The other day I was doing some petitioning along Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. Petitioning isn’t just a necessary part of the democratic process, but it’s also an opportunity to interface with your community. If you can wade through all of the no’s and I’m not interested’s, and if you can bounce back from being blatantly ignored, you may find yourself having interesting conversations with people from your neighborhood that you do not know.
Such was the case the other day.
I approached a young white couple as they strolled along Franklin Avenue, near Eastern Parkway. My prerequisite question for anyone I approach while petitioning is the same.
“Are you a registered Democrat?”
The couple looked at one another with excited interest, as if my question reminded them of an inside joke. The man explained to me that no, neither of them were registered Democrats in New York. In fact, they weren’t registered to vote at all in the United States. They were from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada and although they’ve lived here for about 2 years, they’ve never gotten around to figuring out how to register to be a part of the voting process. I told him that if he is a permanent resident, though he cannot vote in the presidential election, there may be some local elections that he could in fact vote on. I told him that they should check the requirements for registering to vote in local elections. The couple appreciated the information, both of them smiling and taking turns thanking me. That’s when the woman spoke. She asked me a question that would inspire the article you’re reading right now. Here is her question, as verbatim as I can remember it.
“Although we have only lived here for two years, we have seen a big change in the neighborhood during that time. There are more whites moving in, people from all over the world coming into Bed-Stuy to live. We know that Brooklyn has always had its own culture, and we know the same is true for Bed-Stuy. We also know that Black culture in this community was prominent at one point. We love the Brooklyn that we decided to move to, and we don’t want to be a part of eradicating everything that this neighborhood was before we arrived. So, tell me. What can we do so that we are not part of the problem?”
Aside from being totally shocked at the question, I found myself dealing with a feeling of pride for being asked about this. Proud of her for being astute enough to notice the nuances of gentrification, and brave enough to speak about them in earnest. And proud of my community for continually providing evidence to new faces to remind them about what once was. Old Brooklyn will not go quietly into the night.
The word “gentrification” has been tossed around ad nauseam for the past 15 years. The base definition is the process of renovating and developing undervalued properties and communities to align those communities to middle-class or upper middle-class residents. To give a base example, if there is an abandoned building on your block, and you buy the building and turn it into a luxury apartment building, then you’ve gentrified your block. One of the problems that those who have been in these communities “pre-gentrification” have with gentrification is the wanton displacement of both residents and businesses due to the increases in market rent bought on by the development and strategic marketing of these neighborhoods as “new” and “trendy”, in an attempt to lure in new business models and more affluent residents. Again, to give an example, now that you’ve built your luxury apartment and are charging luxury prices, you want your tenants to have the same amenities in this new neighborhood that they would have in the neighborhood they used to live in. So, you raise the rent on Papi’s bodega until he cannot compete and is forced to close. You then rent the same space to Starbuck’s. They can afford the rent you’re asking for. This affects the entire neighborhood though, because Papi used to sell coffee for 75 cents. Starbuck’s sells the same size coffee for $3. Between the higher rents and the higher cost for goods, you’ve just made your neighborhood more expensive to live in.
Certainly, one can see how the process of gentrification can change the entire scope of a community, leaving those who were here prior to the changes worried about being able to afford to live in a community they’ve lived in their whole life. The young woman’s question, however, wasn’t from the perspective of a developer or a mortgage broker. She is a renter, a tenant who wishes to not seem problematic to other tenants that may feel resentful about what she represents. Your prototypical gentrifier is not a home or business owner, they are tenants who’ve decided to move into your neighborhood because they can afford the rents and like the fact that the train station is three blocks away. They go to work and they come home. They appreciate the new taverns and bars in the community because it gives them the freedom of a social life without having to trek to the city. They are more like you and I than they are unalike. New neighbors in the community may change the landscape of the community but it doesn’t change the concept of being neighbors.
My answer to my new Canadian friends was simply this: Love your neighbor. You have moved into a community that is new to you, but it is not a new community. There are families that have lived here for generations, as well as those who just moved here last month. Our children attend the same schools. We shop at the same supermarkets and use the same train stations to get to work. This community isn’t just yours because you live here now, and it isn’t just mines because I was here first. It’s ours. And since we share this amazing community, we must learn how to love one another. We must seek one another out and show recognition that we are neighbors. We must listen to one another and be empathetic to our individual and collective plights. We must share resources and knowledge. Most importantly, we must find common ground. We may celebrate different holidays, play different sports or even celebrate different cultures, but our community will be stronger if we share in those differences together rather than to allow surface issues such as race and class to separate us. If you do not want to be viewed as a problem in your community then you should start with loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
We talked for about 15 minutes and then the couple wished me well in my task to collect signatures. The guy and I exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. I think I’ll text him this weekend to find out his opinion about this article.