Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gentrifying Brooklyn: Reflections

Last weekend, I sat in on one of the most interesting community forums I've ever attended. The occasion was a preliminary screening of the upcoming film Gentrifying Brooklyn: The Buying, Selling, & Repackaging of Crown Heights, and our hosts were local filmmakers and bloggers Laurel Brown and Abeni Garrett (check out their great work at Nostrand Park). The agenda was simple enough: eat some delicious food from Joey's Gourmet Lunchboxx (whose spectacular Hawaiian sliders will have me making regular pilgrimages), Superwings, and the Pulp & the Bean, watch a short clip of the new film, and then talk about it. The grub was great, and the filmmakers picked a great organizing principle for their clip, namely, asking a broad variety of residents where they lived (Prospect Heights/Crown Heights/Crow Hill) and then asking them to elaborate on what this meant for them in terms of identity with/ownership of the neighborhood.

I don't want to diminish the film in any way, and I've no doubt the finished product will be spectacular, but on this night, everything I've covered so far was prologue. What followed was nearly two hours of open and honest dialogue about community change and community-building, made possible in large part by the willingness of our hostesses to ask fearlessly ask tough questions. Recapping the complete proceedings here would be impossible, so instead (and because I need a way to organize my thoughts), I'll offer five key points (or lessons learned) that I took away from the things my neighbors said.

1. Community starts with hello. One man in particular raised hell about new neighbors not greeting him when they pass him on the street, but his comments were repeated by speakers across the board throughout the evening. It's a fair and simple point: if we can't greet each other, we'll always be alien to one another.

Admittedly, even this is tricky, as it can be hard to navigate gender, culture, and class dynamics appropriately. By way of example, the lady HATES it when men tell her to smile, as she feels it imposes their gendered expectations on her (as she rightly points out, no one ever tells me to smile), but she knows that the older gents who offer up this advice often mean well . For more food for thought, see MHA's directions for white folks greeting black folks here, and ensuing commentary. But nothing worth doing is easy, and sometimes you have to get it wrong to learn. Greet away, Crown Heights.

2. Community is a choice. This was another near-consensus point, one which I thought was best encapsulated by a woman who stood and said "My beef is with people who don't care about community." Another young man echoed her comments at the end of the night, freely offering that he's new to the area but adding that he knows the only way to build a community that he wants to live in is by reaching out to neighbors, whether by greeting them, attending community meetings, or standing with them on any number of issues. Choosing community doesn't mean choosing a particular identity or privileging any particular viewpoint, but it does mean prioritizing opportunities to think and act collectively.

3. Think green. Not like that, like this. One longtime neighborhood broker (who's been interviewed for the film) showed up to emphasize this point, arguing that it's always been property owners and, to a lesser degree, business owners, who've driven gentrification. The rationale, as he described it, is very simple: they're protecting and improving their investment by driving up property values and prices, and they have a very powerful incentive to do so. By way of example, we heard from Montrose Morris, who noted that the moniker "Crown Heights" replaced the original neighborhood name of Crow Hill (there's some debate about the original location of Crow Hill, but that's for another day) when the area was first "gentrified" as a bedroom suburb at the turn of the last century. Today, our broker noted wryly, a group of interested individuals is trying to re-brand the area just north of the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Heights as "Museum Heights," even as the Prospect Heights name is creeping east into Crown Heights real estate listings.

4. Landlords and tenants aren't exactly on the same page. I was blown away by how many landlords showed up for this event, and particularly by how forcefully they addressed questions of entitlement, ownership, and improvement. From homeowners with a single basement apartment to rent to some fairly big property managers, these folks had a clear and remarkably unified message: We pay the taxes that bring the city services to our neighborhood, and we are the ones with the most to gain or lose depending on the quality of life in the area. That's why we call the police, that's why we seek out Impact Zones, and that's why we rent to people who we're sure will pay their rent on time and treat our places nicely. If you want to call that prejudice, go ahead. I don't mean to suggest that everyone thought this, but it was echoed by several individuals of all races and ages.

A number of people replied in defense of longtime renters pushed out by rising prices. "Where do these people go? East New York? Prison?" asked one man. Another speaker pointed out the drain of families from unprotected units, noting that you can see this playing out on side streets off Franklin. If the buildings are bigger than six units, they're rent-stabilized, and you're much more likely to see kids out front. After a week of walking around the neighborhood with this in mind, it's certainly the case.

Others worried that the landlords' definition of entitlement necessarily excluded a whole class of people who, for whatever reason, can't afford to own property. Are they lesser citizens on this account? In the years leading up to the French Revolution, an economic adviser named Turgot drew up a very simple taxation-voting scheme: for every unit of property you owned, you got one vote and paid one unit of tax. Wealth, therefore, was proportionate to both power and responsibility, and Turgot thought himself terribly modern for having devised such a system. Two and a half centuries later, does it still sound so good?

