Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Brooklyn Wars

This past fall, the journalist, author, and Village Voice editor Neil deMause published The Brooklyn Wars, the story of 21st-century hyper-gentrification in the borough of kings. I asked him a few questions about what the wars are all about.

What are the Brooklyn Wars? Who are the competing armies and what are they fighting for?

The last 20 to 30 years of this borough — the rise of the “New Brooklyn” and all that — has been portrayed as either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective, but either way usually as a sort of unavoidable evolution. When you look more closely, though, it’s actually been the result of a series of pitched battles over what the borough would look like, who it would serve, and who would get to live here.

The sides in these battles have been complex and shifting: You have developers, and politicians seeking “redevelopment” in various forms, and residents of all types who either promote or resist change, sometimes both at the same time. (One of the odd things about living in a city like New York in times like these is that it’s totally possible to be simultaneously a gentrifier and gentrified, both a threat to old-timers and threatened by the next wave of newcomers.) And the weapons wielded are varied as well: Brooklyn wouldn’t look the same today if the city wasn’t rezoning everything in sight, but it also would be far different if the housing market weren't governed as it is by a weird amalgam of bare-knuckles market speculation, tax-incentive plans like 421-a, and the tattered remnants of mid-20th-century rent regulations and public housing programs — or, for that matter, if the New York Times real estate section were a normal journalistic enterprise instead of operating as a kind of fifth column for the development industry.

The Brooklyn wars, then, look like residents and shopkeepers and city planners and moneyed investors all tussling over whether areas like the Fulton Mall or the Sunset Park waterfront will keep serving the people they have in recent decades, or whether they'll be remade to fit, and draw, a more upscale clientele; and they look like the shifting allegiances among residents, amusement park operators, developers, and city officials in Coney Island that helped craft that neighborhood's grand bargain that's still playing out. And they look like every single person who has needed to make a decision: Where will I live, and what will the impact be of that decision? Like all wars, they’re hard to sum up easily, which is why I needed to write a whole book to wrap my brain around it.

Artists Evictions in Gowanus

Why do you think, of the four outer boroughs, Brooklyn became so popular for hyper-gentrification in the 2000s?

The thing about gentrifiers is that everyone wants to be first to be second — being an "urban pioneer" is only satisfying if you're sure that the trail ahead has been laid, and that more wagons will be following you over the horizon. Unlike the other outer boroughs, Brooklyn always retained a certain amount of upper-middle-class housing, particularly in brownstone Brooklyn, which provided a foothold for middle-class types who started fleeing Manhattan after it gentrified rapidly in the '70s and '80s. As a former city in its own right, it also had the densest transit network, which made for easier commutes to lower Manhattan. And it had nice parks and pretty housing and all the rest of the stuff that goes with having been a destination for well-off homeowners in the 19th century.

As I describe in the book, when I was looking to return to New York after college but expressed to a friend that I no longer felt at home in Manhattan, she immediately suggested Park Slope, though she warned me it might be getting “a bit too yuppified.” That was in 1988.

Brooklyn also ended up being the perfect place to play out what I call in the book the ecological succession patterns of gentrification: First the artists seeking out cheap housing where they can make a racket (or stretch out canvases), then the people who want to live near artists, then the people who heard that the neighborhood was "hot," until eventually you work your way down to the hedge fund managers. There's no particular reason it couldn't have happened in the Bronx, except that it didn't, and once that momentum was established in Brooklyn there was no stopping it — especially not once the developers, rezoners, and Times real estate reporters got involved.

We can’t talk about gentrification, perhaps especially in Brooklyn, without talking about race, as you do throughout your book. But some will say, “White people were there first.” How do you respond to that?

Well, the Canarsee Indians were here first. But, sure, Brooklyn was largely white when most of it was first built, so some people might justify the retaking of the borough as, hey, we're just back from a long vacation, right?

It shouldn't be about who got first dibs on the place, though, or even about squatting rights now. The history of Brooklyn neighborhoods is inextricably intertwined with race: You had the bank redlining in the 1930s and realtor-led block-busting in subsequent decades that helped make Bed-Stuy the center of one of the nation's biggest African-American communities and Bushwick the poster child for abandonment by landlords and city services. Then today, you have the marketing tactics that portray residents of color simultaneously as local flavor and as native tribes to be subdued and displaced by more qualified trailblazers — witness the "Colony 1209” that advertised itself to “like-minded settlers” on “Brooklyn’s new frontier,” or the Sunset Park real estate panel that boasted of “dynamic new residents” who “now demand a borough where they can work, shop, eat, and sleep.” (Guess old residents weren’t big on the eating and sleeping?)

