My friends and I talk about gentrification ALL the time, and have for years…but as MoCADA founder Laurie Cumbo points out in this great NY1 interview, gentrification is often a topic that gets discreetly avoided “in mixed company.” Two years ago I moved into my friend’s apartment here in Brooklyn and immediately noticed that the building had changed—there were many more white residents, and those who owned their co-op apartments sometimes seemed at odds with long-time renters (who were primarily people of color). Within a few months, our beloved Caribbean doorman was replaced. The elevator got a stylish renovation. Then the custodians were also replaced. Has the building “improved”? One African American man who has lived here over forty years says absolutely. There are security cameras throughout the building. You can now get soy milk at the corner bodega, along with some organic products I would have had to trek to Park Slope to find in previous years. Sometimes I get on the elevator and wonder who’ll talk to me today—some of the white residents are super friendly, others drop their eyes and exit as quickly as possible. Some will chat you up in the laundry room, then walk past you on the street the next day without saying a word. Some long-time black residents will also cut their eyes at me or offer a grudging “hello.” I wrote a ten-minute play about gentrification shortly after moving in—it’s called Quality, and features a young, professional black woman who knows she functions as “a wedge”:
COLLEEN (white, sincere): It must feel strange, watching the neighborhood change so much.
EVA (black): I was bitter at first. But then I realized it wasn’t all bad. There’s a new internet café, and I can finally buy the Sunday Times at the bodega. This building’s also a lot nicer than it used to be. And let’s face it—I’m part of the problem.
JANE (white, snooty): You? I don’t believe it!
EVA: I’m what they call “a wedge.”
COLLEEN: A wedge?
EVA: Yeah. When I left for college, I never imagined someday I’d be back in this neighborhood. But then my grandmother passed away—
COLLEEN: Oh, I’m so sorry.
EVA: And we had to decide what we were going to do with her apartment. My mother wanted to let it go—she lives in Orlando now. But it just didn’t feel right—I practically grew up in this building. So I moved in while I finished graduate school, and then once I got a job, I bought it!
JANE: So how does that make you a wedge?
EVA: Well, I’m the kind of black person white folks don’t mind living next to. They come, check out the building, they see a young black professional like me (so clean and articulate!) and they figure it can’t be that bad living in the ‘hood. One or two move in, then three or four, and next thing you know—I’m in the minority! [She laughs gaily, but the other women only smile weakly...]
My play has a happy ending (of sorts) but how does the gentrification narrative really end? If I had to leave my friend’s co-op apartment, could I afford to find a new apartment in this neighborhood? Word is they’re building a glass skyscraper at the end of the block that will overlook Prospect Park—and price most current renters out of the market. Then there’s the new basketball stadium slated for construction in downtown Brooklyn…gone are the days my optimist friends and I used to paint murals about keeping “unity in the community.” Now the new white residents paint murals in my neighborhood—and some of them are quite beautiful. Can we imagine a community where blacks and whites get along, or does class now determine who your allies are? In A Wish After Midnight Genna says,
I’ve spent my whole life here in New York. But in this city, people are separate. Blacks and Latinos mix sometimes, but Asians mostly keep to themselves. Whites might live near us, but they don’t live with us. At least that’s how things used to be. When I took the train, most of the white people used to get off before me. But these days more and more of them are staying on the train. Mama says they’re pushing deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. So far no white people have come to live in our neighborhood. Mama says that’s the only good thing about living in such a crappy building. White folks are too scared to move in.
Today I went to the artists’ talk at MoCADA and afterward filmed this *great* interview with my good friend, Rosamond S. King. Unfortunately, it was really loud in the gallery so I hope you can hear her answers because they give all of us a LOT to think about. Here’s part of Rosa’s installation, “Gentrification is…”: