• Garth Wolkoff

The Latte Class and Asymmetrical Buildings

August 1, 2018. Lafayette Avenue, between Marcy and Tompkins

I've been thinking about what people mean when they talk about gentrification. Not the scholars or journalists. Rather, how do people affected by gentrification define it.

Two older Black women walked past me today in front of the laundromat near my house, and one said to the other, "I've seen those apartments. They aren't worth what they're charging. Someone's got to do something." Someone's got to do something.

Gentrification is not only happening in Bed-Stuy, of course, or in Brooklyn. For readers who don't live here, the conversations take place all the time--publicly, at forums, but on the street, among friends, in parks, in private, everywhere.

Those paying attention have heard it all before. Long standing tight-knit local communities see rent skyrocket, the construction of new apartments and condos rampant, people priced out of their neighborhoods, the economic class and racial makeup of their neighbors change, and businesses and schools transform. Culture is transformed. There goes the neighborhood. Here in Brooklyn, people feel it intensely and personally. People are angry.

The term gentrification was first coined in 1964 about post-WWII London by sociologist Ruth Glass. "Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed," she wrote in London: Aspects of Change, according to the University College of London website "UCL: Urban Laboratory." Gentrification, Glass wrote, happened when middle class renters and homeowners "invaded" working class neighborhoods in London.

Here, there is that sense of invasion by people like me, a middle-class renter who buys expensive fake meats at the local supermarket, pays an out-of-neighborhood landlord more than others can afford, and walks his girlfriend's dog to the dog park--the latte class. What makes people angry, among other things, is the threat on, as Glass says, "the social character" of a neighborhood. The latte class didn't live here 20 years ago. Most of the cafes weren't here five years ago. Two.

The cafe Burley, two blocks from my house in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn,, on a recent Saturday afternoon, without a single Black person. I do believe, however, that one of the owners is Black. I am uncertain. A small coffee is $2.50 plus tax.

This website is dedicated to the discovery of gentrification. What is the implication of my white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, California-born, educated, parental footprint in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn?

It's where I live, for now. I don't want to live in the suburbs, and in fact, according to my divorce agreement, I cannot move very far from where my daughter goes to school even if I wanted to, which I don't (for now, she attends a very good public elementary school in the next neighborhood over). And even if I wanted to live in neighborhoods with a long history of white people living there--which I don't--I probably couldn't afford to (or maybe I can...I have not done the research of rental prices in Bay Ridge or ). Part of my white privilege, I think, is that I choose to live in a neighborhood where my daughter won't grow up thinking everyone is white, and that Black people and Latinx people are the great other. Another part of white privilege is to choose where to live in general. Does my choice leave too much of a gentrifying, imperialistic, culturally appropriating footprint?

As part of finding out, I asked my Black friends on Facebook if they would define gentrification. It's not that I don't care what others have to say; I do. It's just that where I live, gentrification seems to be happening to Black people (as pregnant as that sentence is with dispute).

Now, Mr. Popularity has 1,662 Facebook friends. Many of them are my former students, and a lot of them identify as Black, Caribbean, African, or African American. However, only six people responded to my call (LOL, to use the appropriate Facebook acronym). Five are Black, or at least I think that's how they identify. I don't blame my other 1,658 friends. Some of them are not Black, it's a hard question to answer, they probably didn't see my post, they really don't want to me my friend, and I probably asked in an awkward way. And, you know, it's Facebook, so there's that. LOL.

My friends who did respond agreed with Glass: Displacement and Invasion.

Malcolm, who is 25, grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He's also lived in Bed-Stuy and currently lives in Flatbush. He says that the gentrification he's personally seen has been where he's worked, in Bed-Stuy, and the next-door neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Clinton Hill.

Gentrification, he says, is, "Removing a native population using underhanded methods such as harassment, rent hikes, or buy outs at far below market rates, with the intent on renting the buildings to higher paying clients. Repeating the process to price the native population out of the neighborhood."

In Malcolm's answer, there is intent with gentrification, to drive out the people who live somewhere. There is animus associated with the forces of gentrification, harassment and rent hikes, an attempt to consciously displace people so developers and landlords can make money.

This is not an uncommon reaction. Kimberley Hodges, 32, a middle school special education teacher in Brooklyn, mother of two, and a colleague of mine, echoes Malcolm's definition. Gentrification, she says, is "Systemically moving one (more affluent, often white) group of people into a neighborhood to eventually push the current (marginalized) people out by way of hikes in prices of housing, and cost of living in general."

Kim migrated to Brooklyn from Jamaica as a child. She grew up in Crown Heights between 1994 and 2007, on Eastern Parkway between Franklin and Classon, an area, particularly on Franklin Avenue, that has seem even more rapid gentrification than Bed-Stuy has. After responding to my post, she told me: "We had a few white and Asian neighbors, but for the most part, most who lived there were black/hispanic. I noticed things beginning to change after I moved further east, but still in Crown Heights, when my $.99 store was torn down and converted into a Starbucks and organic health food store (this is Franklin Ave by the train station). Today, Franklin looks COMPLETELY different from when I was growing up there."

