The Gentrifier’s Burden

A couple of weeks back, two articles arrived in my inbox in quick succession:

The first, in the Wall Street Journal, described how the crazy pace of luxury housing construction in Brooklyn — more than 21,000 new rental units expected in the next four years — could lead to a “glut” of apartments that could cool off the borough’s soaring rent growth.

The second, an editorial in Crain’s New York, argued that the solution to “economic segregation” in New York (read: ghettos), since rich people resist having the poor show up on their doorstep, is to “gentrify East New York” as soon as possible and let “the city’s entrepreneurial community imbue it with restaurants, shops and other amenities” that can be enjoyed by all.

Though most non-wealthy Brooklynites’ gut reaction to the two headlines might be diametrically opposed — “we can only hope” and “ewwwwwww,” respectively — the two pieces are really of a piece. If New York’s real estate industry had a house organ, it would be both the WSJ and Crain’s (and probably the Times real estate section), and taken together, these two articles convey the free-market line on the city’s growing affordable housing crisis: If only we could get rid of rent regulations and let developers charge whatever they want, they would build so much new housing that rents would fall and we’d all live in a utopia where rich cats and poor dogs would live side by side in market-based harmony.

The problem, of course, is that it’s never worked that way. Sure, there have been housing gluts in the past — my first several apartments in New York were all in buildings that had been constructed for a higher income bracket than I was in at the time, but which eventually became available to me because the original target market went elsewhere. That wasn’t because of new urban construction, though — it was mostly thanks to redlining and the Interstate Highway Act and racial covenants, all of which drew off wealthier white residents to the suburbs, and left lots of room for me and my friends to inhabit in the city proper in the 1970s and ’80s. (At least until the kids and grandkids of those suburbanites rediscovered it and came rushing back in the ’90 and ’00s.)

A deeper look, in fact, at the WSJ and Crain’s pieces reveals some alternate explanations of what’s going on. Sure, Brooklyn housing construction is going berserk, thanks in part to the borough being so hot for high-end renters (one recent report has average Brooklyn rents at more than $3,400, though it’s important to note that this defines “Brooklyn” as “the parts white people are willing to live in”), but thanks also to a slew of rezonings (many of the biggest new rentals are in the downtown Brooklyn area that was newly opened to high-rise development in 2004, famously displacing much of the Fulton Mall) and to pending changes in the 421a tax abatement law that has developers rushing to get in under the gun. Brooklyn rents may flatten out as a result, but the notion that developers will build themselves into such a glut that rents will come back down to any kind of reasonable levels defies any kind of investment logic.

And as for East New York, if you want to see the mixed-income wonderland that Crain’s promises, you don’t have to visit the future — it’s right there now in Bushwick, a neighborhood that’s been getting lots of “amenities” along with the flood of wealthier newcomers. And while it’s no doubt nice for longtime residents to have the chance to shop at an upscale natural foods market, if they can afford it — from my visits to the one across from Maria Hernandez Park, not many are taking advantage of it, as the only non-white faces I saw there belonged to the staff — many will never get the chance, as they’re being priced out and forced to move elsewhere. Where elsewhere? Among other places, East New York, which has become the neighborhood of last resort for many low-income Brooklynites. If that falls, the city’s increasing numbers of poor people are going to be left to pack themselves ever tighter into the outskirts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, areas with poor transit options and little connection to their old lives.

The Crain’s piece is also a stellar example of what might be considered the “white man’s burden” view of inequality: Poor neighborhoods are bad because they lack nice supermarkets and good schools and the like, and since rich neighborhoods have those things, it’s up to the rich to be pioneers and civilize the urban jungle. (I know I’m conflating race and class here — not all people with money are white, and not all white people have money — but they sadly correlate pretty well in Brooklyn.) It is — as I detailed last month in my Village Voice cover story “The Gentrifier’s Guide to Not Being an Asshole” — precisely the wrong way to go about addressing the conflict between longtime residents and newcomers: As sculptor and anti-gentrification activist Tamara Zahaykevich cautioned: “A lot of people move into a neighborhood and say, ‘Oh, there was nothing here before.’ And that nothing may be nothing to you, but it is something to somebody. And I think that that nothing allowed for speculators and developers to spin that whole thing of ‘We’re creating something great!'”

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Okay, okay, I know what you’re waiting to ask: Is the book done yet? The answer: not yet, but it really is getting close. Close enough that I’ve started to plan how to acquire ISBN numbers and other esoterica of going from Word files to actual printed copies in your hands (or electrically printed copies on your devices). I’m as frustrated as you are that this is taking so long — more frustrated, probably, since you only think about this book every once in a while and I’m living with it — but the additional research that is dragging out the writing process is also making it a better book.

For some glimpses of some of what the later chapters of The Brooklyn Wars will cover, check out my aforementioned tips for conscientious gentrifiers piece in the Voice, along with two sidebars on artists fighting to prevent displacement of commercial tenants and the battles over affordable housing promises at the old Rheingold brewery site in Bushwick. I also have a more in-depth piece on Rheingold up at City Limits (latest news: the developer that had promised affordable housing has now entirely sold out to other developers who ain’t promising nuthin’); plus another on a landlord with the delicious name of Shamco, which is rapidly buying up large swaths of rent-regulated buildings in Ditmas Park and Flatbush with the apparent intent of booting out the existing tenants (mostly black, mostly low-income) to make way for a more deep-pocketed brand of resident — whether the law allows them to or not.

Not that much of this will appear in close to the same form in the book — that’s its own animal, with a mind of its own. Now, back to trying to corral it once and for all, so I can make use of those ISBNs…