Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exit Interviews - Zachary Goelman of Epichorus

(from this post about a drive-by shooting on my corner in 2009)

As part of ILFA's long goodbye, I've reached out to some fellow bloggers and writers around the neighborhood to ask them to reflect, in their own way, on the past five years. Zach Goelman, a reporter and writer of many gifts, was the first to respond, writing this very kind and thoughtful post (reproduced below) on his  own blog, Epichorus, late last week. 

I first met Zach in 2009, when he was working the Daily News overnight shift and I was trying (often helplessly) to understand violent crime in Crown Heights. Zach passed along tips, linked my posts, and posted his own professional-quality reports, often with addenda that suggested ways for concerned citizens to respond to crime and violence productively (this included police violence). I turned to Epichorus dozens of times for clarity on these events and the issues surrounding them.

As a commentator, Zach has always been enviably informed and admirably without a trace of self-importance. On his blog, he addressed the challenges of monitoring police behavior in the context of rooftop patrols by the NYPD and offered beyond-the-boilerplate commentary on stop and frisk policing (and how it's reported). He also wrote my absolute favorite movie review of 2012 (seriously, you will think differently and more productively about "Django Unchained" after you read it) and offered pithy comment on the gentrification blogosphere when it struck his fancy (his comments below are in this vein). I learned a great deal from Zach in five years of blogging, and I'll certainly be reading him in retirement. 

Nick Juravich, author and chronicler, will close down his blog. He's asked me to write a little something about it, and the neighborhood it documented. 

A reporter covering the overnight shift for a New York tabloid gets a memo, via e-mail, outlining how to do the job. Fires, shootings, car crashes happen all over the city, but "nice neighbs," the email says, are more important.

I started that job in 2009, and moved to Franklin Avenue in June that same year. Over the course of that summer, Franklin Avenue turned from a place the tabloid disdained to one it appraised. 

If one stood on the rooftops and looked west, this change could be seen coming, blowing out of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, rolling up Eastern Parkway and carried by numbered subway cars. It brought me and thousands like me to Crown Heights, and we changed the neighborhood. Franklin Avenue in September wasn't what it was in June. The jerk chicken shop below my apartment shuttered (later, the space would become Barboncino). Up popped Pulp and Bean, and Dutch Boy, and Breukelen Coffee House. Until that point, I'd imagined 'gentrification' as a slow and steady process. But what I saw wasn't a trickle. It was a tsunami.
Here are dispatches from my memory of Franklin Avenue over that summer, experiences that haven't repeated themselves in other places I've lived.

1) A older man named Harry worked a chair at Ja-Don's barber shop, two doors down from my apartment. When he wasn't cutting hair, he stood on the sidewalk, leaning on a parking meter. "Hey Harry," I'd say to him. "All right," he'd say, and hold out his fist for a bump. Harry liked to wear t-shirts printed with the word "Brooklyn" in different typefaces. I once asked him where he got all his t-shirts. His daughter, he said, had a t-shirt shop. I said they looked good. "I'ma getchu one," he said.

One day I went down to do laundry and get a trim, but Ja-Don's was shuttered. Harry stood next to his parking meter. 

"You're closed?" I asked. He nodded. 
"I'll come back tomorrow," I said, carrying my clothes across the street. 
"You could pay me today, help me get something to eat," Harry said. I shook my head. 
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said. The next day he cut my hair. I paid him. He gave me a plastic bag. Inside I saw a t-shirt. 

Ja-Don's survived the summer, and Harry continued to stand post outside and occasionally cut my hair for for two more years until I moved out of the neighborhood. I don't know if rising rents squeezed the salon owners, and whether they started renting a chair to Harry at higher rates, and how this may have impacted his bottom line. Since leaving the neighborhood, I get my hair cut elsewhere. I still have the t-shirt. 

2) The popping sound made by a semiautomatic pistol often registers at a higher pitch than one might have come to expect from film and television. On two occasions I heard those reports from my second-story window that summer. Given the nature of my work I hurried down to the street and walked in the opposite direction of those running and shouting. On the first such occasion, I walked over and stood in front of a stoop between 95 South and a laundromat. A young black man sat on the stoop clutching his leg. Another man crouched next to him, putting pressure on the wound beneath his pants. His sweats were stained dark and wet. The paramedics and police were there in moments. I knew enough then about precincts and CompStat to realize I'd arrived in time to see something that had become almost vanishingly rare. This will sound odd to residents who rightfully believe that a single shooting is one too many. But Franklin Avenue's bad old days are long over. Murders, rapes and robberies plummeted over the previous decade. In my experience, white people from Manhattan eventually got around to asking me if Franklin Avenue was 'safe.' I would respond by saying, "compared to what?" You were more likely to have your iPod snatched in Midtown than Crown Heights. Central Brooklyn was safe compared to East New York, East New York safe compared to the South Bronx, and the Bronx was safer than Trenton, Baltimore, or Chicago. An irony then: the changes on Franklin Avenue meant long-time residents could enjoy dropping crime rates just as they felt more and more pressure from rising rents. Their neighborhood was safer than it had been in decades, and but prices were pushing them out. At the same time the newly arrived young, white professionals and students found the place imminently affordable, but were deeply concerned about the pistol shots on their block.

