Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Putting a Legislative Stop to "ProCro"

We've been talking about it out here in Crown Heights since February, but the "ProCro" controversy has just made it to the Statehouse in Albany, thanks to Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who's proposing a ban on real estate broker renaming of the ProCro/SoBro/BoCoCa variety. Jeffries, who represents large parts of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights that fall in the 57th Assembly District, framed the legislation as a community-preservation measure, noting "Brokers are allowed to essentially pull names out of thin air in order to rebrand a neighborhood and have the effect of raising rents or home prices." While it's notoriously hard to define neighborhoods, particularly at the margins (as the ongoing "where does Crown Heights become Prospect Heights" debate demonstrates), ILFA appreciates the Assemblyman's honesty in taking on renaming for what it is - a practice that accelerates turnover by erasing an insufficiently buyer-friendly past, something that makes the historian in me very wary. Change is often the only constant in NYC neighborhoods, as half a century of migration, immigration, and gentrification have demonstrated in Crown Heights, but changing names can keep us from preserving and learning from the vibrant history of change and continuity in communities like ours.

In reply to the comments below, with all due respect, I think you guys are missing the point a little bit. Allow me these four points:



1. Is the proposed legislation grandstanding/pandering? Sure. But one person's "pandering" is another's "responding to community needs." It's no secret that people haven't been happy about attempts to rename neighborhoods (not just in Crown Heights but across the city), particularly when they feel that re-naming is part of a top-down, broker-led process to expedite neighborhood change and de-legitimize the claims of longtime residents to the neighborhood. There's also often a racial component to this type of re-naming, as Nostrand Park covered a few weeks back (linked above). So maybe Hakeem's making noise for the cameras, but it hardly seems a stretch that people in his district would be wary of developer-led neighborhood change, particularly in light of the Atlantic Yards situation and general gentrification. So let's read his proposal sympathetically, which brings me to point number two.

2. Sure, at one level, having some kind of "official neighborhood naming board" sounds like government micro-management and a waste of money. But if we get away from whatever vision we have of the "naming board" and examine our existing practices, it's clear that we (as locals and as government) intervene in the real estate market all the time, to the point that it's reasonable to argue that the government actually sets the terms of the market, whether through zoning laws (pawn shops, etc), bonds/tax exemptions/subsidies, community board approvals, or Business Improvement Districts (processes that often relate to naming in one way or another, whether that's the creation of an "Atlantic Yards" district in PH or the lending of names to BIDs). We need to consider the target of this legislation, which is NOT designed to prevent the "organic," bottom-up process of new names catching on. Rather, it's targeted specifically at developers who would put certain names to use in the service of their business, which is something we regulate all the time. As I pointed out already, brokers currently get in trouble for false advertising if they advertise a property that's located in one neighborhood as being in another, which means government is already in the neighborhood-name-determining business. This legislation can easily be understood as an extension of that regulatory process, a process that includes zoning laws, subsidies for affordable units, and many other interventions that the government uses to structure the market. This brings me to point number three . . .

3. Sure, change is the only constant, neighborhood names change, etc etc, but just spouting that truism (and I just did, I know) isn't exactly a complete analysis. Change happens in all sorts of ways, and equating the "change" of the 1970s in Crown Heights (white flight, city service cutbacks, massive immigration) the current round of change obscures more than it reveals. There's a nearly infinite number of ways for a neighborhood to change, and we regulate certain types of change all the time, whether through rent control, BIDs, zoning, subsidies, community boards, or whatever other levers of power you can think of. Some of these institutional mechanisms promote growth, some deliberately slow it, and many of them exist as a result of local political battles for control of precisely this - the WAY change happens. Compare, say, DUMBO to Fort Greene to Williamsburg, all neighborhoods that "gentrified" in the same general time period. The processes were, in some cases, night and day, whether the work of a single broker-developer in DUMBO to the artist-colony model up north to the slow-growth community-driven Fort Greene model. All change is not created equal, which brings me to my final point . . .

4. Sure, name changes seems like small fry, and like I said, I don't see this legislation passing. I do think, however, it deserves a fair hearing, and I don't think we should pass off the naming process as described by Jeffries as irrelevant, inevitable, or informal. He's talking explicitly about top-down, developer-driven name changes that have made and can still make specific, significant impacts on communities. His district is one in which gentrification is a major issue, and while the Assemblyman doubtless knows he can't stop change, he also knows that there are, both historically and currently, lots of ways to frame, direct, and channel change so it serves certain interest groups and greater/lesser numbers of people in certain ways. I've got no doubt that brokers fought zoning laws, rent control, and community boards as unenforceable and needless government encroachments too (hell, they still do). That doesn't mean they've turned out that way.