5. Entitlement is tricky. The landlord-tenant divide highlights this most vividly, but the question of who has the right to determine the course of the neighborhood sneaks in all over the place. Do longtime residents deserve pride of place? This seems fair to some, but others will point out that many of Crown Heights' newest residents are migrants and immigrants, and not just young professionals. Do local businesses have an unabridged right to do as they please, or should they make a conscious effort to recognize resident needs? Can we even privilege the voices of those who are most active in our community, the civic leaders? As someone pointed out, only certain people have both the time and inclination to attend community meetings, and they may not speak for everyone, a fact that was highlighted by a particularly well-shot segment of the film, in which two young women were interviewed across the street from a CHCA meeting. Despite some fairly rancorous opinions of newcomers and a number of well-articulated critiques of tenants being forced out, these women had no plans whatsoever to attend the community meeting, now or ever. To some, this amounted to a willing abdication of responsibility and opportunity to be part of the conversation, but to others, it was evidence of the need to find ways to bring these women and their views into the fold.

* * *

My own final thought, a week and a day on, stems from the effort many speakers at this meeting made to distinguish the authenticity of their viewpoint. It's a natural response for anyone hoping to be heard, particularly in the context of this forum and yet, something about it seems counterproductive. To put it another way, community building requires exceptional people doing exceptional things, but it cannot be based in or on that exceptionalism. It's fantastic that someone has lived here thirty years, or always rented without prejudice, or is comfortable with people from other races on account of their upbringing, but all this does is empower that unique individual to get involved. We'll only ever be talking to each other in a room if we can't reach the people who don't define themselves this way. Community activism is, after all, about shared goals, shared spaces, and shared humanity, and less hinges on our own backgrounds, identities, and authentic views than on our ability to put all of these aside for what we find, together, to be the greater good.

This rhetoric is getting overblown, but to offer something in closing, I'm of the opinion that this anti-exceptionalism (which I'm asking of all those exceptional people who DO make time to make a difference) must extend to question five, regarding entitlement. Either everyone in the community, whether they've been here a day or a decade, deserves the same treatment and the same respect for their voice, or we start splitting hairs and drawing up ways of determining value, authenticity, and status (I credit the CHCA leadership with always expressing this sentiment to newcomers at their meetings), which, as Turgot learned, ends here.

Many thanks to Laurel and Abeni for such a thought-provoking evening!


  1. I'm sure that the film is really interesting, but I must say that I absolutely HATE the title, and if it's about the things you mention here, the title also seems not that apt.

    First, "gentrification" is a loaded term, and not a particularly interesting or nuanced one. And then "the buying, selling, and repackaging" seems like it's pointing to a very clear and nefarious sets of practices underway. If the film was about the Atlantic Yards saga, for example, perhaps "buying, selling, repackaging" makes some sense--a large entity forcing its will on a neighbourhood.

    If this is about community and neighbourhood change and the relationships of people to each other in an area in transition, the title ought to say so. It seems like too engaging a portrayal of the area to give it such stupid shock-value sort to title.

  2. I attended the film and discussion, found it interesting, but I missed a few points in film and discussion that I think could have been dealt with.
    1. The film did not have any interviews with those who felt they or their families were priced out of the neighborhood.
    2.The discussion did not bring up the around sixty new buildings in the area, all conceived and financed during the pre-2008 market collapse, that are now either empty, undersold, or incomplete. What is their place in the neighborhood?
    3. Several years ago, three buildings in the (I believe) 1100 block of Pacific Street had fires which emptied the buildings, these fires were deemed suspcious, a few months later a long article in New York Magazine connected these fires to different landlords in gentrifying areas telling their tenants that if they did not leave they would set fire to the building. I was very impressed by the homeowners who spoke at the post screening discussion and their vision of the neighborhood; they seemed to be very good people, but what about the other kind of landlord who would cosider these ruthless means of getting rich at the expense of others?

  3. Get back to me in two years..

    Gentrification is Dead!

    The What

    Someday this war is gonna end...

  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I am right there with the man who asks that neighbors say hello to each other. One of the best parts about our 'hood is that people are friendly and willing to get to know each other.

    Regarding the newly-built, now-empty buildings in the area: they raise the possibility of turning failed condos into affordable housing sites that Right to the City Coalition is pushing for.

    This is a practical solution to the kind of issues of neighborhood is facing.

  5. i have disdain for people who move into a new community (renters or buyers) and don't pay respect to those who were there before by saying hello and being friendly.

    further, i reject the "anti-exceptionalism" conclusion of this post, that someone who moved in 2 months ago has the same standing or value in any community as someone who has been there for years. in a community, longevity counts. like it or not, if you're new, you're less important than the old heads. if you want to change that: ya gotta stick around.

  6. great post. very thoughtful and well put.

  7. Great post.

    One of the reasons that I enjoy living in Crown Heights: Saying hello to your neighbor is a hot button topic. This would never be an issue in Manhattan.

    Hello Crown Heights!

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