I live in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It’s a sub-neighborhood of Flatbush where you find large Victorian houses on some streets mixed in with apartment buildings and small businesses on the avenues, all a short bike ride from Prospect Park. It’s diverse, first off, by income. Some of the people who own those houses are obviously well-off (you can see by the expensive construction jobs some are undergoing), but many others have been homes for generations, from a time before the real estate boom/crisis pushed people outward from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens to farther and farther parts of Brooklyn and Queens (we are around 20 to 30 minutes from Manhattan by train at an express stop, so not as desirable as many more popular neighborhoods). Plus, many of the large homes here are subdivided and shared to make them more affordable, and the apartments are still reasonably priced — at least for New York — and unfancy. Ours has a roach problem, an often-in-need-of-repair elevator, and one part-time doorman who works from 4 to 10 pm and never actually opens the door, but does greet me with a nice “Hello, Dear” whenever I enter. Most people in the building say “hello,” in fact, and our maintenance is low, so it works for us and people like us, for whom owning an apartment is about having a pleasant and affordable place to live, rather than an investment or status.
The variety of housing that leads to economic diversity is also part of the reason behind the neighborhood’s ethnic and racial diversity. Our building is predominantly white, African American and Caribbean, with a smattering of Asian folks. That’s kind of reflective of the neighborhood, but it changes, depending literally on which corner you stand and which direction you face. Go two blocks west, and you might think it’s mainly Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Middle Eastern— many different types of head scarves and kameezes. Continue west or go four blocks south, and you end up very obviously, thanks to the black suits, hats, long skirts and wigs, in a Hassidic/Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Go east to Flatbush Avenue and the neighborhood is mostly black, including African American, West Indian and Haitian. And mixed in all around you find Latino and East Asian families and businesses. At my local grocery, as you can imagine, you find an interesting mix of staples from all over the world – including probably fifty different kinds of hot sauce.
As a result, the neighborhood sometimes confounds people. Some folks who have visited us here are primed to think it’s a ritzy enclave because of the big houses, but then are thrown by the diversity/lack of white people that they see on the streets. Other people think it’s hipsterville because of the cool restaurants and bars on Cortelyou Road, the one really gentrified strip in the neighborhood, but then you can turn right off of that on to Coney Island Avenue and find yourself surrounded by car washes, cell phone stores, and steam table storefronts. To me, this is what makes it quintessentially New Yorkish, and a pretty great place to live. Like most people, I would like to live closer to the city, but aside from that, we’re pretty fortunate in terms of what we have here.
I was a little worried a couple of years ago when we noticed on our bike rides that cars in one part of the neighborhood seemed to be getting broken into a lot. On certain blocks, we’d find ourselves trying to avoid several pools of broken glass where car windows had clearly been smashed the night before, one after another. Friends said they heard it was about identity theft, so I took my registration out of the car for a while, but they thefts never came closer to us, so I eventually put it back. As New Yorkers, we are used to this sort of thing. That’s why I don’t leave anything that looks like it might even remotely be of value in view inside my car. I even take my E-Z Pass off the windshield. I know that’s probably overkill, but since I moved here in the ‘90s, this just seems like common sense to me. Why risk it?
Then just in these past couple of months, there was a new development: a series of armed robberies. Two restaurants and one café have been held up by one or more men with guns, and they’ve taken not just whatever was in the cash register but the possessions of the patrons — cash, computers, jewelry. In one case, which has been tied to the robberies maybe only by its proximity, an older man was killed in a home invasion. This has everyone on edge. Two of the restaurants that got hit are places that my husband and I go to literally all the time, and we take our computers to a different local café to work on a regular basis. The fact that we weren’t the ones robbed makes us feel like it was just the luck of the draw. One local business owner even said he felt like he was “‘in line just waiting for something to happen.’”
