Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Growth and Gardens on Franklin

(the Art Not Arrests installation at the Crow Hill Community Garden, on the move, and in its new home at the Walt L. Shamel - Dean North Community Garden on Dean between Franklin and Bedford)

ILFA just had a blog post published for HuffPo's New York page, which features opinion and analysis from local journalists, bloggers, activists, and the like. It's a fairly straightforward, if typically long-winded, look at some recent changes in the area, using the abrupt end of the Crow Hill Community Garden as a jumping-off point to think about where neighborhood change goes from here. I confess there's nothing too original about it - DNAInfo's Sonja Sharp posed similar questions far more succinctly in two pieces last week (here and here) - but after recent conversations with friends and neighbors, these questions were on my mind.

So what are the questions? The usual ones, of course: How have local residents organized to direct the pace and direction of neighborhood changes, to what degree have these efforts made an impact on the community, and will such efforts continue (and continue to be effective) in the future? Some variation of these queries were on the minds of a lot of people up and down Franklin over the past week or so. Maybe it's just summer and people are feeling chatty. Maybe it's the five big projects coming down the pipe (the Brownstoner-Goldman Sachs one on Dean Street, the hole at Eastern and Franklin, the one across from the  hospital, the Nassau Brewery, and the one on Bedford and St. Johns) and concerns about what the imperatives of big capital mean for little neighborhoods. Maybe it was something about the garden being replaced by condos, in particular - so visible and sudden a manifestation of the ways that best-laid plans can sow the seeds of their own destruction - that seemed to bring these out. 

So what were people saying? They were ambivalent (I keep coming back to this word in the HuffPo piece, which is an admittedly terrible position to take in an opinion piece, but that's the vibe lately). One the one hand, it's not hard to point to all sorts of ways in which local residents, newly-arrived and forty-year-veterans, are working together now more than ever. Art Not Arrests. SOS Crown Heights & the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center (and the internship program that the Brooklynians are working very hard to promote). Seeds in the Middle. The CHCA. The Franklin Avenue Merchants and their truly spectacular Kids Day (now in its 5th year). Tish James (a rare politician with wide appeal who doesn't skimp on knowing her district inside and out). The Seen from this angle, there's an ever-growing group of people  and organizations who are committed to making change work for the largest possible group of residents in Crown Heights. These folks sit on Community Board 8, go to 77th Precinct Council Meetings, and work closely with some local politicians, making every effort to implement this vision. It's not perfect, of course, but it's worth acknowledging, and it's something to build on.

What's the other hand? All sorts of things (maybe the "hands" phrasing isn't a good one). It's tweeting a post about a new upscale restaurant coming to Crown Heights, and tweeting about a shooting response from SOS Crown Heights a few hours later. It's reports from the Daily News about how Northern Crown Heights lost 10,000 black residents in the most recent census, coupled with an OWS-led protest outside of a local real estate office after accusations that said local realtor has been pounding on doors at midnight in an effort to displace low-income tenants. It's seeing others nod grimly at such reports, and yet hearing them express deep misgivings about the motives and potential of the Occupiers who showed up to make a scene about it, primarily because they, too, feel like alien invaders. It's stop-and-frisk. It's murmurs that new residents don't patronize local establishments if they don't see someone who looks like them behind the counter. It's facing draconian budget cuts that will hit the neediest communities the hardest. It's the creeping concern that the best efforts of local folks to improve a neighborhood have a way of displacing people, sometimes those very same people. 

None of this is meant as an indictment, nor an exercise in finger-pointing, nor even as fatalism. It's primarily an attempt to provoke conversation, because to me, and to a lot of others I've been talking with, "change" (gentrification/revitalization/whateveryouwanttocallit) seems to be changing, or shifting gears, or turning a corner (pick your metaphor). With apologies to the late William F. Buckley, Jr., we can't stand athwart history yelling "stop," but we can think critically and creatively about how these new changes might affect the community and what avenues are available to impact them. 


  1. I think you are assigning too much credit to the actors in this story. You see, while some may have worked their butts off to contribute to the changes that are occurring, only the most conceited believe that they played anything more than a marginal role in the overall play.

