Books

Talkin' 'Bout My Gentrification: One Way to Tackle the Evils of Hipsterization

Actually talking with the neighborhood regulars and leaders is the best way to find out the community's needs as money moves in.

Photo Credit: Nina Westervelt (image: Eddie Cedeño, owner of Strangeways Coffee in Williamsburg, at Pearl's Social and Billy Club who speaks about gentrification from the perspective of a first-generation American in the book Meet the Regulars)

The following is an excerpt from the book Meet the Regulars: People of Brooklyn and the Places They Love by Joshua D. Fischer, now available from Skyhorse Publishing. It is adapted from the essay "Talkin' 'Bout My Gentrification."

In the summer of 2003, I moved into a three-story, three-bedroom, aluminum-sided apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. That year, the New York Times ran a story titled “Has Billburg Lost Its Cool?”—echoing all those early haters already claiming neighboring Williamsburg is dead. In 2008, a leading voice in neighborhood and housing data, the New York University Furman Center, released a report on the rapid rise in the valuation of homes throughout New York City’s boroughs between ’96 and ’06. One detail revealed real estate appreciation in Greenpoint and Williamsburg grew a whopping 193 percent over those 10 years. And in 2013, Business Insider reported that median household income in Williamsburg “shifted drastically over the past two decades, with much of the change happening between 2000 and 2012.” What followed, of course, was a dramatic rise in rents for everybody, including those longtime residents who didn’t see their own incomes increasing. That’s a lot of numbers to say that when I arrived in Brooklyn, Williamsburg wasn’t quite dead yet. However, that infamous picture of Williamsburg as a starving artist playground is pretty dead now.

While there are still some solid restaurants, bars, and even music venues opening up that continue in the spirit of what made Williamsburg “cool,” those establishments butt against the larger, encroaching smattering of thundering dance clubs, bro bars, towering hotels, tourists, and big box stores taking over mom-and-pop shops and beloved hipster hangouts. It’s a sad reality that the things that attract people to these neighborhoods, mainly the character, are eventually made to look and feel just like everywhere else. Of course, it’s an even sadder reality that when neighborhoods change like this, people who’ve been living there for decades are pushed out.

In my little purview, my first year also saw the first condo rising on the corner where I had just moved in on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. CondoLand in North Brooklyn only grew bigger and taller—there are now clusters of condos where that first one I saw originally planted its cinder feet, and so many others are now spread across the neighborhood and waterfront like the most gorgeous glass and steel plague you could never dream up. In case you’re uncertain of your own role in the hottest trend in cities like Brooklyn, the online magazine Slate recently came out with a “gentrifier calculator” and declared, “Gentrifiers are people with medium or high incomes moving into low-income neighborhoods, attracting new business but raising rents, and often contributing to tensions between new and long-term residents.” As respectful as I always tried to be, and as much as I tried to fit in, I also always understood that with my hipster hair and affluent suburban upbringing I was definitely a gentrifier. You heard me right: I am both complaining about gentrification and admitting I am a part of it. Ironic and annoying, I know. But, wait, there’s more.

(Illustration by Brendan Leach)

Growing up in the suburbs 20 minutes outside of Detroit, my understanding of a city was a place that was dark, dangerous, fucked-up, and, well, pretty fun. My parents had grown up in the city but left as adults. When I was a teen, I’d drive down the ghostly, wide highways to the city streets with plumes of steam rising from the manholes for indie rock shows at venues like the one where a one-armed man would “guard your car” for $5 (don’t pay him, and he’ll bust out your windows himself—impressive for only one arm!). So, years later, when I moved to Chicago and lived there for a full four years after college, experiencing a city like that, where you could walk (!) to rock shows from your cheap apartment in the Hispanic neighborhood of hardworking families and menacing gangbangers, was absolutely thrilling. I guess that’s what people call white privilege. And it looks like I’m guilty of that, too.