The common theme here is that, regardless of whether the more affluent residents were fleeing or returning, it was people of color, and people without money more generally, who got the short end of the stick. Neighborhoods are changing all the time, whether it's Bensonhurst shifting from Italian to Asian or whatever, but that's not necessarily gentrification, which requires one group being displaced by another unwillingly. Gentrification isn't about change; it's about power.

Double Dutch in Bed-Stuy

People like to say that Brooklyn has hyper-gentrified due entirely to “market forces.” What do you think they’re saying when they say that—and what are they not saying?

It's self-evident that the population of Brooklyn is changing as certain areas become more desirable, and as new people arrive to bid up the price of housing. Of course, the other way of describing the same process is that when neighborhoods improve, the right to enjoy them goes to whoever has the deepest pockets. That, to me, is what we should be concerned about — that we're building a city where, essentially, only the wealthy can have nice things.

And anyway, the “market" is constructed in the first place by a melange of policy decisions. What would the city look like if the state hadn't spent decades providing tax breaks to private developers under the 421-a program, and had instead spent the money saved on some sort of public housing? What about if vacancy decontrol had never been passed in the 1990s, and landlords hadn't been provided a huge incentive to boot out tenants in order to reap windfall profits? What if we still had a 70% top income tax rate in the U.S, like we did before Reagan, and the super-wealthy were a rarity instead of the world we have now, where New York City has as many millionaires now as the entire nation did 30 years ago?

People act like "the market" is a natural thing like gravity, but it's a construct determined by whoever's making the rules it operates under. That doesn't make it inherently good or bad — but it does mean that the rules can reasonably be changed without it being some sort of abomination against nature.

You write about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how wealth has been flooding into Brooklyn. What do you think is lost—or gained--when big money moves in to a neighborhood?

What's lost is affordable housing and stores and churches and everything else that serves the existing population. That's a huge thing not just for residents, but for shopkeepers as well — a recent Hunter College study found that more than half of Latino-owned stores in Williamsburg closed up shop in the first decade of the 21st century.

What's gained is some renovated apartments, since under our current housing system there's very little incentive to provide upkeep and upgrades unless somebody is willing to pay more in rent for it. Plus a hell of a lot of Asian fusion cuisine, which isn't entirely a bad thing — everybody should have a right to pad thai — but also ends up being a poor substitute for what’s lost, even in the eyes of some of the newcomers. (I still complain about missing the terrific, cheap Mexican diner in Park Slope that ended up closing as a result of the neighborhood change that I was an unwitting part of.) One of the ironies of gentrification is it often ends up killing off the very thing that made the place attractive to gentrifiers in the first place.

I could probably go on about European colonists in America and passenger pigeons, but make your own extended metaphor here.

Italian Easter bread in Carroll Gardens

What do you see as the future of Brooklyn?

Right now the future certainly looks a lot like the recent past — the wave front of gentrification that's sweeping rapidly eastward across Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights and Flatbush shows little sign of slowing. And a Trump administration is only likely to accelerate the process, both through tax policies that promise to massively increase income inequality, and by decimating any programs that might fund public housing or empower immigrants or provide any other bulwarks against the raw power of cash.

That said, there's certainly more talk now about ways to resist the wholesale remaking of New York than there's been before in my lifetime, and an awful lot of activists who are doing everything in their power to put forward other visions of a sustainable city, like UPROSE in Sunset Park or the Queens groups like Woodside on the Move that are fighting back against that borough becoming the new Brooklyn. Systemic change is always hard and tiring and bloody, but every once in a while it actually succeeds, and usually in the least expected of ways — don’t forget that New York’s rent control laws were passed in response to temporary wartime housing shortages after World War II. The most that we can do is learn the lessons of the recent past, speak out, and push the powers that be, then see what happens.

  • Get your copy of The Brooklyn Wars.
  • Follow on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Save the date: Neil deMause and Tom Angotti, editor of Zoned Out!, will be giving a presentation on Brooklyn redevelopment at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza at 7pm on Monday, February 27.

1 comment:

onemorefoldedsunset said...

I'm happy to see UPROSE mentioned here. Maybe you could do an interview with Elizabeth Yeampierre, Jeremiah?