A Complex Portrait of Gentrification in New Yorkers’ Own Words

A Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network banner during a recent protest at the Brooklyn Museum
A Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network banner during a recent protest at the Brooklyn Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

Last month the Brooklyn Public Library awarded its inaugural Brooklyn Eagle Literary Prize for a work of non-fiction to DW Gibson for The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification. Across its 29 chapters, his book offers a diverse range of candid and nuanced perspectives on questions of urban planning, displacement, community activism, inequality, safety, and the many other issues that make up the multi-faceted thing we call gentrification. It presents a complex view of a process many tend to think of in terms of extremes.

The subjects of each chapter-long interview include the artist Michael De Feo, the architects Stephen Chu and Gita Nandan, and State Senator Daniel Squadron, as well as activists, developers, contractors, and longtime residents who, in one way or another, are transforming their corners of New York City. The interviewees’ perspectives are alternately hopeful or resigned, impassioned or downtrodden, but Gibson treats each with reverence and patience.

Hyperallergic spoke to Gibson shortly after he received the Brooklyn Public Library prize to ask him about the process of conducting interviews for The Edge Becomes the Center, how arts organizations he spoke with are trying to mitigate the effects of gentrification in their communities, and how the issue has changed since the book’s publication in May.

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The cover of DW Gibson's 'The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century' (photo by the author)
The cover of DW Gibson’s ‘The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century’ (click to enlarge)

Benjamin Sutton: Why did you choose to do an oral history?

DW Gibson: The last book I did was an oral history, so it’s a terrain I’m familiar with. But more to the point I feel like most of the books I could find on the topic of gentrification were academic texts explaining the theories of it all. I was eager to go out into the world and see what it looked like and smelled like and sounded like and what people were experiencing in their day-to-day lives regarding this phenomena. That’s what interested me most: getting in the trenches, seeing how daily lives are affected by more abstract narratives.

BS: Gentrification has become such a loaded term, it’s almost become meaningless because it automatically sets people off and has all this baggage. How did that affect the way you spoke to people and how you phrased questions?

DWG: I knew that the word had negative connotations for, if not everyone, the majority of people, but I didn’t approach it that way. I was approaching it in the terms of the definition that it had been given by professors and thinkers so I was allowing it to be a neutral word, maybe even a positive word, but I realized that very few people were willing to do that too. As I would approach people to see if they would allow me to interview them I would often send them an email with talking points and early on I would use gentrification in the body of the email, if not in the subject line, and I soon abandoned that because I realized its toxic nature across the board. It also improved the responses I got. I think that not opening with that word was helpful. For a lot of people it’s a conversation stopper. Either they get really wild immediately and bring a lot to the conversation, compacting it. Or, for the developer, or someone working for the city, or a politician, it’s just going to be too much to handle and scare them away. In the book, Daniel Squadron really just wouldn’t even say the word, he wouldn’t even be quoted saying the word. That’s when the lightbulb went on for me.

BS: Several interviewees touch on the idea that when we’re talking about gentrification, what we often mean is displacement, and that there can even be good aspects to gentrification; but the predominant negative thing that everyone is always worried about is displacement.

Anti-gentrification protesters hold up a sign on Eastern Parkway during a recent protest at the Brooklyn Museum.
Anti-gentrification protesters hold up a sign on Eastern Parkway during a recent protest at the Brooklyn Museum. (click to enlarge)

DWG: Absolutely, it is the major point — the underbelly of gentrification. It came up again and again with little prompting from me. Obviously I expect that from tenants who are being harassed by landlords, but it also came up with landlords, with policy makers, and so forth. I think people anticipate that it’s gotta be part of the conversation. One of the reasons that gentrification is such a tricky word is that it encompasses so many ideas and one of them is displacement but one of them is the idea of not wanting change in your own backyard, or development, or global capital. So that’s why I really think it’s good to get precise with what we’re talking about at any given moment. If we’re talking about global capital then let’s say that. If we’re talking about development let’s say that. If we’re talking about displacement let’s say that. If we’re talking about improving parks or public spaces that have fallen into disrepair let’s call it that. Precision is very helpful when you enter the conversation.

BS: Continuing with this idea that gentrification is a whole constellation of overlapping issues, one of the ones I found really fascinating in the book is what Gita Nandan of Thread Collective brings up, about design and the aesthetics of gentrification. I think we know this intuitively because all the condo buildings have the same aesthetic, but she brought it up in a very interesting way. Can there be community development that doesn’t look like “poor architecture”?

DWG: I really love that point she made and it was something that was echoed by other people, mainly architects, that I spoke with, but I felt that she said it best. It is interesting that if a building is designed with contemporaneous aesthetics and care, and some kind of style, it feels like a harbinger of what’s to come. It scares people that have been in the neighborhood for a long time. And I think Gita makes a really great point: why does it have to be that way? Why does a well-designed building — by that she means energy efficient, using more appropriate materials, and putting thought into the way it looks — have to be equated with something that’s very expensive?

She has a good point that a lot of developers still spend lots of money putting up a condo building but just put no imagination into it. And, historically at least, we don’t engage designers in an imaginative way with public projects, particularly public housing. So her work is really great in terms of some of the projects she’s working on, trying to improve the design elements of pre-existing public housing projects, even just in the communal spaces and so forth.

