Author D.W. Gibson’s shocking account of the shady practices of a Brooklyn landlord gained a lot of attention when the excerpt, taken from his new book The Edge Becomes the Center, was published by NYMag.com earlier this year. Tonight at 7 p.m., Gibson will appear at PowerHouse arena to discuss other stories from his oral history of gentrification in the 21st century. We sat down with him to talk about the eight sure-tell signs that gentrification is creeping up on your neighborhood (chances are, it’s already in full swing).
1. That sketchy hotel closes its doors.
Gibson lived in a lot of colorful places when he moved to NYC from Southern California, but Malibu Studios, may it rest in piece, takes the cake.
“I came to New York City in 1995 when I was 17, and I lived in a single room occupancy building on 103rd and Broadway, so it was like a weekly motel. I think I was the only guy there without a toupee. It was a really funny place to live; it was called Malibu Studios. It’s not there anymore. So you’d have a small private room, and you share a bathroom with everybody on the same floor. There were a lot of mornings when I couldn’t take a shower because someone was strung out on the bathroom floor. So I’ve lived everywhere. When I was first in New York I moved every few months just chasing cheaper rents, but I guess notable places where I’ve spent some time are Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, and Flatbush.”
2. You’re searching for an apartment, and the landlord shows off the “green” building down the street.
One chapter in the book is about Gita Nandan, an architect who specializes in building new, green affordable housing in Brooklyn.
“One of the reasons she’s in the book and why I think her work is so interesting as an architect and a designer is that she is involved in a lot of city projects that try to look at providing better designs for low-income housing. Kind of the underbelly of what she’s saying, too, is you’ve got developers flipping buildings throughout Brooklyn, and they’ll renovate buildings that they empty of its rent stabilized tenants and do renovations so that they can bring the apartments up to market rate. And they do cruddy renovations, just really, really cruddy renovations in a lot of the places, but they’re less conspicuous. So that’s somehow on the surface more acceptable, but so much more insidious for the health of the neighborhood.”
But she hates seeing her buildings showcased as a symbol of a change in the economic status of the neighborhood.
“I tell ya, a lot of people speak out both sides of their mouths because it’s hard to reconcile mixed emotions. She likes to bring good design to the neighborhood, but she recognizes that as it is now, good design seems like a gentrifying force in the neighborhood, and that scares a lot of people. And she doesn’t want to scare people. She doesn’t want people to judge that. She wants to change that, but she understands that’s how it is right now. And she doesn’t like real estate agents trying to capitalize on her creativity.”
3. Artists bring the cool factor, then disappear when they can no longer afford the rent.
“Very often artists, who are famous for not being able to monetize their work, look for cheap rents or cheap workspaces, so they’re often the first individuals to gentrify a neighborhood. But that’s often short lived because once they move in and develop this sense of cool, or whatever it might be—I mean, look at Bushwick. Bushwick is not at all architecturally interesting. The housing stock there is mixed and iffy, but people want to be there because it’s perceived as the place where the cool is, right? And it has good transportation. And at one point that was the dynamic of the Lower East Side, at one point that was the dynamic of the East Village many years ago, so that continues to move and artists can only stay there for a temporary period while they can still afford it, and then they’re pushed out, too.
“New York in my opinion will become a lot more like Paris in that it will no longer be a place where people come to make art; it will be a place where people come to buy art. So we’ll monetize it, we’ll have galleries and all of that, and we’ll have famous paintings in our museums, but there won’t be artists working here.”
4. When all else fails, artists turn your favorite local café into their own personal studio.
“Artists are getting away from the idea of studio altogether, a) out of looking for new ways to approach the work but also out of practical considerations because they can’t afford the studios. So they’re getting away from oil on canvas and they’re turning toward a lot more video projects because they can work on that on the streets and they can come into this coffee shop and edit. It’s very interesting because that quaint idea of the studio and the artist, even that idea is sort of fading and becoming a little more pastiche, and now it’s much more nimble.”
5. A rebel art installation pops up in your neighborhood park, only to be dismantled by the police later that day.
“Street artists are realizing that thanks to the ever-present smartphone their work may go down quickly but it can still take on a life of its own long after.”
“People are just doing different types of work. Video is the most obvious one, but more temporal work like Andy Goldsmith, that type of stuff, things are only meant to only last a while. Projects like, think of the Edward Snowden bust that was in the park in Brooklyn, that kind of idea. Someone had put on a pillar in the park during the night a bust, I mean, a very nice, well-done bust of Edward Snowden, and it was up for like half a day and then the cops took it down.”
6. A school dedicated to meritocracy in education puts up a big building and starts charging tuition.
Though he praises the Cooper Square Committee for all its down to protect small businesses, Cooper Union is another story.
“I get depressed still thinking about it because Peter Cooper’s vision and charter for the school was very clearly laid out that tuition should not be paid, and I think that could have been such a great model for higher education, which is going to hit its own crises in the coming years. But they’ve got the big, beautiful building now, and so much of the faculty didn’t want it, and the student body didn’t want it, but the Board of Directors wanted it. There’s so much documentation online; you can see the professors talking about the disappointment, and I document some of the stuff in the book about some of the expenses for the opening night gala and $50,000 for a guest speaker, and why are these expenditures there when it’s just going to be passed to the student body? I don’t think they’ve really ever answered those questions. It’s a totally demoralizing model and outcome.
“You can’t tell me it was all about, ‘Oh, we need for facilities or updated space for the student body,’ because those are believable things, but they have nothing to do with that spaceship. And this is where high design does come in because those were not bargain architecture fees, you know? And I’m not saying a school that’s based on craft and design should build an ugly building, but you could, again, prioritize student body over this trademark building, this hallmark. Let your student body be your hallmark instead of the building they fill.”
7. The Salvation Army denies a homeless shelter in order to get millions more for its prime location.
“The Ace Hotel bought the Salvation Army building right next to the Bowery Mission for $30 million, or more then $30 million—there have been different reports. But people at the Bowery Mission told me that they tried to buy the building just before that, and offered market rate, and they were turned away. That’s significant to me because the Bowery Mission, if you go into that building it is so cramped, they have men outside that building all the time trying to get services inside. They had the resources, and there’s a building right next to them to continue serving the homeless population in New York City.
“The Bowery Mission offered something in the neighborhood of $20 million, and the Salvation Army said, ‘No, we want $24,’ and they ended up getting $30, so yeah, they made that decision that instead of selling at market rate to the nonprofit organization right next to us serving the homeless population, we’re going to wait for $6 million more and sell it to the hotel.’ That’s a real fundamental issue about how the city is being shaped. And the swelling homeless population is, I think, a part of this discussion.”
8. You can’t find a hammer in “Unnecessary Row.”
In one chapter Nandan, the green architect, talks about the most frivolous stretch of street in her neighborhood.
“On the commercial side I think that often times you’ll see a lineup of bars, which has its own set of issues, or you’ll see a block of, again Gita in the book talks about what she calls Unnecessary Row where she lives in Red Hook because they don’t have a hardware store but they have a vegan shoe store, so stores that gear toward people who are there on the weekends to shop. So you have to think about what are we doing to diversity things on the commercial side and make sure that within that diversification we provide stores that meet the needs of the people in the neighborhood. And that’s where the problem comes in which every place being a bar, or every place being a boutique handbag store. You need a supermarket, you need a hardware store and you need a laundromat.”