The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

WNYC & The Nation Highlight the G-word

The gap between renter and owner is enormous. We're not living the same experience, and those who claim we're all in the same boat are higher than The Flatbush Zombies. More on that later...the boat, not the Zombies.

WNYC and The Nation. Two peas in a pod? For now, I guess. A somewhat illuminating set of pieces on Gentrification are being peddled as the "There Goes the Neighborhood" series. It's worth noting that the phrase TGtN has been used countless times before, as has their supposedly "refreshing" look at a tired topic. And yet, there are interesting stories here worth hearing. I've been listening as I fall asleep, and that's had the effect of leaving some of the thoughts and stories resonating through the next day.

Neighbor Kai Wright of The Nation
Of course, the Q wouldn't be the Q if he didn't have problems with parts of this venture. First off, the condescending conversational tone of NPR is particularly egregious this time around, given the subject matter. The NPR set ARE the gentrifiers, so it's kinda like a bank auditing itself. (I know, it takes one to know one, right? But at least I'm not talking at you out loud. You're free to give me whatever nasality you like, in our head, when reading these words on the screen.) The guy doing the yakking on the WNYC is a local - Kai Wright - who's written extensively on race and inequality. He does a fair job and I can't complain about the Ira Glass generation's sense of what works on the radio. It's proven incredibly popular. Maybe it's just that I hear the ironic sensibility of my own generation in the mix. There's a sense of rising above it all that seems like the trap of the entitled class, regardless of color.

DW Gibson - researcher, writer
Another beef: I find the whole "hey, East New York is a real place too!" bit of Episode 2 incredibly patronizing. Anyone who's lived in NYC longer than a few minutes knows that every neighborhood is crammed with people living full and fascinating lives. Communities are communities, wherever you go - people raising families, struggling, high-fiving and fist-bumping, going to church, shopping for groceries. (Speaking of which the whole bit about how groceries are now two and three times as expensive in the gentrifier shops seems overstated. It's not like bodegas were known for their bargains, and to date they haven't disappeared. They just aren't ubiquitous. And yes, they've added a bit of buckage to their products, though often to keep pace with rents.) The notion that we somehow need to be told that poor black & latino communities are real neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are as worthy of preservation as any other, seems a bit like an anthropologist telling us that the Pygmies are people too - just look at how sophisticated they are! Though truth be told I always love hearing people talk about their lives in the first person, so it's not all for naught. Just so haughty. Especially when you just know the creators of this show are for the most gentrifiers themselves who congratulate each other on the excellent job of defending the underclass by drinking wine in upscale Bed-Stuy bistros. That's DW Gibson in the picture, a co-host. And I actually have no idea what he drinks. Maybe MadDog 20/20 for all I know. Though I doubt it.

Your neighbor Janine Nicholson
But Episode 4 is where, for me, I found some real meat. Because conversations about Gentrification often lack the financial savvy to explain the angles, the many ways that turning neighborhoods from poor to middle-class+ can be profitable. Also in Ep4 the notion of "camouflage gentrifier" gets a nod. Upper income or higher-educated POCs (people of color) are noted for how they often get a pass in the game of Gentrifier Tag. (Can you go plural with POC by adding an "s," since you don't know whether it's People or Person of color? Not sure. Apostrophe? PsOC? PplOC?) Speaking of which, when an educated white person joins the Anti-Gentrification movement do they lose the label? Your neighbor and MTOPP chum Janine Nicholson seems to think so. She's even got a blog called Whitey on Whitey, if you care to see how hard she's trying to be "down." She's also gummed up the works at CB9 and loves calling people out for their perceived misdeeds. A real piece of work, that one. Claims on her blog she's moving to Mexico because the whites are moving into our neighborhood. I shit you not. Gonna go gentrify down there now, then get pissy when the gringos find out about it...

Ultimately, the story of neighborhood change in Urban America comes down to a very different scenario for Renters and Owners (what's new?) Renters have relatively few advantages, though they do have some rights here in NYC; owners get the lion's share of advantages AND rights. Owners can tear down a building and then build something bigger (that's kinda been on my mind lately). In buildings with fewer than 6 units, and buildings built after a certain year, they can charge whatever they like and jack it up however much at the very next lease. Capitalism in a nutshell, ever since we "introduced" the concept to the Indians, whose land, by the way, was NOT rent stabilized. Sometimes, the price goes down too (I benefited from this after the recession of the late '80s). As long as a neighborhood's NY TIMES Desirability Rating wasn't too high. rents remained within reach of lower income New Yorkers. Provided, of course, that they were willing to move around when screwed or unstabilized. I never once rented a stabilized place in NYC, btw. Hardly knew about it frankly. I always heard about these wacky rent controlled places renting for, like, $6.50 a month, and wondered who you had to blow to get one. Speaking of the NY Times, do you recall how hard it was to get a copy in this neighborhood back in the early '00s? They didn't really sell it anywhere. Once you started seeing those blue condoms that protect the Old Gray Lady on people's stoop steps, you knew (didn't you?) that it was just a matter of time.