"Welcome to murder alley," a white kid said to me that night while we watched police tape off the street.

3) A corollary of the changes in Crown Heights that summer was a rising level of neighborhood clout with the city's power brokers. In plainer terms: it seemed that more white people, more new businesses, and higher rents merited better services. The first such service was blue. The police department demarcated a stretch of Franklin Avenue as an Impact Zone and flooded it with additional officers. A Skywatch observation post loomed outside Nam's organic produce market. The neighborhood was abuzz with police interaction. Residents complained about increased stops and unjustified searches. I took notice of which patrolmen's lapels carried the "77" of the local precinct, and which the initials of the Brooklyn North Patrol Bureau which supplied the 'impact zone' officers. Cops assigned to the Seven-Seven often had at least a few years behind the badge. But those from Brooklyn North were often rookies on their first patrol assignment, and they knew nothing about the neighborhood. I'd prepared a short speech, in my head, in case an officer decided to arbitrarily search me. Once, walking down Franklin, I witnessed a small commotion in the middle of the block. Three or four plainclothes cops were helping a handcuffed man into the back of an unmarked Crown Victoria. They were backed up by two cars from the 77thPrecinct. I asked an onlooker if he saw what happened. He said no, but pointed to the female cop, part of the Impact Zone contingent, standing next to him. "Maybe she knows." 

So I asked her. She shook her head. 
"Nothing came over your radio?" I asked.
"They're on a different frequency," she said.
"But you're part of the Impact Zone," I said. She turned to me and frowned. I continued, "you're one of the 24 cops dedicated to this area. I thought you operate out of the Seven-Seven, so why would you be on different frequencies?" 
"Move along," she said. The arrest was over, the crowd dispersed, and I walked the few steps to my front door, when I noticed the cop following me. I turned to her.
"How do you know all that, about who's assigned where?" she asked.
"I go to community board meetings," I said.
She frowned. I decided to push back a bit.
"Why does it threaten you to get asked those kind of questions?"
"Because I don't know who you are, or who you're with." she said. Up until that point, if a cop wondered who I was 'with,' it meant 'which newspaper.' But Iwasn't wearing a press badge, and I didn't hold a notepad or recorder.
“'Who I'm with?'” I repeated.
“You could be with a gang,” she said.
"I could be with a gang?" I said.

She nodded. I called my 'stop and frisk' speech to mind. Then she walked away. I haven't had the opportunity to use that speech ever. I probably never will. 

I didn't have the wherewithal to see a larger picture in anything happening along Franklin Avenue. I knew the neighborhood was in flux, but I knew that neighborhood change was a constant in New York City. I would ruminate on these themes and come up with nothing that satisfied.

Only at the end of that summer did I become aware of Nick Juravitch's efforts to measure the transformation. I turned to his blog with increasing frequency for both a deeper and broader perspective on the neighborhood. Nick, more than any other writer, helped me sharpen my own thinking on the subject. There's nothing I can write about this thing we've come to call gentrification that hasn't been better outlined elsewhere. A few observations, though, culled from almost five years of reading. First, this thing we call 'gentrification' is not a problem of it's own but a symptom of enormous and myriad economic realities, beginning most obviously with income inequality. It might be easy to hate the new coffee shop for displacing the nail salon, but boycotting the coffee shop won't change the forces that put it there. Second, while gentrification might be something that can be restrained or hastened by City Hall, it cannot be fought block by block. The efforts by the Crow Hill Community Association to ameliorate the negative impacts of the change (as Nick documented) were an acceptance of this reality. Which points to a third observation: by the time you notice neighborhood change, it's a foregone conclusion. That, I think, is the message researchers will take from “I Love Franklin Avenue” when they study the different ways residents described gentrification in the first decade of the 21st Century. Which isn't to say Nick predicted all of this; it just means he understood that what had started would continue to run its course, and he learned this sooner than many. I'll certainly miss ILFA, as much as I miss living on Franklin Avenue.

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