If you’ve lived here more than a second, you know the drill: A bodega closes up, a cocktail bar goes in– you roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders. “Gentrification,” you sigh, staring bleakly into your $10 cocktail.
But Rebecca Carroll, a producer at WNYC and co-creator of a new podcast examining that very phenomenon, says that the bougie coffee shop or new chocolate artisan isn’t exactly worth fixating on– they’re only symbols of the last stage of the process. “At that point, when those markers arrive, that ship has kind of sailed,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things that people don’t realize. [Gentrification] is a multi-pronged-beast kind of process, that involves a lot of moving parts.”
To examine many of those moving parts, WNYC has partnered with The Nation to produce “There Goes the Neighborhood,” a weekly eight-part podcast getting under the skin of how gentrification is reshaping Brooklyn. The argument is that yes, while gentrification and neighborhood changes have always been a part of city living, displacement is happening faster than ever before, driven by a powerful juggernaut of money and policy.
Kai Wright, features editor at The Nation, is the host, and he and Carroll are also joined by WNYC reporters Jim O’Grady, Sean Carlson and Jessica Gould, and D.W. Gibson, author of book The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century.
The first episode, released yesterday, follows the steps of how buildings with tenants still living in them get emptied out for new landlords and developers to flip. It’s a story we’ve heard before at B+B — sadly, tenant harassment cases never seem to end. But the podcast took us places we’ve never been, like inside the office of one of those unscrupulous landlords, describing how he gets a middle man to do the dirty work. Carroll said future eps will train its eyes on public housing, loan scams, the history of ghettos, developers, and of course, de Blasio’s big rezoning and affordability plan.
Last night the podcast held a kick-off event at Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, including comedy (Aparna Nancherla), spoken word (Kai Davis), video clips, and, the latest-thing, “mico-conversations” (we hope to be seeing more of those in the future).
Nancherla started off with an anecdote encapsulating the level of real estate madness North Brooklyn is reaching. Her friend was looking for an apartment in Bushwick (“moment of silence for Bushwick” she joked, to much laughter) when the landlord casually mentioned that tenants aren’t allowed to have…er….normal bodily functions. To avoid straining the old pipes, he said they should poop in a paper towel and put it in the dumpster.
“What? Like a well trained monster?” Nancherla said. And then, of course, the kicker: “The worst part of the story, besides everything I’ve already said, is that it was renting for $3,000.”
Later, Kai Davis, known for her poetry and spoken word videos on race and feminism, read a heart-wrenching poem examining her role as a “black gentrifier” while at Temple University, which is encroaching on nearby majority-black north Philly.
Towards the end she posed a difficult –and poignant — question. “I look like the black folk I displaced. Would my absence make a difference? Would it mean justice or abandonment? This poem is the closest I’ve come to a solution and it’s not even half sufficient. North Philly is not mine, and still — it is all over my hands.”
The “micro-conversations” were meant to bring people with different perspectives into dialogue about the changing city. They paired urban planners and activists, journalists and filmmakers, actors and rappers, all peeling back issues like white privilege, the art-economy’s role in the context of gentrification, and how to “keep Brooklyn, well, Brooklyn.”
The most captivating conversation was a rarely heard dialogue about gentrification from two people with very different backgrounds: Martha Plimpton, an actress (The Real O’Neals) who recently moved from her lifelong rent-stabilized home on the Upper West Side to a majority-black block in Brooklyn; and the rapper Dyme-A-Duzin (aka Donnovan Malik Blocker), who grew up in Crown Heights and now lives in East New York.
As the two tried to describe their impressions of rapidly-changing Brooklyn, it felt both honest and slightly unsettling– the distance between their experiences and reactions highlighted the very real social stratification of the city’s neighborhoods. Plimpton, who grew up at 100th Street and West End Avenue in the ’70s, is blonde, peppy and expressive. Dyme-A-Duzin is a young black rapper who still remembers Crown Heights feeling dangerous and who noticed that more cops arrived after white people did.
