Gentrification 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.
Let 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.
You 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).
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.
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.