From Austin to Chicago, from New York to San Francisco, outside of, say, racial slurs or flagrant insults, there aren’t too many words that raise backs, hackles and voices quite like “gentrification.”
Positive or negative, everyone has an opinion about it. And yet people can’t quite even agree on a definition of the idea, can’t agree about about what happens when a neighborhood “gentrifies,” can’t agree who the winners and losers are or even what loss looks like.
Some folks get mad, some get guilty and some get defensive, and the whole thing gets depressing.
So it’s awfully impressive that D.W. Gibson’s oral history, “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century,” isn’t a drag — it’s inspiring, frustrating, delightful, funny and sad.
Gibson (author of the 2012 book “Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy”) talks to dozens of New Yorkers about how gentrification has shaped their lives, for good and ill. He talks to folks from all walks of life — realtors, artists and bankers, civil service workers, landlords and lawyers. He goes from world-historical Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side and Harlem to the rapidly changing Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
In letting these folks tell their stories, Studs Terkel-style, a complicated and multifaceted picture of the new New York emerges.
Gibson opens with a 45-year-old African-American real estate agent and Brooklyn lifer named mTkalla “on the front porch of a towering Victorian home” in Prospect-Lefferts Garden. He’s a great person to open with — mTkalla leaving the red-hot Park Slope neighborhood “back to Lefferts Gardens” (“People are like, ‘You’re crazy. You’re bugging out. How could you move? You’re one of the only black dudes that owns in Park Slope!’”). For the record, the new place is huge and has a driveway. A driveway in New York, people.
mTkalla waxes philosophical about the offensive complexities of whites who ask him “Am I going to be safe?” (“She said, ‘Am I going to be the only white woman walking down the street?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t understand your question. What are you really saying?’ And she had to just float in her own ignorance.”)
At the same time, he loves the Barclay Center, the multimillion-dollar home of the Brooklyn Nets (“Do you know how many Europeans wear Brooklyn on their chest?)
Gibson moves from there to a Jewish colleague of mTkalla’s to M.J. Mai, a contractor who works with both of them (“When I start a job, the building, it’s always bad condition. After I finish … it’s a beautiful living area … a new part of New York. Then I have a special feeling”) to an Asian-American architect who works with Mai (“My block (in Ridgewood, Queens) has changed. There’s more of a sense of community”).
The book works best when Gibson develops this great chain of being, one story flowing into the next; eventually the chapters cease tying together so neatly, which is too bad.
But Gibson uses the stories to elucidate class complexities, the legal maze of living in a system as complicated as the Big Apple and unpack smaller communities. The leaders of the Crown Heights Tenant Union urge unity — “New tenants and people who have lived here for a long time should not be pitted against each other. That weakens us — and empowers the landlords.”
Two short chapters later, the focus shifts to Red Hook in Brooklyn, a one-time haven for artists that 11-year resident Gita Nandan “talks about as though it was a sleepy seaside village.” Elsewhere, folks struggle to find public housing mere blocks away from world-class (and land-rich) universities.
Oral histories, at their very best, function as collages, each story a color and image that amplifies and contextualizes each other piece. Gibson does offer analysis here and there (rendered in italics), but he mostly lets the residents do the talking, and their funny, wry voices pop off the page.
Topics and subjects range from food to graffiti to squats. A whole mess of folks like talking about mayors, from Rudy Giuliani, whose “broken windows” tough on crime approach defined the era to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor whose three terms all but defined the contemporary view of NYC as for rich folks only, to newish mayor Bill de Blasio, on whom the jury is still out.
Gibson notes at the end of “The Edge” that one year into the de Blasio era, the income gap is worse in Manhattan than anywhere else in the country: “The top 5 percent of Manhattan households earned 88 times as much as the poorest 20 percent.” This does not seem sustainable (or rather, one hopes it is not), and Gibson isn’t ready to scrap the word that defines what he documents: “‘Gentrification’ is our word of choice because we have settled into the choice to let money frame our relationship to land.”
But “The Edge” — the stories therein and the people who tell them — never quite resort to despair. The stakes are just too high, and life in New York is far too interesting to throw up one’s hands. Communities change, but community is always important. As the Austin musician Tim Kerr is fond of saying, “What are you doing to participate?”
The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century
Overlook Press. $27.95.
Gibson will read from, discuss and sign “The Edge Becomes the Center” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects monthly series.