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Posts Tagged ‘Gentrification’

Budding Trees in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

The blossoms are out on the tree outside my front door, almost obscuring one of the last empty houses on the street (five years ago there were at least a half-dozen). The slightly menacing and very monotonous tingle of the ice cream truck echoes up and down and all around the street . . .

Saturday morning, the block association on my street came out to clean up the planters, getting ready to put out the flowers in a week or two. People are out on the stoop, kids are on the pavement, and the first of the killer motorcycles has come roaring down the street. A few more fire trucks than usual were out today, but so far, no major repeat of the craziness that came with the warm weather a couple of weeks ago.

The dogs are out as well, barking in the back yards for any reason at all, their barking magnified by the canyon formed by the backs of the three and four story brownstones . . .

Half-finished condo building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

Down Greene Ave. one condo is almost finished, another sits three-quarters finished and almost wholly abandoned, the guard post unmanned most of the time, windows smashed out on the upper levels, a the two by fours and netting of a personnel barrier hanging off an unfinished balcony. The ten story tower, the tallest building in the area, looks over the neighborhood like an unmanned lighthouse. The almost finished condo, however, advertises the usual luxury flats and, from the polished condition of the flats inside the windows, the owners seem confident they’ll sell. The sister condo – almost identical in size and style – is going up just as fast.

On The Street that Gentrification Forgot, new housing built a year or two ago has made it seem almost like a normal street. Almost. An auto body shop has been converted into a woodworking studio where, amongst other things, the owners make violins. A yoga studio, sure sign that the neighborhood is reaching the gentrification critical mass, is rumored to be opening in a converted warehouse loft. Yet just around the corner is another condo, thin as a razor, also three-quarters complete and seemingly abandoned. The lower levels are open, guarded by a wooden fence that is so flimsy the whole thing fell right into the street during the storm a couple of weeks ago – where it remained for three days until someone finally came to put it right. I keep  waiting for squatters to move in and inhabit the spaces with the floor to ceiling windows and, I’m sure, fine views of the neighborhood.

Abandoned condo building on Bedford Ave.

Up on Classon and Greene, in the old liquor store building, a mural has been painted on the side facing Greene, obscuring some of the old historic logs of companies that don’t exist anymore. Two young guys, one black, one white, were hard at work a couple of weeks ago, and I thought they might be producing some sort of community mural. Instead, it is an ad disguised as a community mural. It reads:

“This art wall installation  was designed by (two real estate agents who shall remain un-named) and was inspired by the Ford Fiesta Movement project, Mission#1. The mural highlights (said real estate agents)’ top 10 favorite locations in Brooklyn. They are one of 20 teams of agents throughout the country who are challenged with showcasing the vibrancy and creativity of their home town.”

Like Jeremiah wrote in a post last week, street art is being/has been colonized by the corporate world so “sometimes . . .  it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at gallery art, graffiti, or advertising.. .”What’s curious about this mural is its sheer dippiness, and its location on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy (and across from another finished, but empty condo building). This makes no mistake that it is advertising, according to the video on the website it is part of a nationwide team of real estate agents “working with the best local talent to reimagine the way Fiesta gets advertised”. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope the mural it is tagged and defaced (in the grand NY tradition) very soon.

Corporate Mural on the corner of Greene and Classon



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Bed-Stuy, or this corner of Bed-Stuy is being flooded with condos.

Two four story, close to hundred unit condos on Greene between Franklin and Classon.

Two condos on Greene Ave

Another 20 units (give or take) on 270 Greene (at Classon).

Condo on Greene and Classon

What looks like another four story, possibly close to a hundred unit building going up on Clifton Place between Franklin and Classon . . .

Condo clifton place

Another 20 unit place overlooking Beford and Greene . . . .

Condos on Bedford

Another 100 or so units down Bedford, off Dekalb, off Myrtle . . . .

Condos on Dekalb

And smaller units dispersed around a ten block radius everywhere else.

This section of Bed-Stuy is on a corridor between gentrified Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and trendy hipster capital Williamsburg – and thus desirable real estate. Now – ten years ago, this was still a desolation zone. Not quite the war zone it had been in the mid-90’s, when crackheads and hookers lined the street that gentrification forgot, but bad enough. At night you’d hear fights on the street, periodic gunfire, and, sometimes in the mornings, crackheads standing on the sidewalk coming down off a binge, radiating menace.

Community activism, declining drug use, heavier police presence, and the inevitable sweep of gentrification changed all that. The local council needed development so they didn’t impose the same height restrictions as neighboring Clinton Hill, with the result that the Condos have marched in. En masse.

