Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflecting on the Reflections: Gentrification and Community Building

(This photo was my first post, captioned Franklin and Dean: Signal Malfunction or Anti-Gentrification Message?)

What is a blog if not self-referential? At any rate, despite spending 1,500 words on the topic (or perhaps as a result of this verbosity), I managed a rather unclear conclusion to Monday’s monster-post: “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.”

This view was critiqued by an anonymous poster, who writes:

“ 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.”

Now, I’m not in complete agreement, but I think I see where my notion of “anti-exceptionalism” went wrong. Let’s try this again, in two parts:

“In a community, longevity counts.” Quite right. So, for that matter, does property ownership, business ownership, community involvement, and a whole host of other things that are frequently related (but need not be). There are lots of ways to have “standing” or “value” in a community, or more to the point, to make an impact on a community, and while they are often related, they need not be. Someone may live quietly in their home for thirty years, never going to meetings or owning property or a business, but contributing to the community simply by being a neighborly soul. Someone else may purchase a building, rent the top floors and open a business downstairs, and someone else may move in as a renter and immediately get involved in all sorts of community initiatives like fighting to save bus routes or creating community gardens or promoting anti-violence initiatives. All of these people contribute to the community (or have “value,” if you want to go there), and what unites them all isn’t their rank by any metric, but their character, which I loosely called “exceptional” (this language needs refining as well, but we’ll keep it for now).

“If you're new, you're less important than the old heads.” Well . . .

There are times when certain characteristics entail privilege, and that’s not necessarily the problem. Property and business owners have more clout with police and electeds because they pay taxes and often have money to spend, and because they’ve made a sizeable investment in the community. Longtime residents and older folks are the leaders of community orgs because their years of experience and well-established networks make them more effective in these roles. Community activists, whether old heads or newbies, speak for the community and dictate all sorts of local initiatives (street trees, traffic calming, policing) because they’ve invested the energy to do so, even if their vision isn’t necessarily representative. These people have spent money, time, and energy here, and they deserve the status and privilege that their efforts entail.

But going back to that statement – would we feel comfortable with “if you rent, you’re less important than property owners” or “if you don’t go to community meetings, you’re less important that those that do” ? In short, does it make sense to extrapolate from the specific importance of longevity, ownership, or involvement to a general theory of “value”? Yikes. Yikes, in particular, if you’re trying to reach certain people in Laurel and Abeni’s film (I was trying to find a clip of it – anyone know if it’s up anywhere?), namely, the teens standing across the street from the CHCA meeting or the young white professional whose comments provoked the strongest negative reaction at the screening.

To close, I’ll bring it back to the CHCA meetings, where the inimitable president, Ms. Porter, always puts a premium on action. In selling the organization she’s built, she mentions their 25 years, but this is not the source of their legitimacy—that comes from their achievements, the trees they’ve planted and streets they’ve reversed and funding they’ve won. Moreover, when a newcomer suggests a project, her response is always the same: “let’s do it,” and she's clear that she's always ready to partner with someone new. Witness, for example, the heartfelt tribute she paid to newcomer Alex Kelly, the lead organizer of the Crown Heights Oral History Project – action respects action, no matter who’s behind it. This is what I’m talking about with the unwieldy term “anti-exceptionalism” : not asking “what status or value do I/they have?” but “what can we do?”

(On a lighter note, I started to title this post “Anti-Exceptionalism and Systems of Value” before realizing that looked like the title of a really tedious post-Marxist pamphlet. I don’t know that I’ve made the content less so, but hey, I tried).


  1. i don't understand how people can constantly talk about gentrification in crown heights, or anywhere for that matter. it's simple. neighborhoods change. crown heights used to be a white neighborhood. then it became more of a black neighborhood with a strong jewish community. now it's starting to change again. deal with it. if longtime residents want to be bitter about the neighborhood changing, fine. to be honest, i kind of understand it. i'd be annoyed too, for this reason: in the 70s, 80s, and 90s crown heights faced a lot of crime and urban decay. longtime residents couldn't change things for the better. now young white people are coming to the neighborhood and all of a sudden it's transforming. what does that say?

    anyway, people get priced out of neighborhoods all the time. landscapes change.

    the only people with a legitimate gripe would be whatever Indian tribe was originally kicked off the land.

  2. Anonymous, your analysis reveals an ignorance of class privilege. The new residents to the neighborhood wield more power over the public institutions that are supposed to serve all equally because of their class privilege (which is related to their racial privilege). Their presence in a neighborhood guarantees that more public resources will be diverted to it.

    You can see this when you look at where to find the best public schools in NYC. In Brooklyn, they are in Park Slope and not Crown Heights. In our neighborhood, when white people paying rent upwards of $1,600 a month call the cops, the cops come.

    Some people would say that it should be thus because these people, by virtue of higher earnings, pay higher taxes. Other people, such as those who have been fighting for larger police presence in Crown Heights for years without much success, are angry.

  3. I think this is a really interesting on-going conversation. I had an experience the other night that really summed up the tension over this issue. Our apartment faces Lincoln Pl. and there has been a Mr. Softie truck parking out there every night from 9-10:30pm, playing its jingle. Who's buying ice cream at 10pm on a school night? And if people ARE buying ice cream at 10pm, then the truck should turn off its jingle, as per the law. Finally, I had had enough. I called 311 and filed a noise complaint. Then I confronted the driver and told him that I had called 311 and he should turn off his speakers. I told him I would continue to call 311 until he stopped playing his jingle this late at night. The driver looked at me and then looked at a big dude behind me and said, "That's my man right there. And he's very serious." That guy then started yelling at me to fuck off and that I just got to the neighborhood and what gives me the right. So, because I'm a white guy, it's assumed that I'm "new to the neighborhood". Which is true! So, that's fine. I don't want to step on toes. But then I realized that this guy was probably selling drugs out of his Mr Smoothie truck and that his "man" was his carrier (because how many Mr. Smoothie truck drivers have protection?). So now I was doubly-pissed because I was being accused of being a gentrifier and being told that I had no right to voice my opinion over a quality of life issue. By a drug dealer (assumed)! I own an apartment in this neighborhood. By some people's argument, that gives me a louder voice. Not true. What should give me a louder voice is that I am trying to enforce the law in a community that I am invested in (either financially or emotionally) in order to make it a better place to live. Period.

  4. is it newcomers' (white people's) fault that cops listen to them more?

    aggression toward them seems misplaced.