Now to you, Mr. Gentrifier Renter. Have you not already bought into this notion wholeheartedly when you moved here to NYC? You recognized right off the bat, like millions of other New Yorkers, that certain neighborhoods were NOT for you. They were either too expensive or too poor or too something else. You made the decision based on a whole host of factors, not unlike your brethren at other price points. Maybe you weighed schools and shops and crime and vibe. And maybe, let's be honest, you weighed race. Or it was weighed FOR you, by real estate agents hell-bent on maintaining the status-quo, the one where you get steered here, another there, another outa there. Because you, you awful, terrible soulless miscreant thought that renting in the best, most transportation-friendly neighborhood, most comfortable place you could afford was your American birthright. You entitled fiend. Next time take heed when someone (perhaps Janine Nicholson?) says Whitey Go Home. It's rubbish and we all know it is, but it bears repeating. You've done nothing wrong, but you have an obligation not to be a dick. To be warm to neighbors, grateful to those who are kind and helpful, and helpful yourself, looking out for those less fortunate and humbly thankful of the help you receive from those MORE fortunate. It's all such basic human stuff it's a shame, a deep and abiding shame, that it gets so mortally trampled by racial murk and fear.

And if you rented a non-stabilized place, Mr. Gentrifier Renter, like everyone else who is unstable (hah!) you might have to pick up stakes and move on. And your feelings of guilt about having moved into a neighborhood that wasn't "for you" will fade, and you'll just feel pissed and annoyed that NYC is so heartless even as it grows and prospers. And you'll hope and maybe save your shekels to one day "get in." Or you'll move. You have choices, and that's a good thing if you got 'em. Some, of course, have few to no choices, and our choices ultimately effect them most. We don't do it to be mean, and we didn't set the rules. But there are obligations just the same.

Mr. Non-Gentrifier Renter. You are at the bottom of the food chain, and only the "law" protects you even a bit, though not as much as you'd hope, and not enforced with vigor or certainty. On fate of birth, you were relegated to rent only in certain neighborhoods where you were welcomed, or tolerated, and you made the best of things. You raised families and started businesses and prayed and suffered and rejoiced as is your birthright. And yet, since the cards were stacked against you, you probably always knew that your number would eventually come up, as it always does in this country, and you'd be asked, like the original Natives, to move along quietly, or by warrant and musket if necessary. Maybe you can get a few thousand dollars, forty acres and a mule? Or nothing, Nada, zip. The landlord will eventually figure out how to make your life unpleasant enough, or will catch you at a low enough point, that he will succeed. He nearly always does,

Mr. Gentrifier Owner. You, sir, have benefited WAY beyond your talents and deeds.  NYC real estate being what it is - limited and generally desirable - you are a winner the moment you "get in," as some like to say. Now that you own, it's your responsibility to act responsibly and learn the culture of the neighborhood and not try to dictate. This is the Q. He is both ashamed at his good fortune and cursed by an insatiable curiosity. Lest you think that real estate is not so much a business as a payday, consider just how much money Donald Trump has made despite enormous fiscal ineptitude. You can't go wrong with real estate!

Mr. Non-Gentrifier Owner. At some point, you or your family set down roots and bought a piece of the American Dream. You are to be commending for holding the neighborhood together, along with the non-gentrifier renters. But you will one day reap enormous financial benefits, or your children will, and for this you are likely incredibly grateful, but perhaps wistful, since it wasn't necessarily going to be like this. The City nearly came apart, and nearly destroyed itself many times.

I'm only writing this to sort my thoughts. I have no idea if it's helpful to you, but it was helpful to me, and sure, I'll keep listening to the podcast. I just wish it wasn't so, um, gentrifiery you know? Ah hell, who gives a damn. It's a good effort and we all benefit from hearing what others are going through, and a slice of the economic incentives that make this all happen.


Alex said...

What I've heard so far has changed my perspective a bit in a couple ways. I found the story of the musician guy who lives in ENY pretty illuminating, in that his situation provides a pretty good example of the type of resident who will inevitably be left out of the mayor's affordable housing solution. It sounded like his income is mostly undocumented, and he relies on a network of familiar building owners, friends and other connections to keep himself housed. He does has neither the income nor the credit history, I'm guessing, to qualify for an affordable apartment. As land values increase in ENY and longtime owners sell, his opportunities to hustle for housing will decrease. The open question, however, is: will his opportunities to find housing based on his network decrease if the neighborhood is not rezoned, too?