A final aside about historical memory, names, and neighborhood change (this is longer than the original post!) - these processes are undoubtedly connected, and communities that attach a strong sense of meaning to their names and history are often the most successful at directing change in the service of continuity and community. Harlem is a current example, with Fort Greene and the Village in an earlier era also good examples. These places aren't perfect, but they've staved off some of the most drastic displacement and the human cost that comes with it, in part by cultivating and preserving a strong sense of local heritage that starts with - you guessed it - their names.

Names matter. Hakeem's legislation may be grandstanding, it may be unenforceable, it may be imprecise, it may be too expensive, but the issues it considers are serious, and we should take them seriously. I'll close this massive tome by going to the Old Testament in honor of Passover - God gives Adam dominion over the animals, and Adam's first task is to name them. There's power in the naming process. Names matter.

30 comments:

  1. It is absolutely clear that this law violates the First Amendment. And, while Jeffries' concern is valid, the idea of having to ask a bunch of local government officials for the right to call a neighborhood by some name is pretty scary.

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  2. it's not clear that the bill violates the first amendment. the bill hasn't been brought forth yet.

    legislation clearly defines and demarcates the location and names of countries, states, cities, townships, and lesser classed territories. it's not scary to have a defined name for an area. if a passed bill clearly defines where prospect heights begins and where crown heights begins (among the other neighborhoods), the neighborhood names would be legislatively mandated in the same way. i find the benefits of clear neighborhood definitions to be much greater than any worry i have that government officials are telling me what to do.

    i think anyone whose first comment on this is to say "it infringes my first amendment rights" clearly misunderstands that the first amendment is meant to first and foremost protect political speech, not commercial. when a realtor says the neighborhood is "procro" they're participating in commercial speech, with little to no benefit to any political discourse that is or isn't happening in the discussion.

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  4. This is a good debate, but one that I don't think will matter in about 6 months or less. The designation of Crown Heights will have the same feel as Pro-Cro or even Prospect Heights if the gentrification keeps up the way it is in and around Franklin Ave. And the cycle continues; good for some, bad for others.

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  5. This may be the most unenforceable, Ill conceived piece of legislation ever.

    Neighborhood names change. The government can't stop that fact.

    The current neighborhood names evolved and devolved overtime.

    Government has no chance of controlling linguistics or language, but I do love it when it tries to pander to those who don't know any better.

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  6. I think it's highly unlikely that this bill becomes law, both because of the power of the New York State real estate lobby and the difficulty/cost of creating a process for designating/changing neighborhood names. That said, I'm not sure how this violates the First Amendment (David covered this well), particularly because, as the NYT article mentioned, brokers already get into trouble for advertising properties in one neighborhood when they're actually located in another (which suggests that government regulators are already making decisions about neighborhood names, in the interest of preserving truth in advertising).

    Also, I think we've gotta scrap this Tea Party language about government being "scary." Are local politicians, whom we elect and who frequent community meetings and hold "office hours" at subway stops to meet with residents (as Hakeem does) really more "scary" than multinational corporations to whom we have no recourse whatsoever and who will, say, raze several blocks of a neighborhood in spite of overwhelming local opposition? Is Hakeem Jeffries (who's made clear that any official naming would be a community-driven process and not done by fiat) really "scarier" than Bruce Ratner?

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  7. From where do we get the myth that this is a society controlled by democracy?

    This is a capitalist republic. We can be priced out of this hood just as those who were here before us, and they can refer to it by a name of thier choosing, as if we never existed.

    ....as has been done since the beginning of time.

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  8. This is the stupidest idea I have heard in a lifetime of publicity-hungry press releases.

    Neighborhoods change, neighborhood names change and evolve. That's PART of the history and continuity of the city. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't been paying attention.

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  9. Dear Mike F,

    Preach on. I really hope that our elected officials have more important issues to worry about than neighborhood names. Personally, I think it's cool that it's so informal and organic.

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  10. I literally just wrote a comment so long that Blogger wouldn't let me post it. See the updated post above for the complete rant.

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  11. Factually false statements are not protected by the first amendment. So, for example, if a broker's ad stated that an apartment was located on Underhill when it was located on Nostrand, there is no problem with government punishing the advertiser's speech. However, to call the area around Franklin ProCro is not factually false. There is no "fact" about the name of our neighborhood, (unless perhaps we say that every name since whatever it was called in 1776 is factually false). Under Jeffries approach, government permission would have to be gotten to call it Crow Hill. The point is that the process of (re)naming is part of change and the remedy for (re)naming that one finds insulting or harmful is saying so publicly, not adopting the new name, etc--it is not to set up a government commission that decides what words can and can't be uttered to describe a neighborhood.

