The Flies & Barnyards of the Rich & Shameless: Gentrification in BK

gentrifyGentrification takes on new meanings when you live in Brooklyn/New York. The all-encompassing, rapid, commercial take-over is astounding. I moved into my Brooklyn home in 1998 after living in an apartment for five years. I was a public high school teacher with a savings account from the Municipal Bank, got a home loan through FHA, and moved into what we called back then, an “FHA neighborhood.” My down payment on my house cost less than the broker’s fee+lease agreement for most Brooklyn apartments back then. “FHA” meant that I got a fixer-upper in a neighborhood where I was once robbed by a crackhead— or rather, accosted, since the crackhead didn’t get anything off of me (as quiet as it’s kept in this world that treats crackheads like scary monsters, they are actually physically weak so, in other words, it doesn’t take too much to whup one’s ass which is exactly what I did). The crackheads that weren’t jacking wallets and purses were hookin on the street corner. Those days are long, long gone now though. A new 14-story high-rise dots every five blocks on the avenues.  A typical 2-bedroom apartment (maybe 800 square feet) will run you $3500.00 right now.  Needless to say, ain’t no crackheads in these parts today!

There are many places that give wonderful social, economic analyses of the calculated displacement of brown and black peoples in 21st century Brooklyn/New York (older, white residents still desperately try to hold on to rent-controlled apartments and get treated so much more sympathetically by NY media venues). That’s not what I want to talk about though. I want to talk about the thing that no one mentions in terms of gentrification in Brooklyn and all of these so-called improvements: the everyday aesthetic demise.

BKLet me explain something here. I lived with my single mother in a 3-room apartment my whole life in the Midwest. When my parents divorced and, in fact, when all the women who I saw got divorced, they got their children but lost their homes/mortgages. I was determined to use my rent money toward my own property and not another male property owner ($3500.00 rent—money towards someone else’s mortgage— is simply unfathomable to me).  I never saw black married couples who didn’t own a home, even though those homes in the Midwest have absolutely no financial value today. In each of these cases, especially with my uncles, every black man around me used their connections after coming home from the military to get a house. The military was the way all the men around me, including my father, seemed to put a roof over their heads, those who did not come back from ‘Nam messed up, that is. I saw people take care of their homes and still do today, even when the banks won’t re-finance or increase market values. I say all of this because when I first moved onto my block, I felt right at home. My block is half-residential and half-industrial. There are factories across the street, all run and operated by first-generation immigrants spanning the globe. My side of the street, where the houses are, was once the enclave of city workers, mostly of color: teachers, sanitation workers, and utility workers.   Today’s new iteration of my block witnesses the wealthiest conglomerate of owners this part of Brooklyn has ever seen… and it is the dirtiest and most disgusting that it has ever been too. That’s the part of gentrification that no one tells you: yes, the new rich folks who move in are rich enough to afford a million dollar mortgage and the ridiculous  $5.00 cupcake store, but not rich enough to afford nannies, gardeners, or “maintenance men” to keep up their homes. And without those working class, pull-up-your-sleeves, reg’lar folk values, it does not seem to occur to the gentrifiers to even so much as use a broom.

Let me bring this home and give you a sense of things. Let’s start with the damn flies. Yes, you heard that right. Yes, I am talking about flying insects, an unusual topic when discussing gentrification, but you will soon see the relevance.

abbyousingChartYou have to understand that I am sandwiched between two homes that recently sold at one million dollars each. We are typical, Brooklyn rowhouses, not brownstones, but rowhouses just the same, each attached to one another (500 square feet for each of 4 floors at about 15 feet wide). We have stoops that go to an upstairs unit and another door for downstairs, like a stacked duplex or townhouse. Below the stoop features a small garden unless you cement it up. On the right of my home, the owner just sits his garbage outside his downstairs door (not in the trash cans and not in thick garbage bags and, hence, the flies). When the garbage does make it to the curb and is not tied correctly (this happens often), sanitation drivers won’t pick it up and so the garbage just sits there some more (you incur fees for this, one sign of gentrification, but obviously, if you are a millionaire, those fees don’t affect you much).

Typical BK Rowhouses

Typical BK Rowhouses

I sweep the front of my own home AND my immediate neighbors’ homes just so the endless NYC debris (and more flies) don’t come into my area. And, of course, all of that new, hip-hipster foot traffic means more litter to sweep. To the left of me, there isn’t as much debris, but the garden area and the tree in front of the home have been overplanted, including a very large unruly rose bush with one-inch thorns. The new owner simply rents his two units out at an exorbitant price. The former owner never did any significant trimming either but spent thousands of dollars on expensive trees, plants, and brick flower beds. This means more sweeping and more raking for me…and, yes, more flies. All of we reg-lar folk in the neighborhood must prune everything because it is impossible to walk on the sidewalk or park without the plantings assaulting you.

Aerial View of BK Backyard Set-up

Aerial View of BK Backyard Set-up

The backyard is worse with even bigger trees (including a very expensive and very large weeping willow… remember, we are talking about a yard that is only 15’ X 35’).   A tree in a neighbor’s yard is a tree in your yard. Five years ago, I had full-blown garden beds with full-sun flowers.  Today, my yard is full-shade which means all of my original plants have died and I have had to change the whole garden. I order my plants online for very cheap; this means you get bare root plants that take 3 years to grow fully. Instead of paying with money (that I don’t have), I pay with sweat and care to get my garden to grow. If you know about gardening, then you know that full-sun plants and full-shade plants are completely different, so I am basically starting all over again.  Because the previous owner also insisted on feeding the stray, feral cats (which have multiplied incrementally in the past 5 years), you also have to deal with keeping the cat poop out of your garden.

In addition to the extra work, I simply have never seen so many damn flies. I just found and ordered a special sprayer that guarantees an insect-free yard: it is a product used in horse barns to keep flies and mosquitoes away. If my point is not clear enough, let me put it this way: when my neighbors were reg’lar working folk, the stoops were spotless, the trees and plants were always trimmed, and I never had to use insect repellent designed for horse shit to make my outdoor living areas livable. We valued what we had, knew the struggle and ordeal it took to acquire our homes, and put the value into THE VALUE these homes have today. That’s the story of gentrification that you don’t often hear. Only a fool would think this block looks better now.

The Price(s) We Have Paid: Happy Juneteenth!

tpMy father and his closest friend, a man I call an uncle, discovered an easy way to save money: always wet your toilet paper and paper towels.  Apparently, once these rolls dry after you have wet them, they no longer roll as easily because ripples have been created.  This will slow down your roll, LITERALLY, if you take too much toilet paper when you are on the throne, for instance.  People use less paper products, the fewer paper products you need to buy, the more money you save: it’s all a vicious cycle.  I hover back and forth between two adjectives for this practice… CHEAP…and… RIDICULOUS.  It does, however, offer me endless opportunities for shit-talking with my father.  I could tell any array of such stories to convey how frugal my father is, but I hope this lumpy toilet paper saga will suffice.

Unlike some of my peers, I was never the type of child to be embarrassed by my father’s frugality, not even them $2 grocery store sneakers.  I think a lot of people could use the character building that comes from building a real sense of worth rather than buying labels as the sole sign of worth. Given the high price African Americans have had to pay for every advancement we have achieved (think back on the parents who sent their children into the terrordome of Central High School in 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas as just one example), paying yet another high price for something as insignificant as a clothing label seems, at best, redundant for us.

jSince my father is now a “health nut” (my uncle’s words), he once again fits the suits he wore when he was in his 20s and left to his own devices, he will roll out them polyester-bell-bottom outfits if the occasion permits.  The rationale here: these suits fit well and are in pristine condition. Because far too many women of my father’s generation have convinced him that he is a dead-ringer for a chocolate-skinned Billy Dee Williams in a Colt 45 commercial, I am convinced these foolish compliments have encouraged him to roll out that 1970s gear even more.  This is all mostly comedy for me, but I will admit that I do have one pet peeve: my father’s socks.  It has taken me years to convince my father that Dr. J-styled tube socks ROLLED ALL THE WAY UP to the knees are simply not appropriate for the 21st century (and contrary to popular belief: matching such tube socks to the outfit is not a plus).  This Father’s Day, I got my father sneakers with matching baseball cap, shirt, and, of course, ANKLE socks (things he would never buy himself) with the promise that he will look flyer than a Colt 45 commercial.

juneteenth 1905

1905 Juneteenth Celebration in Richmond, VA

My father does not dress up without occasion because dressing up must be purposeful.  Since it is Juneteenth, he will commemorate the occasion the way African American communities have for more than a century now: dressing up in one’s finest and reflecting on the high price we have continually paid for freedom in this country.  No one says you can’t be fly, Colt 45-style and all, but your flyness must be purposed beyond America’s pathology of conspicuous-consumption. My father may not be wearing one of his suits today, but he does have a new, fly outfit for this commemorative day… with matching ANKLE socks.

Mean Well, But Do So Poorly

european-colonialism-in-the-middle-eastI was sitting in my office one evening, getting some work done before I left for the day.  A student happened to pass by my door and stopped to talk about my office artwork and decoration.  I had never met or seen this student before.  He rightly assumed that I did work related to African American and African Diasporan cultures.  I was curious about his interests and became even more curious when I heard he wanted to teach English overseas, especially in the Middle East.

I began to tell this young man about a friend of mine, a rather radical Black studies scholar, who is currently teaching in the Middle East.  The young man grew excited by this example and began to talk excitedly about his dreams of teaching The Great Gatsby to people in Palestine.  It was difficult for me to listen to much of what he had to say after that, all about his civilizing mission, all about how he could get Palestinians to understand themselves better with his hit list of white male authors.  Yes, he said this mess OUT LOUD!  IN THE 21ST CENTURY!  Got colonialism?  Yeah, we do!  Right here!

When I tell colleagues across the country this story, folk imagine that I am talking about a privileged, entitled, wealthy, white, heterosexual male following the trend of saving the developing nations after graduation.  The lure of neoliberal volunteerism from the Global North’s special tint of imperialism and arrogance is typical for those privileged circles and passes as progressivism, kinda like the work that Kristof does.  BUT NOPE!  My man was BROWN, a first generation college student, from a working class family.  Having been fully colonized himself, he is now ready to go out and colonize other folk who look like him.

I was struck by the student’s total lack of rhetorical awareness.  What on earth would make this child think that I would be a good audience for this discussion?  I can’t even describe the look on his face— it did not, not even for a moment, occur to this child that his plan would NOT be something that would inspire or impress me, that his plan does not match what radical scholars in Black studies do (that was the example I gave him). And, trust: he is NOT culturally aware enough of his own linguistic heritage to have known how to signify on me in that moment.  He was as serious as can be and never for a moment considered that someone who looks and thinks like me would be offended by his thinking. If he does make it to the Middle East, I hope they run his ass right outta there, because the criticality and discursive awareness that he should have gotten by graduation should have at least made him smarter than to pursue this kind of conversation with me.

