Monday, August 30, 2010

On Gentrification

Henry Stewart has some interesting things to say in the latest L Magazine (about which I have mixed feelings, but that's for another time if at all. In a piece on the fight for the Domino factory he writes,
When people talk about the gentrification of Williamsburg, they don't talk about what it has created, but only about the "bad things" it has replaced. For the gentrifiers, the former landscape needs to be destroyed, or at least gussied up beyond recognition—the past needs to be razed so a new culture can be overlaid, a culture that then celebrates its own superiority. To claim that gentrification has improved the community, Farr tells me, is "preposterous." How did the boutiques on Bedford Avenue make life better for the Latino community? Gentrification is not about what's been achieved but about the illusion that achievement has occurred. The idea. The feeling.

Of course, that's a tad reductive: "gentrification" is more than Amarcord. It's something about which we think a lot, living where we do. First of all, sweeping statements like that run the risk of generalizing about communities that are themselves multilayered and complex. My block, for instance, is made up of homeowners who have, in some cases, owned more than 50 years. Many of them have a fraught relationship with the residents of the surrounding projects. Which one represents the "culture" we're preserving? When does mere existence become an aggressive "overlay?" Williamsburg simplifies this conversation with its extremes. There's also the basic question of, where can people live in New York without trampling on something else? What they're talking about, I guess, is those who steamroll in after a place is "habitable" and lay on this gloss.

When a new, Neapolitan pizzeria opened not far away, there was something off about it. Not the place itself which, with its salvaged decor and locally sourced ingredients and Italian staff, was ready for Avenue B. Rather, the transposition of something so wholly inorganic and fully-formed was discordant. Especially when you walked in (especially post - "25 and Under") and realized some car service was doing a very brisk business indeed from Park Slope, while the neighborhood's residents, apparently, went on eating just where they had been. And yet, we went - we go - all the time. And there's the rub.

I will discuss this with Mr. Smith, who lives next door. I talked about something similar with a woman named Ally who was in her 70s and using a cigarette holder and has lived all her life on Amity. We were seated in front of a new coffee shop in which everything is sustainable and baked goods come from Birdbath. "Now," she said, "suddenly I'm a freak."

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