Almost all the lots these condos are being built on were vacant, or occupied by abandoned factories, so at least there hasn’t been any destruction of indigenous architecture. Many  of the lots are owned by Hasidic Jews, who have moved up block by block up Bedford from Williamsburg, right to Myrtle. The Hasidim have huge families, and their particular (and oft peculiar) brand of Judaism forbids higher education, so many go into real estate speculation and construction. Possibly, the owners of these properties have held them for decades.

The question, as EV Grieve asked about development in the Bowery is, who are these being built for? What happens if they remain empty? Will they be converted into affordable housing, or will the owners hold out for the inevitable yuppie condo buyer? At 270 Greene, a 2 bdrm ‘loft’ will cost you as much as $635,000, what an entire brownstone would cost you just a few years ago.

You can see businesses on the main streets starting to rev up. On Franklin, the New Millenium has removed the hard plastic barrier in front of the condo, installed an LCD banner, and now advertises organic food. A new restaurant is opening up on Bedford, by Lafayette. On Franklin, a Fench pizza place has opened up near Bistro Lafayette. Perhaps they’ll even have to put a few more cars on the G train.

Time will tell . . . .at least nothing has come up like this I’m sure unintentionally hilarious ad (courtesy of Jeremiah Moss) for high-end (and evidently very white) condos in Harlem.

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Bar#3: Nancy Whiskey Bar

Mars Bar

Mars Bar, East Village, NYC

If the Mars bar wasn’t the first bar I went to in New York, it was close. It was the fall of 1989. I had a friend who lived down 3rd street, a few doors away from the Hell’s Angels clubhouse and a few blocks away from the desolation zone that, a few years earlier, had been the fabled early 80’s Alphabet City (documented in Lech Kowalski’s ‘Story of a Junkie‘), and he took me round.

I’d just come off a couple of years squatting in London, and a couple years before that hanging around the hardcore scene in Montreal and Vancouver, and the Mars was very familiar. The walls were covered in graffiti and shock art, a Rolling Rock and a healthy shot of JD cost about two bucks, the jukebox was stocked with all the British punk/ hardcore and New York noise bands I liked. Best of all, it had the rollicking open-ness of the East Village bars of the late 80’s. You’d sit at the bar, have a drink, and talk to just about anyone – musicians, art school chicks, junkies, dealers, some old lady from up the street who’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life – even out and out hicks rolling into town for the night. People’s open-ness came from confidence, and a desire to make contact. The brick windows allowed for a good view of the circus outside. After London’s self-concious cliquiness, and Canada’s faux British snobbery and insecurity, the Mars and all NY bars like it were indeed a liberation.

After the first couple of years in New York, I didn’t go down so much. I quit drinking for awhile, which probably had something to do with it – the Mars wasn’t the kind of bar you’d hang around without a drink. But year after year, it remained, even after the area cleaned up, even after the condos moved in, like a pool that remains after the tide’s gone out. I went down once in awhile, but figured it would disappear or be taken over by kids like all the other grungy bars I used to go to in the day.

Little did I think it would not only survive, but become an icon, written about in the New York Times as ‘the grimy dive where tourists go in search of authentic punks and authentic punks start drinking at mid-day.”

Lordy.

Condos across the street Condos across the street from the Mars Bar.

I went back a couple of weeks ago, inspired partly by a post in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and my recent desire to trace my own past in the Village. The bar was as filthy as ever, the walls covered in graffiti and the same shock art, but it felt comfortable, like a decrepit living room. Fruit flies hovered around the toilet in the closet-width bathroom. The walls were still covered in graffiti and shock art. Boxes of bottled beer were stacked behind the bar and there was still no draught. A sign over the bar read: ‘If you can read this, go the fuck home.’ The bartender, surprisingly, had not attitude – in fact she was almost excessively polite.

On first glance, the clientele was something like it would have been a decade or so ago, when I’d last been in. Some big guys with big beards and ponytails who looked like hipster farmers were punching music into the jukebox while the woman they were with kept falling off her bar stool. A black couple hovered around the bar, the woman alternately talking to her man and into her cellphone. Some huge Italian looking guy came in, flopped down on a padded office chair in the corner and said to everyone and no one in particular, “How ya doing? Haven’ a good day?” He seemed familiar with the bartender and a few old guys along the bar, like he was a regular – and when he didn’t order a drink I wondered if he owned the place.