But something else the same guy said was, “‘Worst-case scenario, the robberies are a pushback against the new people in the neighborhood.’” I thought maybe this dude was an exaggerating drama queen, but it turns out he’s not the only one talking about this. Back in May, there was a lot of talk about anti-gentrification graffiti that showed up at the Church Avenue subway station, one express stop away from us. Then, at the town hall meeting about the robberies, it came up again. At least people in my part of Brooklyn are talking about these things, and hopefully listening and learning something. (That may not be happening in other transitional neighborhoods, like Gowanus, where, rather than a discussion about the new Brooklyn probation office that’s been slated to open there and its role in and effect on the community, there’s a lawsuit). But I realized, after reading that article about the town hall, that while I love my neighborhood, I have to wonder whether we are really one community — to the degree that not only are we having trouble finding a solution to what currently ails us, we’re even having trouble agreeing on what the problem is. Yes, everyone deplores the crime, but for some, it’s the only issue, while for others, it’s part of a larger picture: lack of jobs, lack of opportunity and lack of affordable housing, which are growing as the neighborhood gentrifies, driving poor and minority residents out. You can see the culture clash in how some are talking about things like how to prevent recidivism while others are talking about putting more cops on the street and putting up more cameras. And it underscores the fact that in my own community, not just in Ferguson or on Staten Island, the police don’t make us all feel safer, certainly not equally. (These days, when Damon and I see cops pulling over a car or talking to someone on the street, our first thought is not, “There’s the NYPD doing it’s job keeping us safe,” it’s, “Should we take out our phones and start filming?”)
It’s when crises like this happen that people’s assumptions about what’s “good,” “a problem,” and “inevitable” come to the fore, and yes, they have a lot to do with race. You might somehow think, in a neighborhood as diverse as mine, that race becomes less of a factor, but in fact, that diversity only makes it patently obvious to anyone who lives here how much it still matters. I’ve been on both sides of gentrification, as both the gentrifier and the person pushed out by it, but there’s a big difference between seeing both sides and having people place you on one permanently, because of the color of your skin. So while plenty of white people think gentrification is “good,” and others think it’s “a problem,” many still call it an “inevitable” problem, one which they accept since they hope to end up on the happy side of it one day. But acceptance is a little harder when the establishment — white landlords, co-op boards, local business owners, cops, and often some of your neighbors — tends to look at you as the before picture, the ‘hood, the “broken windows.” You can try to tell me it’s not that way — that you don’t think that way — and maybe you don’t. I like to think that I don’t. But when I talked about the robberies, who did you picture perpetrating the crime, and who did you see as the victims? (The answer: the robbers wore masks and gloves so we don’t know, and the victims were racially mixed). These are embedded assumptions about gentrification and crime — thanks in no small part to the film and television industry that I work in. Don’t believe me? Go to IMDb and look up your favorite black actors and see the ratio of cops and criminals they’ve played compared to anything else. And the few positive representations we’ve seen in the media that break from this, from The Cosby Show to Blackish to every Shonda Rhimes series to the one black/minority friend who now is a staple of sitcoms (and hey, New Girl has two!), cannot counter the literally centuries of negatives that have buried themselves in our collective cultural psyche. And this is not even getting into the root fact that this relationship between gentrification and race and poverty and crime exists because the history of this country is inseparable from slavery and Jim Crow and separate-but-equal and redlining and predatory lending and white flight. (Details? Read this — it’s long but worth it).
The sad thing about the broken windows theory is that one of its original ideas was that people had to take pride and invest in their communities to make them better. Now, it’s become a way of looking at policing and gentrification that treats the poor and minorities as the broken windows that need to be fixed to make our city better — basically, the opposite. I think that we have the possibility here in Ditmas Park, as much as anywhere, to understand our city’s povertygentrificationcrimeracism problem, and find real solutions — like affordable housing and protection of tenant rights, support services for the poor like job training and day care, better public schools, more community involvement, better rather than more policing…I don’t know what all the answers are, but I think we need to find them together.