In his first book, Making Rent in Bed-Stuy (HarperCollins, 2017), New York-based writer and filmmaker Brandon Harris uses his memoir of “trying to make it in New York City” as the starting point for a complex, multi-layered discussion of race, class, and gentrification.
Organized around each of the New York addresses where he has lived, the book is partly a memoir and partly reporting and essays – with a little film criticism thrown in. Harris, who directed and co-wrote the 2012 indie Redlegs, moved to New York from Ohio in 2004; he found himself in Brooklyn – occupying the strange and uncomfortable position of simultaneously struggling to make ends meet and being a gentrifier.
In 2011 I met someone named Keith Gessen. Keith is one of the founding editors of N+1 and at the time had a more active role in editing the magazine. After I met him I wrote a piece for the magazine’s “Occupy Gazette,” which was a project that grew out of the Occupy movement. After that we got some beers and talked about living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where we were both living. He asked me to write a piece about Bedford-Stuyvesant, about gentrification, about my own experiences living there. That piece was the kernel for this book, which I finished just over six years after I finished the original essay.
I wrote a book about gentrification and the winners and losers in that process and how those processes are tied to long legacies of race and class. I have tried to do that in a way that is fairly blunt and uncompromising. Some of the people in the book may not appreciate aspects of their lifestyles or family histories being depicted that way; I understand that.
There are people depicted in the book who no longer speak to me. Some stopped speaking to me before the book. I’m sure there are also people discussed in the book who will no longer speak to me now that the book has come out. I’m not sure who those people are yet but I have some ideas. That being said I should say that most people I talked to in the course of the book have been supportive. That includes former employers, family, friends, including a friend I describe as “trust-funded.”
I think Hilton Als said something really thoughtful in his book White Girls, which is that writers deserve their loneliness, for telling other people’s stories in their own way. So maybe I deserve it. But I tried to do it in an honest way, even though that has burned some bridges. I think over time some of those bridges will be mended, though I suspect others will never be.
It is just a term I feel most comfortable with. I feel like terms like “black” and “white” create this artificial binary that enforces outdated notions and racial categories. Negro is a term that sometimes draws the ire of both people who identify as black and people who identify as white. But I think it is a term that should be rehabilitated. Like all of these terms it was invented and imposed on people from Africa by people from Europe. I don’t see it in terms of its origin as more derogatory than any other term, whether “black,” “African-American,” “nigger.” Ultimately I think it is incumbent on anyone who is referred to by any of these terms to own whichever term they want and make it their own.
Your book is in part the story of coming to New York and living cheaply and sometimes unpleasantly so that you could pursue your artistic aspirations. At the time you moved to New York it was already becoming quite expensive; now it is even more expensive and gentrification has spread its tentacles even further. Do you think there will be more books like yours in the future? Or will the changing conditions of New York make it impossible?
I think my book is part of a genre of accounts of young artists trying to get by in difficult places – a genre that stretches back a long time and includes books like Down and Out in Paris and London and Just Kids. I do think that people will continue to come to the city to make something of themselves that they can’t make elsewhere. New York is the cultural capital of America, and because of that ambitious people will always come here, including artists and writers. I imagine people of less means that I had will come here, and I imagine some of them will be better writers [laughs] – and maybe they will write the next version of this story. That being said, yes, it always gets harder.
I’d like to make a movie this fall that deals with some of these same issues around housing that my book did and is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, as my book was. I programmed the Indie Memphis Film Festival in Memphis, Tennessee, so I’m busy with that. I am working on a proposal for another nonfiction book, and I have some longform pieces I am contracted to do for Vice and others.