative excuse about not attending “town hall” events). I’m not sure what else to say, except that perhaps even writing this was exploitative, co-opting real misery and even death for my own unease. Remember they are indifferent.


  1. anomie?

    ...they are not the same as indifference.

    Folks have lived for years in a neighborhood filled with crime, in which they are lowly renters. The rules were: Avoid both the police and people you have not known for a really long time.

    As the neighborhood changes economically and racially, so do the rules and expectations ...leading all to wonder whether the police are more present and responsive simply as a result of white people moving in.

    ...afterall, Crown Heights has had a sizable middle class the entire time. When one thinks about it, the new people calling the police may be actually poorer than the people in the neIghborhood who have ALWAYS called the police (you know, the members of the CHCA and local brownstone owners in general. They tend to be black...).

    Regardless of whether you are the lowly renter or homeowner, the message is clear: This neighbor is in flux. You may like the changes or you may not, but you are simply along for the ride. You are not driving, and the fact that you may have lived here for 30 years doesn't mean anything to the forces at play.

    The gentrification of Harlem was interesting to watch because the "new people" were largely middle class blacks who were doing battle with poor blacks re: drugs, loud music, etc.

    ...when the people who are scared are often not only white, but also new to New York City you get Franklin Ave....

    and alienation
    and anomie.

  2. I do think neighborhood tensions are as much about class as race, as the comment above about the gentrification of Harlem reflects, at least in terms of cultural tolerance. But who likes to have murders, stabbings, and assaults in their neighborhood? Seems like all residents, irrespective of race, class, age, gender, whatever, should be able to work together; come together; to combat this and maybe through working on this issue get to know each other better and learn about the impact that neighborhood changes are having on how everyone feels about the changes.

  3. Nick, I really applaud you for taking on this subject and doing it in such a moving and compelling way. I'm going to try to post more when I have a bit more time.

  4. Oh yeah ... you had a post a WHILE ago with a picture of a malfunctioning crosswalk sign and you quipped on whether it was actually an anti-gentrification warning. What is the link to that post? I was trying to link to it the other day, but couldn't find it.

  5. @ whynot + Anonymous: good points all around. Many longtime residents I know are completely unsentimental about neighborhood change--happy to see it upping their property values, making the area safer, and providing them with new places to eat, drink, and shop. I may be a more obvious symbol of these changes than, say, my upper-middle-class Af-Am landlords, but in many ways I'm much less of an engine for change than they are (I know they're much more likely to call in a noise complaint if someone's keeping their five-year-old up than I am). As to alienation and anomie, there's much more to say on both subjects, but what I was trying to address/consider here was the notion of indifference as capture in the Oasa DeVerney's work.

    @Laurel: It was my very first post:

  6. What I was out was the someone who is posting 2300 words on a topic isn't "indifferent". Whynot_31

  7. Nick --
    Thanks for this, really. Very thought-provoking and resonates with me on a very deep level. Though it will take me awhile to digest, my initial reaction is this: it's not exploitative to share your frustration at a neighborhood tragedy. It's coping with reality, no? Finding an outlet (like writing, photography, music, whatever) to express your frustration / ease anxiety is an important part of the personal healing process, and whatever good that does for the collective neighborhood -- even better.

    I believe I read somewhere you're a U of C alum -- me too. To be honest, CH reminds me of some of the tensions I experienced as an undergrad on the south side of Chicago, but now instead of being an irresponsible college kid, it's my duty to step up and actually participate in community-building. You're playing an important part in the process, and never doubt that.

    Sure, it's in the unfortunate (and tragic) circumstances that the self-doubt can easily arise (what's the purpose of this all?!); and the recent events in CH are heartbreaking. But there are also a lot of really positive things going on in the neighborhood, and can't that drive change just as effectively?

  8. I was walking to the subway on Franklin about 10:45 am last Wednesday, when I heard gunfire at the end of the block. A Black woman (wearing a Haiti t-shirt) told me (young, white, recent arrival) to run, and gave the same advice to a passing Hasidic man. We stopped on the corner of Rogers, all three of us, discussing the situation. How could this happen again, under "normal" circumstances?

  9. Nick - I thank you for your candid thoughts. The racial/class tension is frightening and frustrating. I've found some organizations to be grateful for the changing neighborhood, for new community members participating in their organizations. Some newbies, like yourself, are particularly active and hoping to breach gaps, whether economic, racial, age, or gender. Also, sometimes I think people misinterpret fear for indifference. Other times, I think people get discouraged because they feel powerless, thus refuse to make further attempts at change. Regardless, I hope outlets like this blog encourage activism and communication. Crown Heights desperately needs more platforms like this, so we can go beyond seeming attitudes of indifference and plunge into mentalities of change.

  10. Taint nuthin new under the sun. I grew up on Eastern Parkway, and remember the crime spree that drove out one wave of residents, then hipification, then gentrification, and now another crime spree. The wheel just keeps on turnin ...

  11. Nick,

    I was glad that you were willing to address these issues and to admit to your own selfishness around safety.

    I don't think the problem is you. There are many people - old-timers and new timers, black and white, Asian, Latino, somewhere in between, renters or property owners - who view where they live as a place to which they are responsible. Like you, they talk to their neighbors, they go to community meetings, they ponder issues that arise in their neighborhood. They have a commitment to where they live.

    It's more likely that someone who has grown up in an area is going to be committed to making it a good place to live. But, not always. It's hard to care about your neighbors when you're desperately poor and hustling to feed yourself and your kids. It's hard to care about your neighborhood when over the years you've seen that you have little impact with the police and schools. Sometimes, I think it's a personality thing, that some people are just wired to be more selfish.

    It does seem though that there are many people who are moving in who don't care. They want a place to live with a low cost of living but also with cafes that serve lattes and restaurants with brunch food. The people who grew up in the area are just seen as collateral. The fried chicken places and the cell phone stores are seen as disposable since this demographic doesn't eat or shop there. These people don't act like they live in a neighborhood, and they insult the people who care deeply about where they live.

    I do think you're doing a good thing with this blog, opening up communication around these issues. Since many people in the neighborhood don't have internet access at home and may not be reading along, I wonder if you could post your essay on the street? Sometimes we forget that there's still an income differential around use of the internet.


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