Relatively recently, I moved to New York (January 2010) to attend graduate school. For the first month, I lived with my sister in Morningside Heights, where she was, at the time, studying at Columbia University. Eventually I made my way down to the borough of Brooklyn, which is where I still live.
My first apartment was in Carroll Gardens. Once a neighborhood-enclave defined by Italian Americans, it is now—more or less—a kind of epitome of gentrification, with “shops catering to yuppie tastes like sushi restaurants, Starbucks, etc. . .” The gentrification, is of course, much more localized : more than Starbucks, there is the regalia of small cafes, bars, specialized boutique stores, and small restaurants with set course menus and dim lighting. From Carroll Gardens I moved further south, to a neighborhood that was/is now known as South Slope (sandwiched between Park Slope to the North, Sunset Park to the South).
For me, gentrification is a loaded term. As long as I am a graduate student (and even possibly, when and if I start teaching), I will find myself living out a financial scenario synonymous with “graduate student.” I have to, in very tangible ways, contend, live within the intersection of various histories of social and economic displacements created by zoning changes (from industrial/light commercial to high density residential) and demographic “transformations” (usually from low-income, minority populations to a middle-class, often white population). My daily life, now, is circumscribed by these histories.
Case-in-point: where/what is “South Slope”?
According to the map , I don’t actually live in South Slope (there is no “South Slope”). I actually live right on the northern end/cusp of Sunset Park (along the Prospect Expressway, on 6th Avenue). South Slope is a recent invention of city nomenclature, which in New York, often coincides with “urban renewal.” For someone who wants to actively support the work of local residents who find themselves in marginalized positions of housing displacement, how do I go about negotiating my own role as a gentrifier (albeit, a reluctant gentrifier)?
A few weeks ago, I dropped by Groundswell Community Mural Project, to talk to the then acting interim director, Rob Krulak. At one point of our conversation, we spoke about the conversations that occurred between Sunset Park residents, and nonprofit organizations (Groundswell, Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors, UPROSE, to name a few) in the summer and fall of 2007 (after Mayor Bloomberg announced that the Department of City Planning would conduct an “official” zoning study of the neighborhood). This was also right about the time that a rezoning plan for the Gowanus Canal neighborhood proposed that twenty-five blocks become rezoned from industrial, to light commercial/residential. Towards the end of our conversation, Rob said something that startled (perhaps very naively) me: “In twenty years, this is all going to look like Chelsea.”
The evening before I met with Rob, I attended an evening workshop at St. Michael’s Church (a formidably tall, red-brick cathedral-esque building, located on the corner of 4th Avenue and 43rd Street). It was co-organized by NYC’s Department of Transportation, and UPROSE (United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park), and focused on the construction of a new greenway belt along Sunset Park’s waterfront (part of a larger development plan, initiated by the city a few years back, which focuses on “revitalizing” the entire Brooklyn waterfront ).
Slowly threading all of these details together (continual pressure of residential displacement for locals in Sunset Park; my confusion over shifting—and shifty—neighborhood boundaries; what re-naming—both within official zoning politics and social slang—of boundaries indicate; my conversation with Rob at Groundswell; my initial conversations with a Sunset Park resident and organizer working with Neighbors Helping Neighbors; the green “revitalization” of Sunset Park’s waterfront), I begin to think about the trickier ways gentrification gets lived out (for example, it would be hard to argue that green revitalization anywhere is a bad thing for residents who want more green, open space. At the same time, I am under the impression that major green revitalization often is a kind of prescient marker of gentrification. Is the latter way too narrow and skeptical of a view—I’m not sure). For some residents, the stakes within rezoning/revitalization projects aren’t quite as clear-cut (i.e., some folks are caught within the process of gentrification—admittedly, perhaps hypocritically—yet don’t support gentrification).
For now, I’m left to negotiate these implications of gentrification as a resident of both South Slope and Sunset Park. I’m not sure how to feel about occupying such a loaded and shifty boundary, but I know that I want to at least try to articulate what these competing dialogues are.