Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gentrification and Its Discontents*

* With apologies to Joseph Stiglitz

Die, Yuppie Scum
Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents."

It was in college that I learned "gentrification" was actually a dirty word, an atrocity heaped upon the poor by soulless bankers and lawyers. I first heard about it in the context of the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988.

Basically, as so-called yuppies began to move into Manhattan's East Village in the late 1980s, they demanded an end to the mayhem that typified Tompkins Square Park -- loud music at night, drug deals, homeless squatters. They successfully petitioned the city to have the police enforce a 1 am park curfew.

Other residents began to protest the new rules and the changing character of the neighborhood (often shouting "Die, Yuppie Scum!"). On the evening of August 6, 1988, such a demonstration in the park turned violent, devolving into a riot between residents and police that lasted until dawn.

(You can read more about what happened in this old New York Times article.) 

Protesters against a playground renovation in Tompkins Square Park, 7/2/90
Photo courtesy of NYC Dept of Parks and Recreation

Wait... I Think I'm the Yuppie Scum
Twenty-four years later, the East Village is best known for its array of restaurants, ostentatious clubs for 20-somethings, boutique-chic shopping and a mix of artsy types and yuppies living together in relative harmony.

There is no one protesting East Village gentrification anymore. That war has moved to Brooklyn, where my family and I are part of the second wave of gentrification -- the post-artist-and-hipster yuppie wave -- that started in Dumbo and Williamsburg and has spread like locally sourced butter to the neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick.

My life here is a confusing push and pull between wanting to be able to walk my dog on a street free of shards of broken glass, appreciating being surrounded by a dizzying array of diversity and hating myself for being the bourgeois, yuppie scum I so despised in the comfortable naïveté of my heady college days.

Vive la bourgeoisie?

Photo credit: Bruno Boutot

The New Brooklyn?
As if in response to my own self-hatred, in this week's New York magazine, Mark Jacobson penned a nostalgic and angsty piece on the "New Brooklyn." While he laments the Old Brooklyn of his youth:
The borough was a land of ghosts, doppelgängers, uncertain shadows. A few weeks ago, Jed Walentas, avatar of Dumbo, bought the Domino Sugar factory, the old pile beside the Williamsburg Bridge where in the late-nineteenth century a large percentage of the sugar sold in the United States was refined. Saying the site offered “an unparalleled opportunity to create a new vibrant and mixed-use community … [for] a long dormant waterfront parcel,” Walentas shelled out a reported $185 million for the place. That was swell for Jed Walentas, but the number I most associated with the Domino factory was three, as in $3 an hour, which is what my buddies and I were paid when we worked at the place back in the late sixties.
he also grapples with the fact that his own twenty-something daughter is a self-identified hipster and Bed-Stuy gentrifier:
But these were my kids we were talking about, them and their friends. They weren’t the ones building high-rises in Williamsburg, the big arenas. They were just looking for a place to be young. Who knew why perfectly normal-seeming people get tattoos, drink so weirdly much, make fetishes out of various food groups like cupcakes, and adopt the diffident poses of actors in Wes Anderson movies? Youth occurs in a time of its own, immune to criticism from those claiming to have had better youths. As idiotic and privileged as it might seem on the surface, growing up remains no easy thing. Every passage to adulthood is a hero’s journey, to be respected, in its own way.
Implicit in his argument is that it's okay to be young and soul-searching like his daughter, but young families like us -- the ones buying the condos in the old Domino factory on the Greenpoint waterfront -- are a destructive force to what he calls the Brooklyn "brand."

Need I remind him that he, too, moved his young family from the East Village to "the ass-end of Park Slope reserved for less financially successful breeders" in the early 1990s?

What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Adequate Sidewalks?
I recently met a mother on the playground -- because that's my life now -- who lives in Bed-Stuy at Bedford and Greene Avenues. She exuded guilt over the gentrification happening in front of her very eyes, change to which she, herself, was a party. She gave the example of residents' recent demands that sidewalks be fixed and trees planted.

I do harbor some guilt over my role in Brooklyn's supposed ruin. I know that by living here, I am making it more expensive for those who were here before me.

Yet her comment struck me as odd. What is wrong with fixing the horrendous sidewalks in this borough and planting trees on neglected streets?

Ditmas Park West tree planting, April 2008

Photo credit: Flatbush Gardener
In Clinton Hill, residents are also demanding traffic lights, speed bumps and garbage cans on the corners among other crazy ideas. And it's not only the organic-food-buying yuppies who will benefit from these changes. On the contrary, the Ingersoll and Whitman housing projects, home to over 7,000 people, will benefit, too.

I can only hope that that the intangibles -- the safer streets and playgrounds, the new farmers' markets that accept EBT (food stamps), the trees, the uptick in local business -- will ease the pain of the inevitable displacement of some of the population, especially, I assume, those who are not in government housing.

Indeed, displacement of any kind can be painful. Just ask the artists in the 1980s East Village. A friend was recently recounting how her husband's family was pushed out of Flushing, Queens by the influx of Korean immigrants who didn't speak English and didn't want to, at least not in their neighborhood. In a way, my own family was driven out of Brooklyn in the 1970s due to rising crime and an apathetic city government.

My Mother's Daughter
Before Bushwick was a magnet for all things hipster and holier-than-thou, it was home to an impoverished Hispanic and African American community and was a symbol of the urban decay that began in the 1960s. But before that, it was the home of working-class Italian-Americans like my mother's family, who lived in tenement housing, shopped on Knickerbocker Avenue and rode the L train to Manhattan. 

Mom and Uncle at home in Brooklyn in the 1950s

Yes, it's true. I was born in Brooklyn to a family born in Brooklyn. Even some of my grandparents were born and raised here. In fact, my mother gave birth to me at Brooklyn Hospital, a few short blocks from my current residence.

So to Mr. Jacobson and others who feel that Brooklyn is changing too much, too quickly, I must say, the only thing constant is change. And amid the fluid boundaries of our mutable world, sometimes the gentrifiers are just returning home.