Another interesting perspective that came from a Nation article that I agree with: the practice of banks or private individuals lending millions to support the purchase of rent stabilized buildings for well over their market cap is a form of racketeering, and should be treated as such by the courts. The deals only make sense under the assumption that the new owner can get rid of rent stabilized tenants and break the law by charging higher rents. In these situations, lenders/purchasers are collaborating with criminal intent. The Attorney General should be all over it.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Totally agree, Alex. But you have to catch them red-handed, or the argument could be made that they are merely investing for the long haul and that the market cap doesn't take into account the outsize real estate gains of recent years. We all know it's bull, but it would be hard to prove otherwise.

If there a way to automatically scrutinize these buildings and actively canvas tenants to determine treatment - then we'd be talking about a law with teeth that would dissuade landlords from entering the market with ill intent.

Even just a required hotline, placed permanently in the lobby of the building, promising anonymity, might get tenants to report housing fairness violations, not just building violations.

Bob Marvin said...

"Mr. Non-Gentrifier Owner"

I THINK, my race not withstanding, that I fall into this category because:

1. [main point] I, and most of the white new-comers to Lefferts Manor, and the surrounding blocks, in the late'60s–early '70s were in a slightly lower socio-economic status than the blacks who had been new-comers a few years earlier [teachers, civil, servants, and artists, as contrasted with doctors, lawyers, and college presidents].

2. [minor point] the term "gentrification" hadn't been imported from the UK to the US at the time I moved here.

Nevertheless I did literally "reap enormous financial benefits' and am a millionaire by virtue of a five-figure "investment" made 40+ years ago. However, I NEVER thought of it as an investment–it was a house, and a neighborhood, to live in and raise a family. Also, since I only intend to leave feet first, I'll never realize the financial return on the investment. My son MIGHT, but just might [I hope] decide to live here after eventually inheriting the house, thereby passing the monetary gain down another generation or so.

That being said, YES, I do realize how lucky I am to have moved here. Mainly because of the neighborhood, and house, but I must confess to a bit of Schadenfreude, as my contemporaries who moved to the suburbs instead of neighborhoods like ours', have come to realize their error.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

You're awesome, Bob. A credit to your race. :)

My point, that took forever to make, is that we didn't just choose to live in a neighborhood that was underpriced. We were also not welcome (financially anyway) elsewhere. You move where you can afford and where you're comfortable. Plenty of folks weren't comfortable moving to a mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood.

The issues that cause income inequality, particularly of the racial variety, are the prime movers. Individuals simply act within their economic best interests. It is exceedingly rare for someone to do otherwise. a tiny apartment that your family can't afford so you avoid being labelled gentrifier. That would be a difficult civil rights stand to take, for most families.

But that is still a far cry from the renting scenario, wherein the real estate industry put demographic change at the top of its list of priorities, and incentivizes shady and racist practices. I'm not copping out - just noting the huge difference.

Jacob said...

I thought this was a very interesting interview:

"We look for affordably priced apartment buildings in working-class neighborhoods. The term “workforce housing” sounds very stripped down, but guess what? We do not own the type of housing in which people don’t have to work. About 98 percent of our portfolio is rent-stabilized. We’re not against buying market-rate units, but when we buy rent-stabilized, we can base the numbers on the fact that there are rent guidelines."

Alex has a good point about fraudulent practices but unfortunately there are perfectly legal ways to get out of rent stabilization: buyouts or capital improvements which push the rent into market rate.

Anonymous said...

Umm I'm a non-white 'gentrifier' renter and maybe I'm not picking up on you sarcasm here (I hope) but if PLG is the best bang for my buck rent-wise, and I don't want to live in a shoebox in Manhattan for 75% of my paycheck, what exactly is the problem? My experience on Flabenue so far shows me that neighbourly courtesy isn't the problem since noise, sanitation, cleanliness and civilised behaviour is absent from the behaviours of a lot of the existing community. No offence to people who aren't like that and live here. I am speaking from experience. So I am nice to my neighbours, clean other people's trash from my hallways, keep my music volume down and greet everyone politely but I'm not welcome in this neighbourhood because I didn't already live here?....

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Of course you're "welcome." Anyone who claims the contrary is an asshole.

Are their flaws in the racist, capitalist hierarchies? Hell yeah. You, neighbor, are responsible only for your behavior and ethics. You seem to have that part down.

When you say that "civilised behaviour" is absent from a lot of the existing community, I learned two things. One, that you were probably raised in a school system that employed the Queen's English. And, that you may have not internalized the truth. That a very, very few make life less pleasant for the very, very great many.

However, if you live in a nasty, slumlordy building or near a hectic corner, one can understand that your experience might skew towards the negative.

When the behaviour becomes anti-social, however, I would not hesitate to contact your local constable.