By Dennis Nichols
For the past month I’ve been in Brooklyn, New York, with my wife, who, after suffering a heart attack in The Bahamas last December, went there for additional treatment. It was my ninth visit to the US; my third to NYC, and the Big Apple’s most populous borough is taking on a sort of avant-garde look. For some New Yorkers, it’s becoming a ‘kinder, gentler place’ (paraphrasing George H. W. Bush’s immortal phrase) Gentrification is in the air.
For those unfamiliar with the word, gentrification is basically what it sounds like – the improvement of a city or district suitable to the tastes and mores of the gentry – relatively wealthy middle- and upper-class residents whose presence and purported pedigree drive up the prices of homes and rents usually at the expense of the poorer urban class in areas that have been deteriorating over the years. Many of the latter are forced to relocate or find ways to ‘increase wealth’.
When I first travelled to the borough in 1989, and through the first half of 1990, New York City was riding high on cultural diversity, racial apprehension, and crime. Three sensational stories were making the news then, although only one happened in Brooklyn. The first was the notorious Manhattan Central Park jogger rape;(in graphic black and white) the second the racially-triggered murder of a black teenager in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and the third, the Happy Land arson/fire that killed 87 mainly Hispanic youths in The Bronx.
The brutality of the first and the senseless motives behind the second and third hit me in the gut, generating instinctive caution of the Big Apple. It later translated to other parts of the country, because such crimes seemed to be symptomatic of a peculiar mindset of some Americans, which led to a general mindfulness on my part of things American. It still lingers.
That however didn’t prevent me from appreciating the cosmopolitan mix of Brooklyn, particularly its Caribbean flavour, although a generally tolerable co-existence, (for example, between Hasidic Jews and West Indians in Crown Heights) has been marred by sporadic social and racial flare-ups since the 1960s. The borough’s Caribbean melange, seen in the Nostrand Avenue, Church Avenue, and Fulton Street flow, and the annual Labour Day takeover of Eastern Parkway, reflect the kind of assimilation and forbearance that has made New York such an immigrant magnet.
So, I have mixed sentiments about New York. Still crime-plagued, but still buoyantly alive, it is presently the home of several of my closest relatives ranging in age from 78 years to three weeks. My wife has benefitted from expert medical advice and treatment, and I’ve met some of the nicest, most helpful people there, from the Caucasian girl who walked with me to an unfamiliar subway station, to Francesco, a young Italian visitor who appeared to have been smitten with my daughter and asked to pose for a photograph with her after a visit to the One World (Trade Centre) Observatory. Still the misgivings would not go away.
A bit of levity was added to an otherwise serious episode, even as my wife’s prognosis turned out better than expected. We got ‘lost’ navigating the subway, and spent about thirty minutes yo-yoing the #4 train in an uptown-downtown haze. The ability to laugh at ourselves was a plus here. At a Jamaican restaurant on Church Avenue, an obviously perplexed salesgirl plaintively exclaimed “An’ goat is nah beef?’ when I said I wanted the latter, which the kitchen was out of. Well, it’s close enough, I guess.
But back to the gentrification – and a very cursory, incomplete sketch.
It actually started in Brooklyn sometime before my first trip there 30 years ago. An article authored by Stephanie Chang and Florian Druckenthaner, two Senior Fellows at Humanity in Action, an international educational organization, paint a fascinating picture of Brooklyn gentrification, starting in the Williamsburg section in the early nineteen eighties. A woman named Stephanie Eisenberg made her move in 1982. In that year she invested $25,000 into a rundown warehouse which has since became a residential building with over 70 units housing 75 families. One was sold a few years ago for $750,000. Of course, she owns it.
The past few decades have seen numerous replications of the kind of investment Mrs. Eisenberg made, with some variations. They include moves by developers and landlords who saw mostly pecuniary benefits after 1990 when the NYC crime wave subsided due in part to Mayor Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy on crime. In places like Crown Heights, Bushwick, and Flatbush, all with substantial West Indian populations, gentrification has forced many poorer residents to relocate to seedier but more affordable parts of the borough like East New York, to the South, and even back to the Caribbean, according to a recent New York Times article.
It has brought increased cost of living to Brooklyn which many mostly black tenants cannot afford. Additionally, some landlords have used, and are using, harassment tactics to drive out even faithful renters in favour of young, wealthier, middle- and upper-class tenants. Apart from higher rents, some landlords use evictions or withhold repairs in order to frustrate them into moving.
Now highly-paid young, mostly white, professionals (some still call them yuppies) are all over Brooklyn, on the streets and in the grocery stores and cafes; some with young children; others walking their dogs, looking for all the world as if they were born and bred there. Many work in the creative arts and are contributing positively to the borough’s changing façade. They have ‘returned’ following in the footsteps of generations of their ancestors who had made the borough their home long before the current renaissance began.
I don’t know what the future holds for those West Indians, and to a lesser extent African-Americans, who are being negatively affected by the ongoing gentrification of Brooklyn and other parts of New York City. I do not think it’s necessarily a bad thing. According to recent data, rent prices are stabilising, and the crime rate is at its lowest in decades, with the homicide rate in particular hitting a record low in 2018. In many parts of the borough the Caribbean touch is still very evident.
Brooklyn has fascinated me since I first visited in 1989. Crime-plagued or crime-diminished, gentrified or not, it remains, with the rest of New York City, a beacon of hope and a promise of prosperity for the thousands of immigrants who continue the flow that began three centuries ago. I may never be one, but for the sake of its cosmopolitan character and my plethora of relatives who call it home, I’m going to apply for a new US visa when the current one expires later this year.
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