Plimpton often repeated that moving to Brooklyn a year and a half ago “kind of felt like I was coming back to New York.” Over the years, the Upper West Side had changed so much–Brooklyn still held the kind of diversity and community she’d always felt comfortable in. “I felt like I was returning to the part of the city that I knew– does that make sense?” she said.
“Oh, wow,” said Dyme-A-Duzin. He seemed to be surprised. “And it’s kind of…like…almost …the opposite, when we go up there…” he said slowly. The audience laughed, perhaps seeing the UWS though his eyes, a distant enclave of white moneyed yuppies with strollers, slowly creeping into his neighborhood and changing the Caribbean buffet joint into a Shake Shack.
He was sometimes a little shy in voicing his opinions– at one point he said, “I don’t ever want to focus…I try to keep my mind positive and not ever focus on the race situation.”
“I try to give the world the benefit of the doubt and say, hey, it’s not all about race,” he continued, clearly wrestling with his thoughts. “But you know, it’s here, it’s evident, and that’s probably one of the most heartbreaking parts.”
Plimpton offered her own observation on race: When she first moved to Brooklyn, the first thing she noticed was the friendliness of her new neighbors and that “white people do not say hello when they pass you on the street.”
“I much prefer my neighbors who do say hello,” she said. “My neighbors made me feel welcome immediately, made me feel part of a community immediately.”
But Dyme-A-Duzin was skeptical– at least, this didn’t jibe with his experience or memories. “And this is the city?” he asked, meaning Manhattan, genuinely perplexed. “I mean, growing up in Brooklyn, I always felt like…I mean, everybody was always kind of ‘to themselves.'” he said.
Now it was Plimpton’s turn to seem surprised. She rattled off the busy signs of community life she’d encountered on her block, where most homes have been owned by black families for generations: neighborhood associations, an annual garden festival, etc. Dyme-a-Duzin said that all sounded very foreign to his life.
“I grew up in Crown Heights in the ’90s, so, you know, there was a lot of violence out there, there were a lot of gangs out there–it sounds nothing like that,” he said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword to me, because, you know, that sounds like a great improvement to me. I kind of wish that the people who grew up there, my people, would get to experience that kind of luxury.”
Plimpton’s Brooklyn, even with her sensitivity to race and privilege, her interest in community, was clearly not Dyme-A-Duzin’s Brooklyn, which points to the sheer variety of factors that come into play when talking about community and gentrification. “This is not an area or a part of town that has not felt the changes, they most definitely have,” Plimpton said of her block, trying to relate. “But perhaps it’s the landmark status, I don’t know […] But somehow they’ve managed to kind of maintain a kind of involvement with each other, and looking out for each other that’s made it possible to make them feel like – like you say, in state of luxury.” (Sidenote: Yep, we are gonna go ahead and bet on the landmark status/home ownership thing).
It was exactly the kind of frank encounter and conversation the podcast hopes to inspire
“We’re in a time right now when we have the social media activism of Black Lives Matter, of black twitter, public intellectuals who are being lauded such as Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Carroll said. “We have a real moment where people are listing to what black and brown people have been saying, in a way that they have not before.”
And Carroll’s work on the podcast specifically focuses on unpacking how race fits into the current wave of gentrification. “I think it’s not just about the lattes, it’s not just about the aesthetic– which is essentially folks who want to move into these kind of culturally appealing, kind of hip and ‘gritty’ neighborhoods,” she said. “Most people, and I would say white affluent, or white middle class, are drawn to this appeal of a kind of urban environment. But what happens: Once enough white wealth aggregates, the entire community is rebranded according to their aesthetic and through their lens. It’s like wanting the neighborhood without the people that made it.”
At the end of his micro-convo, Dyme-A-Duzin said he thought the best way to keep Brooklyn alive is to respect its culture and history, and to reject the neighborhood rebranding and new acronyms piled on by realtors. “I just feel like we should all just really respect what’s here, and let it be known: This was Crown Heights, this is Crown Heights,” he said.
Check out the first episode from WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood here. And check back next week to continue the conversation.