I think that it’s a perfectly good question that she raises, and the fact that she makes note of real estate agents using their building in Bushwick to drive clients by to tip them off that the neighborhood is changing. I’m with her on this one. I wish we could get to the place where people who have been in a neighborhood for 10, 20, 30, and 40 years, who see more modern buildings going up —more contemporaneous design going up — don’t feel like it’s a negative thing, not an issue of class. In other cities like Bogotá, Colombia and Santiago, Chile, there are designers who have been working on public housing and subsidized housing that doesn’t make the people that live in those units feel like they’re in a space that has been marked in a negative way.

Street art by Michael De Feo (photo by Lord Jim/Flickr)
Street art by Michael De Feo (photo by Lord Jim/Flickr)

BS: A number of the people you spoke to, including the artist Michael De Feo and the curator Quang Bo, touch on this widely held idea of the artist’s role in gentrification, which is that they’re both harbingers of things to come and then ultimately also victims of it. I’m curious if in your research you came across any projects, either driven by artists or incorporating artists, that are trying to slow that process or offer an alternative?

DWG: I absolutely did, one in particular. It’s Arts East New York. A woman named Catherine Green started this organization. As the name implies, they do most their work in East New York, Cypress Hill, Brownsville, and they do tremendous projects. They bought a few shipping containers and they made them workspaces and made a weekly art market where you could walk around, see the artists working, and perhaps buy their art. It was very much of the neighborhood. Local artists living in those neighborhoods. Incidentally, they lost that space to development, but they are supposedly going to get another space from the city and restart the program in the spring. That was called Renew Lots.

Another project I really liked that Catherine did was at one particular intersection where they had a lot of crime — a lot of people were jumped at this corner, some violent crimes, night stuff, and it was consistent. Catherine even got her car stolen on this corner. So she got artists in the neighborhood to take pictures of their grandmothers. It was a mashup of professional artists and also an art education program where she gave cameras to kids as well, and just asked everyone to take portraits of their grandmothers. She then plastered this intersection with all these portraits. Her theory was that if you can jump someone with all these grandmas staring at you, that changes the game. And by her description and the descriptions of two or three others, that corner was transformed. It became a much more hospitable place to be and I think that’s a really good example of what can happen. It’s also tricky in a neighborhood like that to continuously go to the police department to settle those issues for you and I think that’s a great example of a community settling it for themselves.

I also think it’s really important to highlight that we have this idea that when artists move into a neighborhood like Bushwick, and now they’re going out to Cypress Hills, everyone’s like, “oh, here come the artists,” wrongly supposing that there never were artists there before. They’re white artist, or maybe they’re aspiring to be professional, or something like that — i.e. to monetize their art. But we should consider the fact that Prospect Heights had artists for a long time and Bushwick had people writing and painting and playing music for generations.

A chalk mural protesting the mass eviction of artists from a building in Gowanus
A chalk mural protesting the mass eviction of artists from a building in Gowanus

BS: I kept expecting there to be something in the book about big projects like Atlantic Yards or major forces in the city like the NYPD — which doesn’t figure into it much except as this invisible, generally ineffectual entity. Are there any issues or groups that you, in hindsight, wish that you had included or attempted to include but weren’t able to?

DWG: I talked to firemen and cops. None of them were very satisfying conversations that I think would be worth the reader’s time, and I regret that. It was very difficult to get cops to talk. And I got several that were willing to do it off the record but I just never nailed a great interview with a cop and I do lament that. It would have been fantastic to be able to do that; I would encourage the NYPD to loosen their press policy.

In terms of Atlantic Yards, I wasn’t really worried about geography or big stories that we were already familiar with because for me it was more about the perspectives I knew I wanted to capture. I knew I wanted to talk to the tenant, the landlord, the squatter, and the politician. It was this list of perspectives that I wanted to make sure I captured and I didn’t care if it pertained to Atlantic Yards or the Navy Yard, or if it was Harlem or Bushwick. It was about the perspective and rounded conversation.

BS: I’m curious if the effect that sites like Airbnb have on rent, housing stock, and vacancy was something that came up while you were working on the book, or if it’s such a new phenomenon that it wasn’t really evident yet?

DWG: It came up on the periphery, but not in a substantive way. I do feel like this has really developed into a serious issue since publishing the book and I do think it’s something we have to consider in a real way because it’s not just one giant category. There are a lot of models for how people are participating in the Airbnb marketplace. There are people who have found it as a way to survive and it’s the way they make ends meet. And there are people who are running various operations throughout the city and making tons of money and creating a more transient sense of the neighborhood for people who are living there full time.

I did a project this summer, a sort of one-block oral history in Bed-Stuy, and a lot of people complained about this phenomenon. It felt like they had fewer neighbors and more tourists. I think it goes back to one of the fundamental questions that maybe doesn’t get talked about a lot in conversations that I’ve had about the book, but is an important point that was raised by Tom Lunke [of the Harlem Community Development Corporation] when he was talking about the High Line. When are we thinking about policy in terms of how it affects citizens, and when are we thinking about policy in terms of how it affects tourists? I don’t think that the Airbnb marketplace is totally bad, but I do think we have to find some sense of balance, some parameters, so that we’re not removing a lot of potential housing for people who live here full-time and so that people don’t feel their neighborhoods are more transient places.

DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century is available now from Overlook Press.

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