I chatted via email with DW Gibson, author of the recently published book The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century. Filled with the real voices of New Yorkers, from both sides of the gentrification fence, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in what’s happening to our city in this era of rapid displacement, runaway development, and socioeconomic injustice. Just before our virtual chat, Gibson had come from moderating a conversation on art and gentrification out on Governor’s Island. That got us started on our own conversation.
JM: I was out in Bushwick this weekend for the Open Studios event. It gets bigger every year, and the demographic is shifting--more Greenwich housewife types and financiers in alligator shirts. Near the center of this event, on Grattan Street, a local family had set up a barbecue. Right nearby were all these kids doing performance art. I wondered: What is the relationship between these two groups? Do they communicate and in what way? Which brings me to the question: Is there such a thing as a "good" gentrifier vs. a "bad" gentrifier?
DWG: I think the word “gentrifier” is so loaded that it’s hard to get back to its provenance and make it a useful term. But I certainly don’t want to get bogged down in semantics.
I think what separates a “good” gentrifier from a “bad” gentrifier is his/her willingness to *listen* to the people who have lived or worked in the neighborhood for a long time. A gentrifier who wants to have a positive impact on the neighborhood first needs to learn what that neighborhood is all about — both historically and for the current residents. And then look for ways to get involved. It’s not necessarily about arriving in a neighborhood to bring your ideas there. It should be more about finding out how your ideas and energy can fit into the ideas and energy that are already in place.
That applies perhaps more specifically to artists but also all gentrifiers in general. And backing up a bit, the best starting point for a gentrifier is to look up at the world they inhabit, notice buildings, say hi to the people you see. It’s the best way to start and it’s so simple and achievable for everyone.
JM: Looking up is so important. Reminds me of an anecdote in your book, where one woman says that the new people in her neighborhood are all plugged into headphones, not paying attention, not looking at anyone. What message do you think that sends? And what impact does it have on the people of a community?
DWG: That’s one of the most important points made by an interviewee in the book. It was Shatia Strother, a long-time resident of Bed Stuy. She has the personal campaign of running up to people who have their headphones in, and she jumps in front of them and yells, “Look up!” Which only Shatia can get away with — without getting killed — because of how she comports herself and that big smile.
The “connectivity” that our wireless devices allow comes at a cost to our relationship with the physical world. The physical world — the streets we walk down, the places where we live and work — matter less because we’re always talking to someone half a world away. This is not about fearing technology, it’s about giving thought to how much we value connecting with the people who share the room or the bar or the office or the subway car with us. Historically, a defining characteristic of New York, particularly in terms of other American cities, has been that, for better and for worse, we are in each other’s faces. We encounter all kinds of people in our daily lives, in all of the small and big interactions we have. And this characteristic of New York is diminished by modern technology that de-emphasizes the physical world.
I feel like we’re less and less open to connect with the physical world, and that is not good for the overall health of any given neighborhood or community.
JM: Shatia is my hero, just for that maneuver. I wish I could get away with it, but I’d probably get punched.
It’s interesting to me, the cultural element of this looking down at phones and being “connected.” I visited East Harlem a few years ago—and maybe it’s changed already—but I went up there to check out the development that was going on, and I noticed that no one was on their phone. I was on 116th Street and it felt like the old New York sidewalk, by which I mean pre-2000s. People were paying attention. We all regarded each other.
Is this a class thing? A race/culture thing? I realize, of course, those intersect and are difficult to impossible to disentangle, especially when we’re talking about gentrification. This comes up quite a bit in your book.
DWG: That’s interesting to hear about East Harlem. I was spending a lot of time up there last year and I don’t think it’s so much the case anymore that there aren’t many phones. I think your observations 15+ years ago are more about the passage of time and cell phones becoming increasingly affordable.
It is a relentless march on the part of humanity toward more wireless connectivity! And I think this is a dangerous thing for cities. It’s hard to have this conversation, though, because it quickly sounds like a conversation about not wanting to embrace the power and potential of the modern age, which is not what it’s about at all. It’s about taking a look at the inverse of the digital “connectivity.” It’s about taking seriously the consequences of this “connectivity” and how it diminishes our ability and/or will to connect with our neighbors, both residential and commercial.
JM: These observations in East Harlem were more like 5 years ago, but that's how fast this stuff is changing.