    We have only only succeeded because there were many other forces at play. Thus, it is sort of silly to give ourselves (or others) any real blame for playing the roles we play.

    For simplicity, let's imagine that we live in a simple world, where in wealth and power is derived largely from education, work, and ones age. Of course, life is more complicated than this. Hence, you are being asked to imagine.

    Now, let's talk about neighborhood change in 5 easy waves. In an improving economy, the waves of expansion seem to occur in this order, spreading out from a central core of wealth:

    First Wave: Employed people replace people who's main form of support was public assistance (AFDC/SSI/SSD) or illegal activities.

    Second Wave: Employed people with some college replace the first wave.

    Third Wave: Employed people with who have completed college replace the second wave.

    Forth Wave: Employed people who have completed college and have some wealth replace the third wave. They buy condos.

    Fifth Wave: Folks with salaried positions and in careers with career ladders, not "merely employment", arrive. They have accumulated enough enough wealth to convert multi family homes into single family homes.

    To some degree, every group welcomes the subsequent group because they bring more power to the neighborhood. However, they quickly realize that they are "out of their league", and can not control pace of change.

    When the local economy is going in the opposite direction, the waves go in reverse order. In that instance, every group despises the group below them.

    Depending upon ones "class" (I.E. wave) the reverse is as scary. Given the disparities in income and education in this country and city, the opposite of the gentrification is something like slum-ification and ghetto-ification. Historically, there have been lots of accusations of "racism" and "white flight".

    This is a city wherein a middle class neighborhood for a couple earning $70k in combined income can be quite elusive, and very tenuous. It doesn't take much for a neighborhood to be branded as "bad" and begin to spiral downward. Likewise, it doesn't take much for a neighborhood to spiral upward....

    At the present moment, I like living here. I'd hate for most of the people I know (including businesses) to leave, or "change" because there was suddenly a new class of people (be it higher or lower) that was so dominant businesses felt the need (or opportunity) to cater exclusively to them.

    ....but I also realize that I can't control whether such things occur; I am not more powerful than macro economics.

    ....I've also come to the realization that it is very difficult to become part of a different Wave. Powerful factors keep people in Wave 0 and Wave 1, 2, etc. We presently fail at giving people the opportunity to move to a higher wave; giving them the motivation is something else entirely.

    Capitalism is a chain saw. It is scary, loud, and dangerous.

    If you try to make it be a precision tool, you will fail.

    With constant vigilance, you can get a lot done safely.

    You can decide the machine is evil and not to use it at all, but that does not mean that others won't.

    P.S. You forgot to state the big project that will happen at Bedford and Lincoln. It will tear down a falling down movie theater, presently owned by a church.....

  2. Very thoughtful piece, Nick. I have lived in the neighborhood for two years. At first, I thought all the new businesses and services were great. But the pace has been so fast, and the population that is targeted so uniform, that now I am worried that in another couple of years it will look like Williamsburg, especially Franklin Avenue. I hadn't heard about the tear-down on Bedford and St John's. I was hoping it would be restored. What will be built on that site?

  3. Mike F - Good points as always. A few thoughts in reply:

    - First, the Bedford site: I thought it was going all the way through to St. John's (don't they own that low building next door?), so I called it Bedford and St. John's in the post. I believe the church wants to build an affordable housing development, but that's hearsay at this point.

    - I think we agree that change is driven in large part by big, impersonal, demographic and economic forces, and that our interventions are largely marginal. Where we differ is that I think the margins matter quite a bit: as economists say, people make decisions at the margins. These marginal efforts don't stop change or make it a "precision tool," but they play a major role in determining the character of a neighborhood. Compare, for instance, neighborhoods in this study (http://furmancenter.org/files/sotc/SOC_2011.pdf) that have similar median incomes (similar class/"wave" curves, if you like), like Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Flatbush/Midwood, or Crown Heights North and Bensonhurst. They're all changing, but they don't have a ton in common beyond that. (I'll spare the point that mixed-income and class-integrated neighborhoods do exist in the city, often where there's some cultural and institutional glue to hold them together, because you know that, but those areas bear further study).

