Monday, June 7, 2010
My intention was to never divulge any kind of personal information on this blog, but for this topic I need to mention some personal details: I'm white, I don't have very much money in the bank, and I live in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bed Stuy, for those of you who don't know, is a historically black, historically fairly poor and crime-ridden neighborhood. Do the Right Thing was filmed here, and so was Dave Chapelle's Block Party. Mos Def and Talib Kweli grew up around here, as did the Notorious B.I.G., who may have rapped in the basement of my building back when it doubled as a kind of makeshift club (Biggie also reportedly sold crack a few blocks away). There's a mural of Ol' Dirty Bastard's driver's license on a wall outside a liquor store near my building, and there's other murals scattered through the neighborhood that memorialize lesser-known folks who died early thanks to guns and drugs.
I'm not trying to brag about how “hood” my 'hood is—and it certainly has gotten safer in the past few years—but there's some areas of Bed Stuy that are, undeniably, pretty rough. There are a few corners where crack merchants hang out, a bunch of project towers, and countless fried chicken franchises, liquor stores, and bodegas where you can buy beer without an ID any time of the day or night. Bed Stuy's also home to a huge amount of diversity. Within the radius of a few blocks you can find Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Africans (I mean African Africans, not “African Americans”), American-born blacks, Orthodox Jews, robe-wearing Muslims, Christians who attend hole-in-the-wall storefront churches with names like “The Congregation of the Journeyers of the Holy Spirit,” and even a few white folks, like me.
Well, more than “a few” white folks these days. From my window, I'm watching the fascinating, stop-motion process known as “gentrification.” I guess I'm a part of that process too, even though I didn't ask to be. White people looking for cheap rents—mostly ex-students and the like--have started to trickle in to Bed Stuy, mostly around the edges, and as if it's all part of some master plan the organic food stores and fancy coffee shops have come in with them. You can see sociological trends happen in real time, which is exciting and depressing at the same time. In the past year, a new coffee and wine bar opened up three blocks away, a brunch-serving “gastropub” appeared just down the road, and the building next to mine was transformed from a vacant house into a classy condominium, that people (white people) actually bought. There are other condos in Bed Stuy now too, even some in fancy new glass buildings that look like they've been transplanted from SoHo.
This is part of the urban life cycle, right? The poor, struggling students and artists move to a neighborhood—usually a neighborhood that has a lot of ethnic minorities and poor people in it—because they like cheap rent. Then some businesses that cater to those artists and students open, like new bars and restaurants, and then more white people who like bars and restaurants and feel that the slight scent of urban decay adds “authenticity” or whatever move in, and then rents go up and buildings get renovated or torn down and rebuilt and some people probably protest or whatever but it doesn't make a difference, and before you know it there's a Whole Foods in the Bowery. And the poor people, including the next generation of poor students and artists, find somewhere else to live.
I'm guilty of being part of this, because I enjoy some of the services gentrification provides, like good coffee places that have wi-fi, bars that have fancy beers that taste like fruit and chocolate on tap, and attractive young white women walking around during the summer months. But what I don't like about gentrification—and why I wish all of the white people would just stop pouring into Bed Stuy, can be contained in this anecdote:
I'm getting on the G subway line to go to work, and I need a new Metrocard. So I wait in line behind a few people waiting to use the machine, which, as is so often the case at the Bedford-Nostrand stop, isn't working—this time, it's not taking credit cards. The young, earnest-looking white woman (she looked like an sophomore at NYU) who was dutifully feeding her card to the machine, eventually figured this out and turned to the young woman behind her and asked if there was an ATM nearby. Of course, this being Bed Stuy, every corner bodega has an ATM in it, and there's a bodega on nearly every corner. After being told to go to the bodega right next to the station, the young white woman paused and said, “Yeah, but uh, is it legit?”
I'll stop here to note an important, often overlooked facet of gentrification: the first wave of poor white people who move in (including me) don't want the neighborhood to change, even though their arrival is the first step in a process that will change the neighborhood beyond recognition. I like living in Bed Stuy and not so I can impress people with my “realness.”
First of all, I like the cheap rent. I like buying cheap beer at (sometimes non-legit) bodegas that are open late and always friendly. I like the little kids hanging out on their stoops at one in the morning, and I like the teenagers who roll blunts on the steps of my building after buying weed from my neighbor. I like saying hello to the friendly homeless guys who might be crackheads, and I like walking down Franklin Avenue when the elderly, welfare-dependent drunks are sitting in the sun and hollering at each other across the street. On Sundays, I like looking out my window and watching the old ladies in insane hats navigate the church steps with their canes and walkers. I even like walking past the derelict hulks of vacant brownstones, or at least I prefer those to the newer, glass-and-steel structures going up lately. I don't need a Whole Foods, or even a Trader Joes, and I definitely don't need any more “hip” bars designed to cater to gentrifiers. If these things come in and the neighborhood gets “whiter” and my rent goes up, I'll probably move. If my rent goes up too much, I'll be forced to.
So, to the girl who's looking for a “legit” ATM: get the fuck out of Bed Stuy and get your parents to find you a place in Park Slope or Williamsburg or Brooklyn Heights. You probably shop at Fresh Direct rather than supporting the local shops, you're probably scared of your own neighbors, and you'd probably spend your time at the Starbucks that your kind will inevitably bring. I'd rather live next to a drug dealer than you, because at least a drug dealer is a part of the community in a way you clearly don't want to be. People like you give white people in black neighborhoods a bad name.