Rough field notes on the topic of the times.
OCEAN HILL, Brooklyn- I arrived here around midnight on the Fourth of July. My family and I walked up out of the subway and onto a street that looked like something out of movie about some token “bad part of town.” Drunks were sprawled out over the stoop at the subway entrance. People on the sidewalk were screaming at people in cars. The people in cars were screaming back at the people on the sidewalk. Trash was blowing by in the breeze. Groups of young men were shifting around on street corners. Nobody had any interest in us — it was just interesting to walk through a scene that seemed so contrived and set up as to almost be a cliche of itself.
Then we rounded the corner to go to our Airbnb. There was a fight going on right in front of the gate. At least a dozen people were gathered around a car, rocking it and screaming profanities that revolved around “pedophile-mother-f’cker.” We scurried into our apartment. Welcome to Brooklyn.
What I couldn’t ascertain at that time was if this state of affairs was due to it being late at night on the Fourth of July or if it was like this every night. We would be here for a month … so I guess we would have the opportunity to find out.
The next morning I stepped out into the street. There was a dreadlocked bum chilling in front of the gate to my AirBnb but nothing seemed that bad. I said hi. He said hi back. Around the corner there was a barber shop where Nigerians hang out — when the weather is nice they grill food. Good action. There is a family who, I believe, live in a van that often parks in front of my gate. They hang out in the two-foot wide grassy area between the sidewalk and the road in lawn chairs during the day. They’re friendly enough.
The Fourth of July was probably an anomaly. Throughout the next month we would be invited to barbecues and street parties, made some friends, and watched the beginnings of a movement that rapidly transforms and contorts entire cities all over the world: gentrification.
This area is changing fast. Sitting right on the A/C subway line just beyond the fringes of trendy Brooklyn, Ocean Hill has started absorbing people and businesses that are being priced out of more happening parts of the city. This means the neighborhood has rapidly become culturally diverse. Not long ago, this was an area which was, to quote a Chinese traveler who left a review on AirBnb, “unceasingly black.” Now it has sprinkling of white, Israeli, Middle Easterners, misplaced hipsters, and others moving out to the new fringe of New York City.
A hip coffeehouse just opened up outside of the subway stop a year ago, and it serves as the catalyst for the — how should I put this? — the international-ized sect. Everything about the place looks like something out of Williamsburg, copied and pasted out in the ghetto. Comedians and musician now come in from other parts of the city to perform here. A weed of another culture was planted at the entrance of the Rockaway Ave stop, and it’s growing fast.
My AirBnb host grew up nearby in East New York. He was around my age, and I had to ask him how he afforded to buy a house here. I couldn’t afford to buy a house — f’ck, I can hardly rent an apartment. He just shrugged and told me that he bought it for $500,000. What? Seriously? It was a nice three-story brownstone a block from a subway stop.
“$500,000? That’s nothing man.”
“I know. It’s worth like twice that now.”
He then pointed out that a similar house across the street just sold for $1.4 million to a white family who just moved out from a more central part of the city.
The guy who owns my AirBnb invited my family to a cookout they were having in a park. The kids ran around in a multi-racial / multi-national mob. There were black kids and white kids and Jewish kids and Muslim kids and French kids. The adults all drank beer together and talked about buying houses and jobs and football. Race or culture wasn’t a topic of conversation — the landscape was too mixed for this. Everybody was more or less similar here: decently-well-to-do working class. Everybody gets up in the morning and goes to work. Everybody wants to live in a nice place. A couple of guys marveled at how well-kept the backyards were of the adjacent houses.
This place is changing.
I decided to ask an old lady about it. Old ladies know they don’t have time for bullshit. I was walking down the street during a block party and she invited me to stop for a bite to eat. There was around twenty people hanging out in front of a house. A folding table overflowing with chicken wings, mac and cheese, chips, coleslaw, and pop was set up on the sidewalk. They fed me. We talked:
“The street that you’re living on, Hull Street, we used to call that Hell Street hahaha. It was bad!” She said. “So you see these houses here?” she continued. “These three houses across the street. They used to be abandoned. Crack houses. Now look at them.”
[They were bought and were being fixed up by white people from elsewhere.]
“I have a building over there that’s being fixed up right now,” she said as pointed across the way.
“A building?” I exclaimed. “You’re going to make a lot of money.”
“No, you think so? Hahaha!” She said with playful sarcasm.
“So what do you think of all these new people coming in?” I asked.