An apartment complex on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from where Kim Hodges grew up.

Unlike in Glass's definition, there is not only class, but race. Realtors and banks helped segregate Brooklyn in the 20th Century by creating non-immigrant white neighborhoods (more on that in a later post). To many Brooklynites, gentrification has a racist feel to it--whites who would never walk around in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and Bushwick 20, 25 years ago are now flocking to those neighborhoods to live and socialize. When I first moved to Bed-Stuy in 2005, taxi drivers wondered aloud why I would live here. Billy Joel wrote in his 1980 song "You May Be Right": "I've been stranded in the combat zone/I walked through Bedford Stuy alone/Even rode my motorcycle in the rain...But I made it home alive." One popular--white? middle class?--perception was that Bed-Stuy was "a combat zone" of violence and crime, so much so that a white guy raised in Levittown, Long Island, as Joel was, wouldn't make it out "alive." Maybe that was true.

Franklin Avenue, between Atlantic Avenue and Eastern Parkway--where Billy Joel might not have escaped with his life in 1980, had he run there from Bed-Stuy--is now full of bars, restaurants, and cafes. The patrons are not exclusively white, but so many of the places cater to middle class wallets and hipster palates. There are Black store owners. There are Black diners and drinkers. But that is different than saying it is an Black neighborhood, which it once was. Franklin Avenue has become an entertainment destination in Brooklyn. Do many of the more long-term residents eat and drink there? Are they even still living there? As Kim told me, "rent wasn't like what we knew growing up." The two-bedroom rentals near Franklin Avenue listed around $3,000 a month on a recent internet search.

Tyrabia, 22, from Canarsie in Brooklyn, who just graduated from SUNY Buffalo with a degree in psychology, wrote that gentrification means: "Pushing people of color out of their neighborhoods that they've been in for generations through tactics that can't be easily fought against. Landlords and community developers will claim that they're improving the neighborhood when they're really just block-busting and making it impossible to afford to live there. Pushing out lower income families and replacing them with white people from other states or countries who are willing to pay over inflated prices."

Indeed, there are eight tenants in the Brownstone where I live, and only my daughter was born in New York. One couple is from Australia. Another couple is from somewhere in Europe. They've told me but I forgot. One man is Black. The rest of us are white. Our landlords are white and live in Staten Island.

Tyrabia speaks of the force of gentrification that "can't easily be fought against." I think of faceless market forces, developers who have changed the face of New York City like so many other places. We have a real estate developer for President, in fact, a symbol for these times, a man accused of racist discrimination against potential renters in 1973, and again in 1978, according to many news sources, including PBS. The New York Times found that Trump had two properties that had 95 percent white populations in 1983. When the President of the United States has a track record of constructing racist and white only places to live--and people voted for him--gentrifying forces can feel like a powerful and unassailable force.

Another response to my Facebook query came from 29-year-old mother of two Mone't Smith, who lives in Brownville, Brooklyn, right near where my mom lived as a very little girl in the 1920s. My mom's family moved out, to the Bronx, and then Muncie, further upstate, long before the Ultra Orthodox took over Muncie. Mone't lives in the Seth-low Houses, large public housing buildings, visible from afar. "Everything changes and nothing is affordable for the people in the community, forcing them to move and others to take over." Mone't lives with her mother and is trying to move out. She says that although gentrification hasn't "hit" Brownsville yet in the way it has affected my neighborhood, if affects her because she cannot afford apartments in nearby East New York or elsewhere in Brooklyn. "That’s one of the reasons I'm still with my mom, because the cost of living, especially in places I want to move to, is so expensive."

After our discussion, Mone't posted on her Facebook page, asking for her friends to talk about gentrification. One of her friends, Toni, remarked: "And don’t get me started on the entitlement aspect and having the neighborhood cater to their way of living rather than them becoming acclimated to their new environment."

Toni later told me that she came from Trinidad, by way of Michigan, but has lived in Brooklyn for about as long as I have. An emergency room clerical supervisor who lives in the largely Latino neighborhood of South Williamsburg, she's noticed that the mostly white newcomers to places where she has lived and worked complain about the culture they have entered into, such as the loud music and the stoop sitting. I've heard other long-time Brooklyn residents notice the same thing about the newbies. White people will walk down the street three abreast, she says, with no seeming care for others on the sidewalk. Or they let their children run amok on scooters in local stores, with concern for others. It is not an uncommon reaction I've heard from Black people, finding themselves in a business district populated by white people.

On her South Williamsburg block, there are two new buildings going up, one of which is asymmetrical. "Once those buildings hit your neighborhood," she says, "let the gentrification begin."

In many parts of Brooklyn, it already has.

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