    These marginal interventions also matter with respect to a) specific actors who do have a lot of power (investors, developers, politicians), and they also matter b) at specific moments. Change may be the only constant in NYC neighborhoods, but that doesn't mean it happens at some constant, steady rate, like an hourglass filling up. One of the main observations I was trying to make in this post was that Franklin seems to be attracting much bigger developers than it used to in the last few months. This is a point about both actors and timing:

    The local couple who open a tiny shop in a tiny space and the builder of a $30 million project have very different incentives with respect to the existing community. Now, there are those who can talk to big developers - politicians and the occasional community leaders - but they don't unless an organized community is behind them. Big developments can be game-changers for neighborhoods, and when we talk about them, we are talking about specific people making specific decisions, not just "large impersonal forces" or "capitalism" acting with some inexorable logic of their own. Moreover, they're doing it at a specific moment - a moment that offers a window for these marginal actors, too, to make a big difference (the developer of the Nassau Brewery, for instance, has opened talks with local community groups, in part, from what I gather, because he sees that they have some organization and some power).

    Also with respect to timing, our marginal actors aren't going to "stop" change, or turn it into a scalpel, but they can affect the pace and character of it. For instance, new units (renovated or built) will likely be targeted at new arrivals, and that's difficult to stop without some macro-intervention on a massive scale. Fine (I'd like to see better incentives for affordable and mixed-income housing, but that's a different post, and in the area, we've actually got some decent efforts at that). But I think an organized community can make clear statements to local realtors that they will respond with full legal and public force to any efforts at tenant intimidation. This doesn't stop change, but it pulls at the reins in what is, to my mind, an important way (and there are many others).

  4. Some broad thoughts to close (darn site wouldn't let me post my whole rant):

    A half-century ago, "change" looked like Cadman Plaza or some other modernist development, and the preservationists were the cranks on the outside. Their little organizations seemed antiquarian-minded and out of touch, and yet they effected (bit by bit, sometimes unintentionally, always at the margins, but occasionally seizing a moment) a major change in the way the city does development (from bulldozers and planning to baby carriages and gentrification, you might say if you wanted to be clever). At a smaller scale, the strangest little developments can become neighborhood anchors, the most seemingly random events can tip the balance one way or the other - and tips in the balance happen at the margins.

    Part of the reality of "change" is its contingency: the future is not settled and there is not a formula. Contingency doesn't mean control - this is not the end of a commencement speech were we say "the power is in your hands." Still, even though the best-laid plans can produce unintended consequences, and even sow the seeds of their own destruction, they serve demonstrate that interventions, at the margin, do matter, and that we should keep thinking about how and where these interventions might be made. Lack of control is no reason to abdicate the effort - presumably, no one else has control either, and as you note, with constant attention, you can still "get a lot done."

  5. In this instance, a few people seem genuinely shocked that a community can change so rapidly, and that most of the change is completely sanctioned by law.

    I think it stems from what we all wrestle with: Trying to resolve what our "rights and responsibilities" are, as well as those of others.

    Another source of confusion surrounds power.

    As much I hate living in a place where privileges and rights (aka power) are largely determined by money, I think I would hate living in a place where such things are largely determined violence more.

    As much as it may look like people are losing lose power and others are gaining it, that sad truth is that (for the most part) this is merely power on display:

    -People who have always had power are using it.

    -People who have always lacked power are being moved along.

    As much as those who have power may share some things in common, they are actually acting in their individual self interests ...not those of their class.

    Given the larger forces in play, it is not only difficult to create a community that is able to resist them, but it is also tempting to conclude that those who have reached different conclusions about how much they can control their surroundings do not understand the power of the forces at play.

  6. Nice article in HuffPost, Nick. I'm glad to see your local perspective shared with a wider audience. I think the micro view is important, especially in such a big city as NY.

    I hear a constant drone of "change is inevitable/you can't do anything about it" from some, yet the evidence is clear that much can be done about what goes on in our local environments. The long list of community groups that Nick references is heartening. This neighborhood is full of people who have made a difference here.

    I think we will see more of an interplay between people who live here and have an emotional investment in the neighborhood and people from outside it who look at our neighborhood as a development site. Even in the most desirable neighborhoods in NY - the West Village, Soho, UES, etc. - that interplay is critical. I see a base that cares deeply about the future of this neighborhood and is energized to deal with whatever challenges it faces.