NYC: Gentrification and Personhood

After moving to New York four months ago, the most frustrating thing I’ve felt so far hasn’t been the noise pollution or the rats or the delayed subways; but honestly, has been the reality of gentrification.

There is a distinct paradox embedded in the American Dream – does it exist or not, and, if so, how? On one side of the railroad tracks, the perspective of such a dream in face of gentrification is a dead or dying American Dream. But in many other neighborhoods, the American Dream is alive and well. The problem is complex and ancient.

An unclaimed bar with a diverse yet weak neighborhood identity (perhaps best described as local, divey, hip hop/hard rap bar), Carmelo’s, opened a month ago – just two blocks from my home in Bushwick. It is vital to note that this is a densely Latino-populated neighborhood.

I visited Carmelo’s tonight, alone after work for a beer before I ventured the final two blocks home in the dead Brooklyn winter. I attempted to talk with the bartender and the conversation fell flat. I struck a conversation with an animated and dynamic man standing next to me. We discussed gentrification in the neighborhood and the overflow of youth, money, hipness that was bleeding out from Manhattan creeping through Brooklyn. The infection of money has made its way to this neighborhood, Bushwick – and is aggressively bullying out my Latino neighbors and raising prices in the grocery and rent.

My exuberant and lively bar mate encouraged his personal revolution. He has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years and calls himself ‘OG Bushwick’ Mike. He’s seen the shit. His bold and foundationally-sound proposition was to boycott rent and spend money only at local establishments. Personally invested in the infinitely deep question of race and creating and sustaining revolutions – my bookshelf is currently flooded with these topics – I was acutely attentive to this man.

As I was probing Bushwick Mike, the barback with two fists declared (in Spanish) that I was ‘the’ problem. While I don’t think he’s wrong, I don’t know what’s right. This barback aggressively interrupted the conversation between Mike and I to attempt to humiliate my accidental situation as 1) a white and 2) a male – two qualities I’ve never been able to control. And he succeeded; I was humiliated.

I have two equal but opposite feelings: I loathe that I’m passively evicting the greatest tenants of the greatest city in the world; I love that I can live at a rate that is affordable to me in the greatest city in the world. By being able to afford a more expensive rent in Brooklyn than what was once the going-rate, I unintentionally and inadvertently pressure the local New Yorker out of their neighborhood. The same is true as I am pressured (eh, gentrified?) away  from Manhattan housing due to what I would consider insane pricing.

The barback was accurately shunning the migration of money and endangered lifestyle, culture, and neighborhood of Brooklyn; but he inaccurately identified the Person – who happens to be a white guy – that was in front of him. He only saw a white dude. He missed the fact that I am a person. If you read that and said, “Ohh, boohoo, poor white guy,” then you, too, missed the problem. I trust that you’ll keep reading.

I will continue to frequent Carmelo’s, not only for the proximity to my home and their cheap prices, but also for the culture they support.

As a middle class, white dude, there are a lot of things to say – many of them are wrong. As I’ve written the above (several) sentence(s), I have sighed more than a dozen times. It’s easy to be an ignorant white male – it’s the class of power. Conversely, it has proven to be very difficult to be a culturally sensitive, empathetic, proactive, tuned-in, intentional, informed white male. The barback really did affect me and I have felt existentially sick to my stomach in finding what, if any, role I can serve in this neighborhood.

Nobody in their right mind would identify as being disloyal. Everybody considers themselves trustworthy. I’ve not yet met a person who was unpatriotic. And, seriously, who among us is racist? Loyalty, honesty, patriotism, race-neutral are qualities that are assumed. Yet, you and I both know there are disloyal, dishonest, unpatriotic, and/or racist people in the world. The problem is that nobody identifies as such.

I humbly ask, whose neighborhood is this? And can I fit in?

Carmen, a longtime-resident of my apartment, called me into her home one December afternoon. She showed me the outdated bathroom and busted holes in her floor and leaky pipes. Carmen hasn’t been able to get our landlord – the same guy who has quickly serviced our clogged drains and dripping roof – to help her. The difference between her and us? She’s locked in by a cheaper state-mandated rent-stabilization. Her rent is hundreds less than what I pay…to live in the same neighborhood, the same space.

The lifelong Bushwick fella who drank a few beers alongside of me last night encouraged me to fight the injustice that I only recognized from the outside…but that Carmen tangibly experiences daily. The barback of Carmelo’s openly shamed me for being a contributing factor to this outright cut-throat, capitalisitically driven travesty.

The answer largely begins with awareness of the problem. Racism is one of the greatest and oldest problems in this country. It’s alive and thriving. Much of racism could expire and endanger the remaining racist threads if people were more plainly aware of the problem. The next step, as best as my amateur philosophy can tell, is acknowledging each other as people – not whites or blacks. People. We are people. I am not a redhead. I’m a person who happens to have red hair. I’m not white; I’m a person. When we think of each other as people, we place everybody on an equal playing ground where ‘rights’ can be addressed and equally divvied out. This shift in mentality acknowledging personhood above other accidental qualities will change the country.

I unfortunately suppose that all I can do is move out. But, wait, no. Moving out would mean there was one less person who was aware of the problem. Staying, means there’s one more person here who will carry on the conversation and ask each person their name. One more person who smiles. One more person who strives to bring intentionality to the neighborhood. One more person who is aware of where their dollars go. I promise, despite whatever little that means, that I will maintain awareness of my presence – but more so, will actively interact with my neighborhood. The neighborhood that has existed here decades longer than my privileged self has. And I will allow my money to vote for these people. Because why? Having the ‘locals’ around, the very strong people who drive this world, is vital. Wealth doesn’t turn the world. The people and the culture and the life that dictates the money turn the world. I hope only to be a microscopic player in the grand game of humanity that truly allows Bushwick to be New York.

I think it’s racey (pun brutally intended) but painfully honest to end with this, but I received this SMS after the initial publication of this post: “It’s weird being white.”

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