When I relay this story, many people often tell me: well, he means well. Or, alternatively, folk like to remind me that this student’s mostly white, traditionalist teachers who have taught him also mean well and are very dedicated to such students. For the life of me, I just can’t understand why anyone thinks this is a valid point.  How in the world is “well-meaningness” an entitlement to ignorance?  Then, I realized something important. Somewhat like the foolishass student I have described, I have not fully interrogated my discursive surroundings.  You see, with the black discourse communities that I call home, meaning-well and doing stupid mess are not constructs that work in tandem.

colonialism-1898

Design by Vagabond

Here’s the relevant expression and worldview: mean well, but do so poorly.  There are many iterations here.  If you put emphasis on DO, then it means this person does almost everything wrong.  Don’t get NUTHIN right.  If the emphasis is on the SO, then this person really can’t handle the task at hand or the subject in focus very well at all.  May as well bag-it-up and QUIT while you are ahead.  If the DO and the SO are both emphasized, well, then, it’s a total loss for everyone.  There are also two pronunciations of POORLY.  PO’LY and POORLY.  It’s all about how and when those Rs are pronounced.  The less of an R you hear, the bigger of a fool this person is! Like I keep saying, black language is not easily translatable into a one-to-one sentence or word correlation with a “standardized English.”  There is SO MUCH going on in that ONE utterance when a person is classified as someone who mean well, but do so poorly.  What is even more important here is that I credit this expression and the worldview that it produces/represents with my utter inability to comprehend those moments when someone justifies horrific acts with statements about good intentions.  After all, colonial and/or missionary teachers thought they were doing the right thing too.  The kidnapping of Native American children, held hostage in boarding schools, in the United States wasn’t THAT long ago that we should be forgetting that well-intentioned white people thought THAT was the right thing to do (and this still happens in different ways today). The worst perpetrators of oppression have been folk who meant well and who thought they were doing right. You need a special language and worldview to be able to decipher when and how “well-meaning” folk can and will colonize you.  Intentions alone are never good enough in black language/black life.

Digital Labor, Race & Gender in the Academy

agendaFor each class that I taught this year, I created a class agenda that guided what we would do.  The agenda is meant as a guide rather than a script to keep me moving towards the goals and promises I have made on my course syllabus which is usually 12-15 pages long.  Each agenda for each day of my class is posted to the course website.

In addition to this website/blog, I have:

  1. a professional ePortfolio that archives all of my teaching, research, and service since I secured tenure two years ago now
  2. a wordpress site for my English 101 course (Public Writing, Rhetoric, and the 21st Century)
  3. a wordpress site for a class that I taught last year and hope to build as ongoing archive of black women’s rhetoric
  4. a weebly site for my English 201 course, Digital Rhetorics (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  5. two demo sites on digication as a skeleton for the ePortfolios that students create
  6. a website on digication for a series of workshops that I did for sophomores and transfer students designing digital resumes (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  7. a website on digication that explains the CSS of the platform
  8. a forthcoming website on digication for an honors seminar in writing and rhetoric that I will teach next year
  9. a website (not fully public yet) on digication for an online journal of first year students’ digital projects and essays (launched in fall 2013)
  10. a forthcoming online, undergraduate journal
  11. the beginning stages of a scribd account, youtube channel, and soundcloud account in order to upload media to my websites in different ways (I plan to create some apps and screencasts this summer also)

wordpresslogoOn top of that, I am working on an edited collection, my own book, a series of articles, and research presentations. I don’t even count the meetings I have to attend anymore; I lose track of that.  I began to contemplate all of these personal technology projects that pepper my academic life after reading Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory edited by Trebor Scholz.  The collection of authors in this text make compelling arguments that connect new media, social networking, and political economy in ways that go much deeper than the usual foolishness in my field from people who claim to be thinking about technology and political economy, all while displaying their offspring’s lily-white and conspicuous (and incredibly CORNY) consumption all over youtube and any other web hosting site that will show pictures.  These authors ain’t THAT.

