Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don't Gentrify Me.

It was the middle of the day and I was meeting a friend for lunch. We were going to Park Slope for some sushi. My friend parked her car a block or so down the street, walked over to my place and then frantically called my cell phone. There is a disturbing gentlemen down here she said. Could you kindly come right away? At least I think that’s what she said. It was probably closer to: Get your fucking ass down here now!

Well I got my ass downstairs, toot sweet I might add, and my friend was standing over by the street sign looking perturbed. Before I could get a few steps from my front door, I was approached by an old black man. He clothes were in tatters and the smell of alcohol preceded him. He squared me up.

“And you can get out of here too, you patronizing cracker!”

Then he spit on me.

It was a not a direct hit. It grazed my left shin, and slowly dribbled down my pant leg, terminating on the pavement. I think, in the man’s defense, he was aiming for the ground in front of me. I did what I always do when I am confronted by adversity: I backed down like the spineless coward that I am. I think I actually thanked the man for spitting on me. The man shuffled down the street, sipping his disheveled forty and cursing.

My friend, who is a bit of a firecracker, looked like she was going to chase him and tackle him like a security guard running down a trespassing baseball fan. I asked her if she was all right. She was not spit on, but the man did insinuate that the only reason she was in this neighborhood was to “get some of that black dick.” She doesn’t really like coming to Crown Heights anymore.

This has been the only trouble I’ve gotten myself into in New York, and in reality it wasn’t that bad. But I thought about it a lot. The man was clearly disturbed. Drunk, old, probably homeless. But his animosity had to be coming from somewhere. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see it was coming from my race. He didn’t just spit on me, he spit on me because I am a patronizing cracker. It's clear. I don’t belong in Crown Heights.

I don’t imagine this man goes around spitting on every white man or accosting every white woman; I think it had to do with where I chose to live.

Unlike its bordering neighboroods, Crown Heights hasn’t been gentrified yet. But it soon will be. The gentrify-ers are coming; the real estate agents and brokers have their eyes on it, salivating as they imagine the rent they can levee on trendy hipsters looking for some phony street cred. Then the coffee shops will come in, the clubs and the underground music venues right behind them. And of course the organic supermarket; that will be the crown jewel of the new Crown Heights.

There are many types of gentrification. Often in New York City, an influx of artists is the catalyst. Wikipedia describes this type of gentrification as such:

…an artist colony in the city is transformed from a poor to a rich neighborhood when artists and sub-culture aficionados (e.g. hipsters, hippies, et al.) live in poor neighborhoods of devalued real estate, because of the low rents, central locale in the city proper, and "gritty" cultural “sense of authenticity”, of being true to life. As the bohemian character of the community grows, it appeals "not only to committed participants, but also to sporadic consumers" who eventually economically push out the earlier arrival sub-culture aficionados. Hence gentrification’s economic eviction of hippies from the East Village, Manhattan, New York City, in the 1960’s.

I’ve described this happening to the Village in Manhattan in my post, That’s New York For You. I believe I have mentioned it often. Gentrification is a very hot word in New York City. Virtually everybody deals with it, has strong opinions on it. You hear the discussions in subways and bars and office rooms. Because gentrification is a rapidly moving socio-economic phenomena, there are people who remember the neighborhoods the way they used to be. And I can’t imagine they like it. Often the neighborhoods the artists congregate in are ethnic enclaves, and the arrival of the typically white, suburban middle class taints the character, perverts the heritage. And, of course, raises the price of living. The natives move on to another neighborhood, waiting for it to happen all over again.

Crown Heights has remained relatively untouched. But then again, I came here. Perhaps I’m an indication. My roommates and I are the only white people on our street, maybe for many streets. And we look like hipsters. Our scraggly beards, our argyle sweaters, our fridge full of ironic malt liquor.

And maybe that old man who spit on me has seen this before.

He knows the signs and he wants us out. It is patronizing for us to assume that it’s OK to live here.

But I’m not an apologist. I may be a pussy, but I like to think I hold people accountable (at least from the relative distance of the internet.) No matter what we may symbolize to this delusional old man, what he did to me and especially to my friend was abhorrent, and it makes me lose my empathy for him. The anger is noble; the way it so often manifests itself is shameful.

I try to keep my wits about me when I walk alone. But I would be lying if I said I’ve ever felt unsafe on my street. The neighbors are all friendly, they all keep to themselves. They say hello when we pass. It’s unfair to make a judgment on Crown Heights based on the actions of one drunk. But it’s hard to ignore.

The trendsetters are coming to Brooklyn. That's for certain. Who they may ultimately displace is unknown.

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