By the time I moved to Brooklyn from Chicago, city living seemed positively peaceful. While most violent offenses began rapidly declining in the '90s, and Greenpoint has been basically safe with some rough edges, what has increased here is grand larceny. (Hey, condo owners, lock your Audis and bolt down your 3-D ultra-wide curved screen TVs.) When I arrived, Greenpoint was mostly a lovely though gritty, quiet though often drunken, Polish neighborhood with affordable rents. And the very presence of people like me leads to improvements for some (a restored community pool! renovated public parks!) and damages for others (skyrocketing rents! shuttered longtime businesses!). Even though we weren’t the more moneyed and boring people who would follow us, we were the educated and cool people with cash in our pockets who led the Normals to the light like bees to artisanal honey. Like I said, I know that people like me help set this monstrous machine in motion after all those storied starving artists.

It’s a phenomenon that’s happening everywhere. I was part of it in Chicago and then Brooklyn. We’ve all seen it in hip cities throughout the States like Oakland and Austin, and it’s a growing issue in more cities like Boston and Seattle. With the way things are going, it could even hit Detroit. (Every time I tell an artistic 20-something in Brooklyn that I’m from Detroit, they either say they want to move there or they have friends who just moved there.) For this interview series, I spoke with around 50 regulars in Brooklyn—some of them similar to me, some of them very different—and the subject of gentrification came up ... a lot. My good friend Mauricio has been very active in the New York nonprofit community for over a decade. Whenever we talk about my projects, he challenges me to make them more helpful to social issues. It’s not the most scientific of surveys, but maybe Meet the Regulars can help just a little bit to give voice to those people who are in the throes of this great social and economic issue of our time. You’ve heard me talk about my gentrification. Thank you for humoring me. Now let’s hear what the various regulars said during the interviews in this book.

We can start with a sharp juxtaposition to me: Jeffrey Joseph, a veteran comic and actor who has also lived in his apartment for 12 years, but he’s being evicted because his Bed-Stuy landlord jacked up his rent, and he can’t afford it. “With gentrification, there’s stress,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t tell you the amount of people I hear talking about it—people who are longtime residents. Their rent is going up, or they are being forced to move, or someone told them about a workshop they should go to because people are trying to get them out of their place.”

Or how about Ayanna Prescod, the young blogger who grew up in Crown Heights and continues to live on the same street as her family. “People are really angry,” she said. “They don’t want any more condos or coffee shops. What they are angry about is that the new shops are just for the people moving into the neighborhood versus the people who have been here. They just want to feel included.” I think that last line is really powerful. Listen to that: “They just want to feel included.”

Even Pat Kiernan, the clean-cut (and Canadian!) NY1 TV news anchorman, feels the force of gentrification and wonders who all this new stuff is for. While people like me, and later Pat, definitely attract the change, isn’t it kind of gross how the developers who make bank off all this rapid change could not care less about really including the people who live there? “There is relentless pressure to develop property,” Pat said of his newly adopted neighborhood of Williamsburg. “Every piece of land that turns over, if it’s on the open market, it turns over at a price that the only thing you can do with it is build condos. You can’t build a bowling alley or a preschool. You get this haphazard construction with not particularly creative architecture.”

Or maybe, Pat could’ve mentioned the Dunkin’ Donuts (and later a Starbucks) that popped up around that time on the once mom-and-pop-shop–lined Bedford Avenue in the heart of Williamsburg. Bedford real estate is now heavily pursued by larger chain stores and has become flooded with tourists. Urban Outfitters has landed along with J.Crew, Ralph Lauren, soon a Whole Foods, and, wait for it, an Apple Store where my old indie pharmacy used to be. A couple years back, Crain’s New York Business reported at the end of 2014 that two properties that will be used entirely for retail (no affordable housing there) right by the L train stop on Bedford sold for a new record of about $40 million and “more than triple the next highest sale in Brooklyn in terms of price per buildable square foot, and about double the highest sale in Manhattan for the year.” The representative of the company who made this transaction said, “These two developments are the epitome of trophy assets.” Looks like we have a winner.

Of course, can you fault store and homeowners who have been around for decades and now have the amazing opportunity to cash in? All those people who’ve lived through so much in the neighborhood for decades can now get paid literally millions for their property. Who are we to moralize? Would you turn down that opportunity?

It’s complicated, and plenty of people feel conflicted about their role in the change, even when they’re trying to be a positive part of the neighborhood.