DigicationLogoThe aggregate of authors in the book leave very little room to deny the fact that we, the users of social media, are also the products.  In exchange for the use of free, innovative services, we are produced and manufactured as audiences and then sold to advertisers as a commodity.  Andrew Ross is compelling in his argument that digital technology did not invent free labor in a capitalistic system, but it has certainly enabled nonstandard work and exploitation. The creativity, autonomy, and self-organization that characterize our “cognitive mode of production” challenges Taylorism’s standardization and deskilled labor (Ross reminds us though that factories still exist), but not in liberatory ways.  Mark Andrejevic’s focus on commercial surveillance as integral to communicative infrastructure bears direct relationship to his arguments about our free labor in a digital economy where we are all for sale.  Though I don’t enable ads and, therefore, consumerist tracking/surveillance on this site, Jodi Dean certainly reminds me that my maintenance of all these websites, for my teaching and for my scholarship, is a kind of free labor, or what Michel Bauwens discusses in relation to the importance of “networked peer production.”  Any academic can tell you that blogging doesn’t count for/as our scholarship, but no one under 40 years old is really “marketable” in the academy today without a serious digital footprint.  It didn’t take much to convince me of the arguments in this book because my fatigue alone lets me know I been giving up some REAL SERIOUS LABOR, none of which is really counted in the typical measurements for promotion and the like for my profession. It is, in essence, only free labor that benefits that profession.

BUT… yes, there is always a BUT: a black woman working hard ain’t nuthin really exceptional; it’s just another day.  I am not saying this to justify exploitation, but to offer a different context of race and gender in a digital economy.  The only thing new a digital economy has offered me in terms of all this free labor is a VISIBILITY of that free labor (though not a visibility that uproots marginalization). It is from a sense of urgency that I intend to stay visible…hella visible.  I would go so far as to say that as a black woman in the academy, I really don’t have a choice.

Weebly_logo_and_tagline_2013Here’s what I mean.  In the fall, I taught a writing class where I introduced students to color as design and rhetoric, the CSS of their ePortfolio platform, and a rich text module (where they would write reflection on what they had done in the class and explain their visual design decisions). The agenda for that day of class was posted the night before, like every day of my teaching this year.  The “lesson plan” was hosted at my own ePortfolio so students could experience the text and weblinks on that platform.  There was also a 4-page handout, my personal worksheet and guide to CSS, all of which was followed by an exit slip as students left the lab.  Just a regular day of class really: tasks you need to complete, things you need to get done… with students who work hard to meet your expectations.  The pinch in the system on that day, however, came from an assigned observer of my class who claimed that no writing happened in the class and that I seemed unprepared for the day.  Yeah… you heard that right…UN-PRE-PARED.  So some 50 emails later and another 10 pages of 5th-grade-level explication of basic digital literacy practices in 21st century writing classrooms, I came to a crossroads where I DEEPLY understand the WORK of my digital labor… and the necessity that a black female professor always be able to PUBLICLY SHOW what she has done and what she can do. After all, it is difficult to make the case for unpreparedness if you have even casually perused the #1-11 list I have created above (unless, of course, you have NO clue how to work a web browser or google search).  It offers a digital visibility when an ideological imposition of invisibility tries to strike its ugly, white blows.  It won’t save or protect you, but it WILL throw a whole other kind of monkey-wrench in the mix, pun intended.

Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory gave me a new way of contextualizing the raced and gendered form of my digital labor in the academy. I won’t be romancing or celebrating this context anytime soon or heralding it as social transformation, voice, or liberation. The internet will not automatically make me an active producer or a creative subject, no more so than a washboard made black women future Maytag distributors.  The most radical possibilities afforded here are opportunities for new counter-publics, for using these digital platforms in much the same way as black communities have used the camera, for instance: to turn the gaze on and chronicle police brutality/white violence AND/OR to take back control of OUR OWN image.  We have always invented and sustained alternative public rhetorics of our bodies and histories using whatever technologies available to talk back… and black!  Today is no different.

Congratulations, Andrene!

andrene congrats

Click here for Andrene’s ePortfolio, PRETTY FOR A BLACK GIRL (created in her first-semester “Freshman English” course)!

Thank you also to the Africana Studies Department’s willingness to embrace what Abdul Alkalimat, in his definition of eBlack Studies, has called “a new conception of mapping our existence in cyberspace.”  We are proud of you, Andrene!