In New York City, complaining about gentrification is like complaining about the weather. Instead of forecasting storms and heat waves, you track rising rents and razed buildings. Just the other weekend I found myself in a gentrification conversation with a woman from my neighborhood yoga — yes, yoga — class. It was after class and we had both gone to the same newish sandwich shop to pick up lunch. She was drinking coffee from a just-opened cafe, which led to a discussion of all the recent changes in the neighborhood — the new restaurants, the construction sites, and of course, the rent hikes. It went without saying that we were not 100 percent in favor of new development. The charm of Red Hook, our Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood, is its sleepy, artsy, bare-bones vibe. But our real discomfort had to do with the fact that over half of Red Hook’s residents live in public housing in need of repair and renovation. There are also many private properties and businesses still damaged after Hurricane Sandy. It’s safe to say that new cafes are not among the neighborhood’s urgent needs. And yet, it’s nice to have a place to get a cauliflower sandwich, especially after yoga class when you’re feeling borderline-vegetarian. Oh, the guilt of the gentrifier!
I’m making fun of myself, already, because it feels impossible to talk about gentrification without irony. And yet, that’s exactly what journalist DW Gibson gets New Yorkers to do in his fascinating collection of interviews, The Edge Becomes The Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century. Despite its grand subtitle, it’s a quick, irresistible read, one I gobbled up over the course of two days this winter, around the time of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “State of the City” address, which emphasized plans for affordable housing throughout the city. A week later, The New York Times ran a series of investigative articles about the high-end real estate market in Manhattan. Meanwhile, my neighbors were buzzing over sketches for a possible waterfront development, a proposal that would likely increase the pace of gentrification in Red Hook. As I followed these news stories, I thought often of Gibson’s interviews, which are not only timely, but expansive and wide-ranging. Gibson understands that a conversation about gentrification can be an opening to talk about everything from the nuts and bolts of tenant law, to the habits of graffiti artists, to the legacy of Jane Jacobs, to the future of the de Blasio administration, to the popularity of Project Runway, to the basic human question of how to get along with other people.
Gibson’s subjects are impressively varied: a real estate agent, a drug dealer, a gallerist, an artist, a student, a director of a homeless shelter, a union organizer, a state senator, a landlord, and a shop owner — to name just a few. Most subjects live in Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan. There are also many interviews with residents of particular neighborhoods, a mix of natives and outsiders, property owners and renters. Many of Gibson’s subjects chafe at the word gentrification, finding the term too vague for their specific concerns. One of the best definitions comes from Paula Segal, a lawyer and the founder of 596 Acres, an advocacy group that helps people gain access to vacant public lands:
It’s a nebulous word that has to do with the movement of capital and increased land worth. But as far as dealing with the work on the ground, day-to-day, the issues are about displacement and about people’s quality of life and about the places they live.
“Displacement” is another generic term that covers a variety of situations, anything from the recently-arrived middle class family which “gentrifies” a neighborhood and moves when rents become too high, to the long-term tenant who is illegally bribed and/or coerced to leave a rent-controlled apartment, to the graffiti artist who can’t find as many surfaces to display his work because “the city is shinier.” Like “gentrification,” “displacement” fosters an us-them mentality, a sense that there’s one group of new people arriving and another older, more authentic group going; in fact, the rapid development of certain neighborhoods has little do with the behaviors of people living in those neighborhoods, and everything to do with economic policies that allow for rapid development. One of Gibson’s interviewees, a community organizer in Crown Heights, says that she more or less ignores cultural critiques of gentrification:
I tend to think about gentrification as a sort of structural process where real estate capital sees growth opportunity in neighborhoods and comes in and tries to do neighborhood turnover. Real estate developers see a difference between what the neighborhood is currently making in rent capital and what its potential is and that gap is something landowners can sort of exploit and that’s where gentrification happens.
The prospect of a “neighborhood turnover” sounds great to some people and depressing to others. You hear both sides of the debate in this book, including a banker who believes that Michael Bloomberg “oversaw the most successful stimulus plan in the history of time:”
…in terms of his economic development plans, you gotta be in awe of what he did. This isn’t by accident. This is pure genius. The city has put itself in a position to live, to compete, to continue to fight the issues that they haven’t gotten on top of — and those are big issues. He certainly hasn’t eradicated poverty. He hasn’t turned the education system into a grand shining example. But he has certainly allowed the city to have resources to go fight those fights. Whereas go look at Chicago. Go look at Philadelphia. Go look all around the country and there’s no money. You know, at least in New York City there’s money.
The banker goes on to theorize as to why public services — hospitals, housing, schools — are so dysfunctional: “they don’t provide the right product and they don’t provide it at the right price, and they don’t provide the right value.” Here Gibson, can’t help commenting to the reader: “It’s hard to remember that Alan [the banker] is still talking about schools and hospitals and public housing, but the language of business knows no boundaries. In Bloomberg’s New York, economic wisdom can override any other public service wisdom and so should serve as rudder in all cases.”
Gibson makes his political views known, but he is not an overbearing interviewer. He lets people talk freely about their jobs, their apartments, and their finances. Occasionally he will interrupt a monologue to provide the reader with necessary historical context, or to define an obscure term. Only at the end of the book does Gibson give his take on the word gentrification:
Gentrification is our word of choice because we have settled into the choice to let money frame our relationship to land. This abstract thing called money is, itself, in the process of abstracting land: a patch of earth where a building was constructed and used for work and shelter by one group of people has become an investment for another group of people in another neighborhood or state or country…
If the interests of those who spend massive amounts of time in the city are never weighted against the interests of those who spend massive amounts of money in that same city then New York will not only become hollowed out and demoralized, but also economically unsustainable.
I suspect that Gibson’s left-leaning politics might bother some readers, but I never felt that this book asked for agreement. (Although, if you haven’t already guessed, I tend to agree with Gibson’s point of view.) Instead, I felt this book asked readers to think about all the different kinds of investments a person could make in her community. Yes, there’s financial investment (buying coffee, sandwiches, apartments) but there’s also social investment, emotional investment, cultural investment, environmental investment, political investment. Despite the quotes I’ve chosen, it’s not a book that’s overly concerned with money or even place, but people and their day-to-day lives. In this way, Gibson’s book sometimes felt more like a novel than a work of journalism — or maybe, the notes for a big, contemporary “the way we live now” New York book, a project that is often attempted but rarely achieved with grace. Maybe New York changes too quickly to be captured in traditional narrative, and a series of interviews like this is the closest we can get.
Above all, this book is populated with great characters. Reading it, hearing the voices of my neighbors, I was reminded of how smart and funny New Yorkers are, how resourceful, how ambitious, how curious, how open-minded, how talkative and friendly. It was a reminder that New York City’s residents will always be its greatest asset — not its skyscrapers or its waterfront parks or even its cultural institutions. When New York lets its public housing go, when it lets its schools go, when it lets its hospitals go, it’s letting its people go, and — to use objective economic terms — that’s a valuable resource going to waste.