Take Eddie Cedeño, a young, hip Latino coffee shop owner in Bushwick, whose parents came to the States from Cuba and Ecuador. “A lot of people in this neighborhood are skeptical of gentrification,” he said. “As a first-generation American, it’s something I struggle with personally. I love this neighborhood. I want new things to open up. I own a small business. But these people remind me of my parents, and it’s like, ‘Oh, shit. We’re squeezing them out.’” And that’s an example with an indie business, not a corporate chain. The conflict is real.

Again, though, while people are getting squeezed out, you have to ask: For what? For whom? Big Bob Grady has an idea. He’s a regular at the delicious doughnut shop Peter Pan in Greenpoint, which has been around for nearly half a century. Bob is in his 70s. He spends hours at the donut shop chatting up the old-timers and young folks alike. “Everything that sells in Greenpoint,” he told me, “they turn into a luxury thing.”

Luxury. So that’s what it’s about. Who wants all this luxury? Maybe everybody. I know I want the luxury of one day having central air conditioning, a dishwasher, a laundry machine, and a backyard for my dog (and one day my kid) to run around. But luxury is crazy expensive in New York. Business Insider noted in 2015 that Brooklyn “has become the least-affordable housing market, relative to income, in the U.S.” To throw some numbers in there, the NYU Furman Center reported the median price of a condo in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in 2013 was $714,325, and the median asking rent was $3,100. So, if you earned the median household income of $51,450, your yearly rent would be 72 percent of your income. Did your jaw drop? That’s the price of luxury, baby.

I hope this assortment of regulars in Brooklyn gives voice to the various people who are dealing with gentrification on different levels. When you hear their voices, when you see their faces, you get a better understanding of their struggle. And it becomes tougher to simply ignore them and their needs—like the simple desire to want to feel included. Right?

I interviewed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for this book, and when I asked about those luxury condo developers and people getting priced out of their neighborhoods, he responded with a reality check. “We can’t be so idealistic that we’re not realistic,” he said. “A person is not building to lose money. They’re taking risks to make money.” At the same time, Mr. Adams recognized that the situation is difficult, but he didn’t neglect what our country is so often about. “As Gandhi said, ‘There’s enough for human need, there’s not enough for human greed,’” Adams said. “Some of these developers are greedy. The goal is to make sure there are places that are affordable for people to live. It’s not an easy solution. The foundation of our country is: ‘Whatever the market demands.’”

Eric Adams at Woodland, where he is interviewed as a regular in the book. (Photo by Calli Higgins)

My first year here, I went to what you might call a punk picnic on the then undeveloped Williamsburg waterfront. You know, the one that’s now got its own skyline of condos overlooking Manhattan. On that day in 2003, I was with a group of black-clad anarchists and socialists whom I followed through an opening in the fence guarding the undeveloped property (there’s always an opening in every fence). We trekked this giant overgrown field of weeds on the water. It was beautiful. It was also disgusting: glass shards, used condoms, syringes, and so much stupid trash. A friend in the group told me the developers were going to build condos there. I remember her saying, “Isn’t that terrible that they want to change this?” And I remember thinking, “Shit, they better change this.” Question is: Did they really change it for the better? Did all the affordable housing they promised go in? (No, it did not. It’s right here in this headline from DNAinfo in 2013 that reads “City Built Less Tthan 2 Percent of Affordable Units Promised to Williamsburg.”) Is it such a great place now that it is totally overrun with condo-dwellers and tourists who crowd up the area? Not so much. But then again, isn’t it nice when you, the everyday New Yorker, safely find an open spot on the waterfront and stand on the river, feel the breeze, and drink in that majestic New York City skyline across the way? Undeniably, yes. Of course, wouldn’t it be better if more people with real roots in the neighborhood could affordably enjoy a room with that view?

I was happily surprised when Ayanna, the blogger with her own strong roots in Crown Heights, also told me, “Some of the change is good.” However, she clarified, “I don't know if people are asking questions about what is needed in the neighborhood. There's a need for a daycare center, a library. There's a need for so much more than a condo or a coffee shop. There's a lot that this neighborhood needs.” The people are talking. So, who's listening?

Meet the Regularscover provided courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing. You can buy the book here.

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Joshua D. Fischer is the author of the book Meet the Regulars: People of Brooklyn and the Places They Love. He received his master’s in journalism from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. He’s been published in the New York magazine partner Bedford + BoweryNYLON, and Salon. Joshua lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.