Your book ends up being very much about racism. Was that something you expected going into it? In general, what did you expect to find when you began the book, and where did you get surprised--or not surprised?
DWG: I moved to New York in 1995 and have learned a lot about the city in my time here, so I certainly expected that race would come up as an issue. I think when I started this book I really wanted to stick to the fact that, at its heart, gentrification is a class issue. But that fact alone ignores this country’s, and this city’s, history with a host of discriminatory practices in housing and business. So in the US, and in New York, we cannot extract the race issue from the class issue. They are, in effect, one in the same.
The fact that stood out to me is that the real problem is the institutional racism — much more so than interpersonal racism. Very few people I talked to expressed racism or bigotry. The problem to solve is the historical, institutionalized systems that have disenfranchised New Yorkers over generations. (Redlining, etc.) Those practices still matter because they still affect individuals and families today — and in some cases those practices are still out there! Which is completely true and terrifying.
JM: One piece that doesn't come up so much in your book is the impact of gentrification on small businesses.
DWG: In terms of small business, two interviewees were important for me--Tarek Ismail and Barbara Schaum.
Barbara has been a leather worker on the Lower East Side/East Village for nearly 40 years, and I think she speaks to a lot of change from the point of view of a small business owner entrenched in her community.
I was really excited to include Tarek because here is a thoughtful young man thinking of opening a business in Harlem, but he is worried about doing so in a way that is not positive for the community. He is of Palestinian descent and, because of that family history, he’s very sensitive to the idea of adding to a neighborhood with a very rich and very certain — African American — history. I think if more business owners had Tarek’s sensitivity and conscientiousness the city would be much better off.
On the whole, I do think the commercial discussion gets lost sometimes in the residential discussion. (That’s one of the things you are doing so well — if I may compliment the interviewer.) And while the residential side of the discussion is of primary importance — we all need a place to lay our heads at night — we can’t forget the changes in New York on the commercial side.
The one caveat to the commercial conversation is that we can’t let it become about nostalgia. Land use is always evolving, I think, so it’s okay if one place closes and another comes in, in broad terms. The problem isn’t new shops. It’s the nature of those shops and the question: Who are they serving?
The sad reality is that so many small businesses are being replaced by big box stores. These types of places: 1. Lead to a further homogenization of what the city has to offer and 2. Are far less likely to be involved in the neighborhood, far less likely to be a part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Also, the commercial rents have gotten so out of control in so many neighborhoods, the only companies that can move in to these spaces are big corporations who can take a loss at that particular location but still make it work financially because they view those high-rent locations as advertisements, more so than actual retail outlets. So they basically become three-dimensional advertisements instead of actual stores.
JM: (I need to get in a plug here for #SaveNYC, where we're trying to protect small business and the local streetscape of the city.) I could ask so much more, but in all the interviews you've done, is there a question you wish you'd been asked but haven't yet?
DWG: There are two nuggets of info in the book that I’m surprised haven’t generated more questions:
1. The fact that the Bowery Mission made a market rate offer to the Salvation Army for their building on the Bowery, so they could expand their services to the homeless population. (Never reported before this book.) Of course, the Salvation Army did not take that offer and sold, instead, to the Ace Hotel chain.
2. The EB5 visa program that Alan Fishman talks about. This is a visa program that allows foreign nationals to buy a green card by making a $500,000 investment in a distressed neighborhood. The fact that we are allowing the world’s wealthy to buy residency in the U.S., and this is not part of our immigration discussion, is nuts!
JM: I’m glad I asked that question. And I do have one more. In the book, Celia says there are "ways to have less crime and more economic justice without displacement." In all the discussions you had, did you discover the secret formula for that ideal situation?
DWG: I agree with Celia that these are achievable things, but they require heavy lifting.
With regards to less crime without displacement, we would need to radically rethink how we approach policing altogether. Law enforcement would need to be ingrained in the community and understand it is in place to *serve* the community.
More economic justice without displacement can be achieved on a policy level using several tools. Two things that would immediately help: raising wages across the board, and making developers hire local. But even beyond that we can rethink giving tax breaks to developers. Why do we need to incentivize building in New York in 2015? And we can create taxes targeted at those with the most resources (expansion of the mansion tax, taxing those who do not occupy the multiple homes they buy, etc.).
No secret formula to solve all. But certainly clear steps we can take now to get moving in the right direction.
Find your copy of DW's book at your local independent bookshop.