“I don’t mind them, just so they alright, good people. The one thing I don’t like is when they walk by and they don’t say hello. They walk down the street and they don’t say hi to nobody. They just walk right on by. Just say hello! We exist here. We’re your neighbors!”
[The white people here do tend to scurry from their doorways to the subway and back again].
Determining the winners and losers of gentrification is a tricky game. The losers stomp their feet and complain; the winners pocket the cash and keep quiet or move up to another neighborhood.
I can remember getting a lesson on gentrification when I was a student at LIU Brooklyn. We we’re given a text about this family in Brooklyn who used to live in a real dangerous part of town who are now upset that people with more money, developers, and investors are moving in and jacking up the prices.
“So this guy is mad that his dangerous neighborhood where people used to shoot bullets through his windows has become nicer and safer and his property value has risen exponentially? Really?” I can remember countering.
My instructor ordered me to be more sensitive.
I’m now thinking about Greenpoint — a once-working-class-Polish enclave on a toxic spill site that’s now become an epicenter of hipsterdom with rents going as high as $4,000 per month. The Poles are being pushed out — why would they live there when they can rent their houses out or sell and make a pile? I tried to move there when I first began looking for an apartment here, and found myself financially outclassed.
Greenpoint used to be one of New York’s epicenters of culture — it was a place full of amazing Polish delis and food producers and diners. Now, it’s a place for people who eat beet burgers.
Someday soon they will be eating beet burgers in Ocean Hill. Just like everywhere else in the world.
Humans have a difficult time understanding change. For some reason we feel as if the way we observe things now as being the way they will always be. We view change as a personal affront — as though some prick is pulling the chair out from beneath our asses. But places change faster than our perception everywhere. There is no such thing as a temporal hand hold — the world that we grew up in that we took for granted as being solid and unchanging when we were kids no longer exists.
Cities changed faster than anywhere else. They are kind of like stars: they grow and grow, becoming hotter and hotter, until they implode upon themselves, descending into black holes of poverty and ruin before rising again. New York City is full of nice neighborhoods that turned into shit holes that turned into trendy epicenters that turned into …
Nobody has an inherent right to anywhere. The notion that a culture is from somewhere is a myth. Someone may be from somewhere today but yesterday someone else was there … and tomorrow someone else will be there. Successive waves of people that we ignorantly blanket-term as “Native Americans” supplanted each other for 15,000 years and then people from Europe came and supplanted them. Today, many of these Europeans seem to believe that they are being supplanted by Hispanics and Muslims and whoever else … We have very few examples of groups who can claim to be direct descendants of the “original people” of any given stretch of turf — perhaps some sets of aboriginals in Australia could be an exception. When we talk about groups taking the land / neighborhoods / resources of another group we are more often than not talking about thieves stealing from thieves.
Nowhere is ever static, humans are meant to move with change and opportunity — staying put and staking permanent claim to an expanse of ground is unnatural. We move to where the resources are, compete, win, lose — it’s the same old story.
I mentioned to a guy from Ocean Hill that I’m from Buffalo, and he mentioned that he goes there twice a month. What? Why? I asked, sort of surprised — Buffalo isn’t real really a place that people go who aren’t from there. When the factories closed down in Western New York entire communities of people moved south to places like North Carolina and Florida and supplanted the locals for the best jobs. The once prosperous neighborhoods they left behind descended to ruins, becoming impoverished ghettos or even ghost towns. He told me that he buys up cheap houses there, fixes them up, and either rents them out or flips them for a profit.
… and the wheel keeps spinning.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
August 1, 2019, 11:00 pm
What a fine paragraph! I like it!!
“Nobody has an inherent right to anywhere. The notion that a culture is from somewhere is a myth. Someone may be from somewhere today but yesterday someone else was there and tomorrow someone else will be there. Successive waves of people we blanket term as “Native Americans” supplanted each other for 15,000 years and then people from Europe came and supplanted them. Today these Europeans are being supplanted by Hispanics and Muslims and whoever else …”
August 2, 2019, 12:33 pm
Great piece. Reminded me of what my ex-wife’s uncle complained of. He was Polish and born in Jersey City in 1915. I recall visiting their two-unit building a year after the first World Trade Center bombing (you could see the towers from their stoop). He moaned about how the Imam who was behind the bombing from the mosque down the street was changing the neighborhood and taking over. I asked if that is the same thing that Jersey City “natives” said when the Poles moved in and “took over”. He didn’t want to hear me say that or discuss how immigrant neighborhoods by definition are in a constant state of change.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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