The Brooklyn Gentrifier’s Playbook

by Misha Lepetic

“A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York.”
~Anonymous

Bed_stuyThese days, when the inevitable question of “What do you do?” pops up at a cocktail party or some such, I now simply answer, “I live in New York.” A credulous follow-up might wish to clarify whether that is, in fact, how I make my living, at which point I try to steer the conversation to kinder, gentler topics. But after living in New York for 15 years, I feel my response is both perfunctory and justified. Anyone as deeply immersed in the city knows that living here really is its own, full-time occupation, since the city demands constant observation and reflection. And New York is especially amenable to this, given the breadth, density and accessibility of the city's neighborhoods, as well as New Yorkers' guileless embrace of real estate as a primary subject of conversation. It is perhaps the only city that I know of, where a stranger can walk into your apartment and ask, within the first 15 minutes, how much you rent pay for the privilege, and expect an answer.

In this vein, there has always been much talk about gentrification: where it is happening right now and where it will happen next, whether the desirability of the outcomes outweighs the costs, and, especially, who is being ousted. This last is not so much about the residents themselves, but rather the ongoing disappearance of beloved restaurants, bars and retail establishments, for example as documented by Jeremiah Moss's Vanishing New York. So what can be said about gentrification that has not already been said? Honestly, not a whole lot. There are still no good answers or responses, especially as New York reassesses its post-Bloomberg future.

However, gentrification has increasingly been treated as a monolithic concept, when in fact it is an umbrella term describing a continuum of variegated and uneven urban processes. The ‘improvement' of any neighborhood is the result of a bevy of actors, operating within a legal and social context that is unique to that neighborhood, and that itself sits within the larger context of the city and the state. Finally, even global financial circumstances play a role, for example, artificially low interest rates and the ease with which capital may travel. When gentrification is seen as a monolithic process, it is difficult to think about it as anything other than inevitable. But if we consider the different processes that are obscured into this single rubric, or more accurately, the different scales and velocities at which gentrification occurs, then we will be better equipped to engage the phenomenon itself, and not merely the label.

The late geographer Neil Smith clearly identified this in the late 1970s. First in his dissertation and then in his subsequent work, he characterized gentrification, especially in its accelerated forms, as fundamentally a process of capital, not of people.

Since the 1970s, gentrification has shifted from a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market to a large-scale, systematic and deliberate urban development policy. Gentrification has deepened as a comprehensive city-building strategy encompassing not just the residential market, but recreation, retail, employment, and the cultural economy.

O-MARS-BAR-570Michael Bloomberg's three terms as mayor of New York City carried the precise hallmarks of such a “large-scale, systematic and deliberate urban development policy,” or what could also be termed a love-fest between developers and city officials. While marquee projects such as the (successful) Atlantic Yards and (unsuccessful) Midtown East projects occupied most of the media spotlight, what remains less appreciated is the sheer scope of rezoning undertaken by the administration: upwards of 120 rezonings, almost all of which were approved, will continue to reshape the contours of New York for decades to come.

But how? At first, it may be surprising to hear that “the city planning department doesn't track…how much potential space was gained or lost, or how much value it's created by enabling development” for any given rezoning. However, zoning itself is not a monolithic concept: a block may be ‘upzoned,' ‘downzoned' or left unchanged (also known as ‘contextual'). Zoning delimits the ultimate population density for a given lot, and in fact, from 2003 to 2007, the net result was only a 1.7% net increase in capacity. This immediately leads to the next question: Who gets what kind of zoning? The contours of rezoning become clearer when one understands that

Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership than upzoned areas. Areas with contextual rezoning were even whiter and richer (with median incomes “much higher than that of the city”), and had “very high rates of homeownership.” In other words, more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were.

Understood this way, the possible pathways for New York become clearer: rezoning defines and guarantees its own success. But rezoning is really only the beginning of real estate development. There is still the procurement of permits and the appeasement of local community boards. But developers are used to playing the long game, and one of the legacies of the Bloomberg (and Giuliani) administrations is a massive, tangled infrastructure of committees, advisory boards and public-private partnerships where real estate developers mix with city officials in order to clear hurdles, this being most easily achieved outside of the public eye and behind closed doors. (For an exceptionally clear-eyed exposition of this bureaucratic juggernaut, see the excellent documentary My Brooklyn by Kelly Anderson).

The bodies are buried in plain sight. I have already written about the fate of the Fulton Fish Market, which remains little changed today. For its part, ‘My Brooklyn' documents the redevelopment of Brooklyn's Fulton Mall and its impact on the African-American and Caribbean communities that depended on that commercial district. And the systematic dismantling of community resistance to the Atlantic Yards project was a big-city real estate bruise-fest whose definitive history remains as yet unwritten, but will doubtlessly launch a thousand urban social justice dissertations. Like the Bloomberg administration's zealous rezoning campaign, this web of governance is set to endure for a long time, and in the meantime, Brooklyn is in fact, becoming poorer.

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Amd-crown-heightsThese, then, are the macro policies that drive large-scale gentrification of substantial swathes of New York. However, there is a smaller scale at which gentrification operates, and one that is largely invisible to the media. Nevertheless, its effects on neighborhoods is no less decisive. As an example, consider the story of another part of Brooklyn, that of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. “The Ins and The Outs” is a vital and broad-ranging article, written by Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing, on the changing nature of one of Crown Heights' principal commercial thoroughfares. While readers outside of New York may most clearly remember it as the neighborhood gripped by a race riot back in 1991, after a generation Crown Heights has now been Columbused as the newest Brooklyn hotspot, with Franklin Avenue as its pulsing heart.