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  12. So, we all agree that legislating what a neighborhood is called is doofus, and that name changes are inevitable, and not based on consent.

    Perhaps we should just focus on rendering psychological aid, much like after an earthquake that no one could stop or reverse?

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  13. I think we should focus on addressing the main problem that gentrification creates--the lack of affordable housing. What is Jeffries doing about that?

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  14. I feel like the best approach to this would be a wiki, not legislation.

    Since everyone has smart-phones these days. If there were a NYC neighborhood wiki, a customer could jump on and say "There is no such place as CroPro, BoCoCa, CraPoLa" or whatever.

    It seems like it would be just as democratic and more nimble than legislation.

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  15. Affordable housing is actually quite expensive to create and maintain. Society's committment to it may be waning, except in cases where low income workers are in short supply. NYC is not in this situation.

    Given the digital divide, I think a wiki led process would be less democratic then the system proposed by Jefferies. Don't we already decide whether we like a new name based on whether we choose to use it?

    Isn't that democracy at it's purest?

    Why have a system that will surely annoy people with an official name?

    We don't all have to agree. Why try to make everyone agree?

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  16. Finally, anonymous, I think your distinction collapses. How is the "fact" of a neighborhood border (always contested, always shifting) more of a fact than someone saying "no one calls this area ProCro"? Both can be induced or examined empirically, neither is incontestable. I'm perfectly willing to consider that public debate, as opposed to government regulation, might be the best way to address this, but if that's the case, Hakeem's method is working - the debate is on!

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  17. Argh, there was a longer post there that somehow got cut in half - more later.

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  18. I actually think this is a hugely important issue. Place names are so aligned with identity and ownership that rebranding of neighborhoods can really affect communities.

    Here's an example from across the pond: in Northern Ireland, especially along the border with the Republic, many areas have two names--one English and one Irish. In the past, people were attacked and killed if they used the "wrong" name around the wrong people.

    I'm not sure Jeffries' proposal is the smartest one we can get at, but it is an issue worth addressing. I'm one (of many, I'm sure) who moved to Classon Ave thinking it was P.heights, only to discover that I lived in Crown Heights and now it might be ProCro?! Identity crisis!

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  19. I thought my use of the word "pandering" was actually generous.

    I thought Demagogy was too strong though.

    I'll give it time.

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  20. Real estate brokers may call the neighborhood whatever they want to, but ultimately the residents will decide.

    I don't think we have to worry about anyone changing that mural to say "Pro-Cro is Magnificent and So Are You."

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  21. But we may have to worry about someone interpreting "Putting a legislative stop to Pro-Cro" as: "Demonstrating a complete misunderstanding as why we sent him to Albany"

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  22. Whoa whoa whoa . . . I just argued (in that enormous addendum to the original post) that name change is NOT inevitable! Some nabes have had the same name since the early 19th century (Harlem), some have gone through so many changes that it's hard to know what to call them. Names don't change on account of some magical, mystical process - names are changed by people, by agents of change who change names to serve their purposes/interests. I'm not saying Hakeem's proposal is the solution, or that we necessarily need a government panel, but this idea that change is the product of some invisible, inevitable, organinc hand is preposterous. Our Assemblyman may not have the details right, but its exactly right for him to be concerned with the process of change, and the ways in which certain types of change benefit some and hurt others.

    As for affordable housing, it's an issue that Hakeem has been very, VERY strong on: http://hakeemjeffries.com/?page_id=437 Were you to ask him, I think he'd recognize (quite rightly) that these issues are connected. Also, if public discourse is the solution (as opposed to gov't intervention), than Hakeem's proposal has served that purpose quite well. Methinks our assemblyman may be more clever than some are giving him credit for. Not all proposals are meant to pass - some are meant to focus/generate discussion, and if that was the intention, well, this is a success.

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  23. When one tries to cast themselves as the "government hero" against a force they know to be unstoppable, I view it as pandering to those who don't know any better; If you view this as "clever" that is your choice.

    By couching it in "us vs. them" terms, his proposal is a deliberate attempt to mis-educate people about the forces in our economy and society.

    The vast majority of people in Crown Heights are not victims who need protection from brokers renaming their neighborhoods. They are free to call the area what they choose, and -yes- may have to move out if they are unable to get a rent subsidy or find a way to earn more money.

    Yes, Mr. Jefferies is a highly intelligent, Ivy-league educated man who is well aware of what he is doing: He is telling people that government can protect them, when it can not.

    P.S. Unless I feel otherwise, I'll continue to call the area Crown Heights.

