Web Only / Features » May 13, 2015
‘It’s Not for Us to Live In’: New Yorkers Speak Out About Gentrification
An oral history challenges preconceived notions of gentrification as something one can be ‘for’ or ‘against.’
Readers who pick up Gibson’s book expecting guilt and innocence to be drawn cleanly across the lines of race or class will be challenged immediately by a singular character named mTkalla, Gibson’s first interviewee.
The latest in a panoply of books about gentrification in New York City stands out for its acknowledgement up front that the subject—or at least, the language used to discuss it—has become rather tawdry and stale. DW Gibson, author of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, tells the reader that he set out to understand “how gentrification affects lives.” But he soon realized that the word itself is “useless—rendered so by overuse, too broad to adequately capture a huge range of disparate experiences, contexts, and, ultimately, meanings.”
Over the next 300 pages, Gibson gives us a richer and more varied vocabulary to discuss the phenomenon by transcribing the thoughts of more than 30 New Yorkers who fill a plethora of roles in the urban ecosystem—harassed tenants and well-meaning landlords, community activists and committed artists, a progressive politician and a former subprime lender. Instead of opening with the stories of displacement typically associated with gentrification, Gibson begins his journey amid real-estate professionals, and we hear first from voices who see both beauty and profit in the recent urban upheaval. By the end, Gibson focuses more closely on the stories of hard-pressed tenants and small-business owners fighting to remain in their communities. But by initially stacking the deck with surprising and nuanced characters, The Edge Becomes the Center issues a challenge to any preconceived notion of gentrification as something one can be casually “for” or “against.”
Readers who pick up Gibson’s book expecting guilt and innocence to be drawn cleanly across the lines of race or class will be challenged immediately by a singular character named mTkalla, Gibson’s first interviewee. A black, Brooklyn-born real estate agent and self-described “poet, filmmaker, music dude,” mTkalla compares real estate to art and music. Each, he says, are “about people coming together and being understanding and being courageous and breaking through the space where they were and making something new in the universe for themselves.”
Matt Krivich is another unexpected defender of real estate development. A 40-year-old whose race is never stated, Krivich grew up in a Cleveland suburb. A 14-year drug addiction left him homeless for a time. He is now director of operations at the Bowery Mission, a men's shelter in a long-seedy area of Manhattan. The Mission today finds itself flanked by the shiny New Museum of Contemporary Art and a former Salvation Army building recently purchased by a global hotel chain for $30 million. Krivitch, however, is unfazed by the changes.
Things evolve, right? I remember when I was younger we had a forest behind our house. Huge trees that were amazingly tall and over the years I realized that the tall trees were all gone because they had all fallen, but there were smaller trees where the taller trees had fallen and the forest was thicker…That was the evolution of the forest behind our house. And that’s happening here in the city as well. Neighborhoods evolve and I think if you’re willing to be a part of that process you’re really able to enjoy that process and enjoy your city.
This is one of the more eloquent expressions of a typical argument: Cities are all about change, and to object to the wholesale transformation of neighborhoods is to stand in the way of progress.
Yet Matt is speaking from the privileged position of someone who cannot be displaced. “We’ve got Landmark status,” his colleague Julian Padarath tells Gibson. “Historic structure. So we’re not going anywhere.”
Few buildings or people have this kind of security. Indeed, a longtime Lower East Side squatter tells Gibson about the process of “scalping,” in which landlords remove the masonry from the front of buildings so they can’t become landmarked and protected.
As the book goes on, more such tales of landlord villainy emerge. Noelia Calero, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan-born woman who has lived with her family in hipper-by-the-hour Bushwick since she was 6, tells Gibson that her landlord destroyed their bathroom and kitchen to intimidate them into leaving so he could jack up the rent. Gibson meets Calero in housing court, where she is fighting her landlord’s abuses. “Housing court, to me, is all about landlords and whoever has money, and forget everybody else,” Calero says, summing up the workings of power and property in New York. Asking Calero to “enjoy that process,” as Matt Krivich and others do, is farcical.
In Gibson’s interview with Ephraim, a pseudonymous Hasidic landlord (and an associate of mTkalla’s, it turns out), we have the dubious privilege of hearing directly from a villain himself. Ephraim turned his first profits by scooping up soon-to-be-foreclosed buildings at bargain prices and renting out the units before they were seized by the bank. Now that he's firmly established in what mTkalla calls “the real estate game,” Ephraim always tries to empty his new buildings of black residents to attract white tenants. “I know it’s a little bit racist, but it’s not,” he assures Gibson. “They’re the ones that are paying, and I have to give them what they want.”
'Finally they're fixing Brooklyn'
One recurring sentiment enunciated by residents of gentrifying neighborhoods whom Gibson speaks with is that they do not resent change itself so much as the insultingly obvious fact that they are not invited to participate in it.
Calero in Bushwick suggests as much when she intimates her modest hopes to Gibson:
Before they didn’t care about cleaning up Brooklyn. Then they started to build things and it started becoming nicer. There’s less drugs. There’s still crime but not on this block. I feel safe walking around my neighborhood. And I thought finally they’re fixing Brooklyn. But I didn’t know it was at the expense of the people who were already here. Before it was a lot of Hispanics and a lot of blacks. Now you don’t see a lot of them. You see a lot of white people. It’s not for us to live in. It’s for other people. But I’m like, “Ooh, I want to try that restaurant. It looks nice.” I like organic stuff, too!
After acknowledging that the essence of New York City is change, a community organizer suggests to Gibson that “the question is who's going to be driving the train.”
In a book that’s short on policy and long on testimony, this is the closest to prescriptive that Gibson gets. Giving himself the last word, he’s critical of “the choice to let money frame our relationship to land.” If The Edge Becomes the Center joins the canon of urban-history classics, it will be because, rather than offer a mere reiteration of the problem and the usual pat solutions, Gibson records the early stirrings of what will have to be a profoundly spirited resistance. Noelia Calero shows us where to start:
There are days when I want to throw in the towel but when we leave this building or have to leave Brooklyn it has to be when I want. Not when someone wants to kick me out like an animal. We have to stick together to be forceful. So I say no. I say we’re going to do this. We’re going to be treated with respect until this is fixed.
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Richard Kreitner, a fifth-generation resident of Brooklyn, New York, is on the editorial staff of The Nation.