I have been to Franklin Avenue over the years but have been going more frequently, thanks to a friend who recently moved to the neighborhood. The rapidity of the transformation is nothing short of astonishing – in fact one of the defining features of gentrification in New York is that each episode seems to take less time than the previous. Franklin Avenue seems to follow the standard pattern of development, where delis become swish bars and pawn shops are replaced by up-market retail. And yet everything happens for a reason. One of these reasons has been MySpace Realty.

As documented by Rotondaro and Ewing, MySpace (and possibly a few shell corporations under its control) have engaged the neighborhood's landlords, aggressively making offers to buy buildings for cash. For MySpace, a landlord who says ‘No' only means ‘No' today. Once a building is sold to MySpace, it is time to get the residents out of the building, so that it can be renovated and put back on the market for rental rates that can be several times the existing rent. If they are lacking in savvy, most tenants are bought out at a discount, or even made to think that they have little choice in the matter. The holdouts – some of whom have been living in the building for decades and cannot afford to live anywhere else in the area – are then subjected to the usual shenanigans of deferred repairs, ignored infestations, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

MySpace is using an old playbook, of course. Just as Anderson documented the strong-arm tactics of big-league developers in ‘My Brooklyn', Rotandaro and Ewing narrate a history of similar behavior but writ on a much more local scale. The results are much the same, however: a process of divide-and-conquer by capital leads to the decrease of the availability of affordable housing stock in a given neighborhood. And it is also important to recognize the fact that MySpace Realty's actions do not exist in isolation. As Franklin Avenue has become more ‘hip' the neighborhood has been primed for larger developers to buy up lots that are beyond the reach of a local firm: the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group was part of a consortium that purchased a nearby property that will likely become a luxury mixed-use development, with about $20m to be invested in the near future. And this is only one of several such transactions happening in the area. As one of the locals put it, “I don't know how to beat this. I don't know how anyone can beat this machine.”

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AreyoufuckingkiddingmeThis same resident also asked the real question at the heart of any gentrification process: “I still think there's a better and more ethical way to get from a broken down, crime-ridden, drug-ridden neighborhood to a place that is safe and enjoyable for everyone while still maintaining a sense of community ownership.” Capital can only provide a partial and ultimately unsatisfactory answer to this question – left to its own devices, it can only produce cookie-cutter development at market rates, with the end result being nothing but the relentless homogenization of any given neighborhood. The same people, shops and restaurants. Ironically, perhaps only the housing stock will remain to bear mute witness to the unique flavor that a neighborhood once had.

It is somewhat like the old philosophical paradox of sorites – if you have a heap of sand, and you remove grain after grain, at what point do you no longer have a heap of sand? What sorites points out is that we have ultimately failed to define what a ‘heap' is in the first place. Without this definition, you cannot know when a heap ceases to be a heap. Gentrification functions similarly – at what point does improvement become gentrification, or, to continue with the analogy of the heap, at what point is gentrification no longer that, but rather improvement?

I was reminded of this when my friend Alex Castle posted a wonderful essay on his own experience, somewhat misleadingly titled “Gentrification Is My Fault“. Fittingly, it's in the form of a blog post. I say fittingly, because it is both interesting and important to note the commensurate nature of the media describing each of these levels of gentrification: the largest process is worthy of an acclaimed documentary; the local level merits long-form journalism; and the smallest is only given voice by its protagonist's memoir. Fitting, of course, is not the same as just, so it is important that these latter voices be given their due.

Castle's essay details the haphazard way in which he and his wife came to own a limestone townhouse in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, which was then a fairly rough-and-tumble section of Brooklyn, one that is in fact on the southern border of Crown Heights. Through a mix of good timing, thrift and hard work – all vital ingredients of the American Dream – the Castles have created exactly that for themselves. What I appreciate even more deeply is the way that Alex invested himself in the ownership and improvement of his home and, by extension, the neighborhood:

I didn't displace anyone; the place was abandoned, the basement was flooded with shit and the doors had been battered in. I spent the first five years we lived here working on the house all day and bartending all night. When I started I had no skills, I couldn't drill a hole in a board without splitting it. Now I know how to do wiring, framing, sheetrock, I can frame and hang a door (interior or exterior), put in a dishwasher, tile the floor. It took a long time, but it only cost materials.

But what is striking about this personal history – and this is the kind of story that can only be told as a personal history – is the ambivalence that even this engenders. On the one hand, through their temerity and foresight, the Castles expect that, by the time they retire, the mortgage will be paid off and they will be able to live off the income from renting their extra apartment (in New York, this is what's known as ‘winning'). But as Alex muses, “if Bruce Ratner calls me tomorrow and offers me $5 million for this house, is it my responsibility to ask what's going to happen to the property after I'm gone before I sell? Or am I just reaping the benefits of good planning?”

The Castles' experience echoes Neil Smith's point of departure in his own analysis of gentrification: “a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market.” Thus, while tempting, it would be wrong to think that the fragmented and marginal become obsolete simply by virtue of the rise of capital. It's clear from this last example that all of these processes co-exist and eventually negotiate with one other – it is simply a consequence of the way in which a city embodies its limited, valued space. Even the much larger forces of capital-driven gentrification must still contend with property rights and the intentions and desires of smallholders who have invested decades of savings and work into their particular corner.

More importantly, the best bulwark against the kind of gentrification we all seem to wring our hands over is precisely the people who are perfectly aware of their rights and have no illusions of the true value of their stock. I am not making some petite-bourgeoisie argument here: this is as true (and vital) for tenants as it is for landlords. The only thing that is missing is all the other stories like Alex's. Where are they? Who is recording them, and bringing those people together into what is likely a common cause that is nevertheless representative of each person's own interests? I am perhaps being optimistic, but as Jefferson wrote, albeit in a different context, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

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