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  24. MikeF, so cynical! First I didn't think you were giving Hakeem enough credit, now I don't think you're giving his constituents enough credit. I find it hard to believe that there are all that many poor, confused saps out there who think that their State Assemblyman is to be confused with Superman or some sort of Lord Protector. He's not mis-educating anyone - it's absolutely true that brokers create new names to move units, and that they're particularly likely to do so when an area has a long past they'd like to get away from (across the bridges, "Crown Heights" remains, sadly, a prefix for "riot"), and anyway, that's not news. This isn't about Hakeem-man flying to the rescue of some helpless victims of economic change - it's about the assemblyman sending signals about where his allegiance lies to both the agents of change (brokers, in this instance) and local residents who are hoping to channel change in a slightly different, more inclusive, less "wipe the slate clean and then build some shiny condos and call it Slateview" direction. Does this mean the practice, and gentrification with it, stops tomorrow? Of course not, and no dolt, no matter how doltish, is going to think so. Nobody (not even the brokers) can stop change or turn back the clock, but you're never going to convince me that the logical response is just to throw up our hands and say "change, how mysterious, there's nothing to be done!" There's plenty to be done, and when we see developers (the brewery) and landlords (see above) alike working with community associations and local pols as they develop the neighborhood, I take it as a sign that these types of interventions DO matter.

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  25. Finally, you are starting to understand me.

    I perceive that Mr. Jefferies is under estimating the intelligence of the majority of his constituents, and is thus pandering to only a small group. As a result, I perceive him as failing to achieve even this symbolic gesture.

    Like you, I hope that the About Time landlords (Kevin and Garrnet) get top dollar for their vacant space on Franklin. I hope they use the free market research we are contributing to attract a tenant who will pay them top dollar, and run a successful business that the community supports with their money. ....so they will not have to seek a new tenant anytime in the near future, and be able to reap the financial rewards of sticking with this neighborhood for so long.

    As to whether the symbolic gestures of Mr. Jefferies matter, I disagree. I suspect he is caught up in a little nostalgia for the Crown Heights of his childhood, and a bit intimidated by the power of money over tradition. (I hope he does not actually believe that community boards are capable of the unfunded mandate. If he does, I am not sure how he spent his time in that Ivy League institution)

    While I do not blame him for making these gestures, I also can not help him with his present misguided mission.

    As I stated above, I wish he would use his office and influence to educate his most vulnerable constituents on what steps they will need take in order to remain in the neighborhood. These include:

    1. Making more money
    2. Knowing your rights as a tenant
    3. Getting rental subsidies

    Does government have a role in regulating the real estate industry? Sure. For example, I'd love for government to mandate that ads stated what physical address a property was located at. GMAP or Census block could be easily added to advertisements.

    Likewise, the square footage of a unit is objective. Brokers could be required to list this stat, and those who are found to exaggerate how large an apartment is could be fined, or given some other sanction.

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  26. Joey Arak over at Curbed seems to get it right:

    "Would accepted portmanteaus like SoHo and TriBeCa have made the community board cut way back when? Given what we know about our local leaders and their eternal grumpiness about everything, probably not. Can we imagine a world where this actually becomes law? We cannot. Can we imagine a world where valuable time is wasted debating this issue by an inept state government? Can do!"

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  27. How about citizen enforcement? It's Crown Heights. Get over it! Why!? Why must it be changed? Seriously, someone please explain this to me as I've lived here for 6 plus years and don't understand why the "debate" was invented.
    New Crown Heights citizen enforcement:

    If we catch anyone, anyone using the term 'Pro-Cro' they get an automatic Junk-Punch and or kick in the shins till they get the message. That name reeks of......grossness.

    -Eric

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  28. Citizen enforcement IS more practical than government.

    ...but many already call the Washington to Bedford area "Prospect Heights". I predict the name "Pro-Cro" won't catch on in part because the area already has three competeing names: 1. Crown Heights. 2. Crow Hill. 3. Propsect Heights

    At the present time, I don't think anyone needs to fear a #4 (ProCro), unless they are looking for something to fear.

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  29. Nick,

    These types of posts are when you're at your best. Thank-you for so eloquently incorporating a historical approach into this discussion. You've shown how comments which so quickly resort to the simple truism, "change happens," ignore complicated, historical realities. This attitude, "change happens, so get used to it," is dangerous as its adherents become mired in their own sense of powerlessness.

    We've already seen the power of community to influence "naming" in our very neighborhood. What small fraction of us were aware of "Crow Hill" before encountering the presence of our local community group? Yet living in "Crow Hill" now means something to us. Everyday now I walk by the Crow Hill Community Garden, and I feel a sense of pride in my little patch of Crown Heights and the ability of the neighbors here to come together and get s*** done.

    Lucy

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  30. Lucinda, Nothing is more powerful than being able to adapt to ones changing world.

    Crow Hill is viewed by many as a dusted off name from the past, but Ms Porter is free to try to make us use it.

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