A girl was sitting at the bar. Early 20’s, maybe European, maybe American – I couldn’t hear her accent. She had peroxide blonde hair, shiny black Doctor Marten’s, and hi-tech tattoos beneath her slick leather jacket and from the way she looked over the bar with an odd mixture of ownership and pride, I figured she must have worked pretty hard to reach her perch at this scarred and storied bar, dressed up in her new outfit . . .

I didn’t stay too long. It felt too self-conscious,  too much like the past, a reminder of how little of the world I knew in my own early 20’s survives.

Then again, maybe the old place still has some life. Or something: A post from Slum Goddess

Nice shots from Gog Log: No Worries, Saturday night at the Mars Bar

The East Village is Dead mural outside Mars Bar Mural outside Mars Bar

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Stewart Home writes in his Mister Trippy blog reports that in London of “empty retail units and what only a couple of years ago would have seemed like really unlikely pop-ups in place of tedious corporate chains.”

I can’t imagine rents have dropped more in London than they have in New York, but this would be a welcome development. I haven’t seen it here yet, but you never know – retail units are emptying out in Manhattan as well.

If it IS happening in London, it would be reversal of what was happening when I moved back in 2007, when the old London of independent stores and second-hand shops seemed about to disappear completely.

I’m thinking of one place in particular, a second-hand booksellers in the St. James shopping arcade, just behind St. James Park (between Buckingham Palace and Westminster for you non-Londoners). The bookseller was a garrulous English guy, whose small store was wedged between a newsagent and some kind of coffee chain. He had all kinds of books you didn’t see in the chain bookstores (including a full range of titles by Stewart Home), and perennial sales – books for a pound. His store was ramshackle, with boxes all over the place, but he was a big friendly guy who liked to chat with anyone who came into his store – and there were always a couple of regulars around the counter. After he spotted my accent, he told me his wife was from Canada, that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the store since the landlord wanted to raise his rent beyond any reasonable amount, but that if he lost the store, he and his wife were going to sail up and down the coast of British Columbia “like we’ve always wanted to do.”

A week after our conversation, he was gone. A couple of chain shops – a gift card place, a chain juice shop (I’ve forgotten the name of most of these chain places) moved in, but were never too successful and when I left London last year, the storefront was empty again.

I saw his departure as the end of an older London, since that was what I’d always loved about the city, that you could find an independent bookseller ten minutes walk from Buckingham Palace. From that point on, central London seemed exclusively for the rich – wages were already going down for anyone not in the higher echelons of the financial district, and the prices kept going up, up, up. And the chains were everywhere.

Maybe that’s why I liked the Elephant and Castle shopping mall – in it’s own grubby way, it retained a little of that old anarchic London, with it’s mixture of Columbian cafes, the African market, (the Chinese herbalist with the sign in the window promising relief from ‘man problem’) the good second-hand booksellers on the lower level. Despite, or perhaps, because it was still a miserable place to spend more than say, twenty minutes.

So readers, have you seen any examples of interesting stores taking over empty ‘tedious corporate chains’ like Stewart Home writes about in his blog?

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The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

I’ve been down the last couple of weeks with the cold virus that seems to be sweeping the city. And what a virus – haven’t experienced anything like this in years. In the meantime:

From Patell and Waterman’s History of New York:

Hunkered Down in the East Village with Jeremiah Moss and EV Grieve.

Jeremiah Moss is the pseudonym behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and EV Grieve ditto for, well,  EV Grieve. They talked with P&W HONY blog host Brian Waterman about everything from selecting a blogging alter ego (Jeremiah Moss was originally a character from the writer’s unpulished novel), the ongoing gentrification of the East Village to the ‘East Village blogging mafia’. In particular, they talked about the changing demographic of people coming to New York, the East Village in particular, since 9-11. JM said:

“Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different . . . Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place”

The others concurred. I thought it was interesting that they feel the change set in after 9-11. In the East Village, the real shift, for me at least, began in the mid-90’s, when a whole new type of international affluent young person began to find the EV began to arrive in great numbers. In New York in general, I’d say the years after 9-11 weren’t too bad, preferable in many ways to the late 90’s, when a kind of hubris ruled, particularly amongst anyone connected to the dot.com world (for a reminder of just how awful that era could be, see ‘We Live In Public’ by Ondi Timnover).

Immediately after 9-11, pain, shock, brought New Yorkers together again – and scared off a lot of the kinds of people who have saturated it now. In February, 2003, 600,000 people marched against the Iraq War, coming out in minus 15 cold, with winds off the East River –  going up against a venomous lockstep media ready to label anyone who dissented from the Bush administration line a traitor.

In 2004, another half-million marched against the Republican convention in mid-town. That was a good time to be in New York. Again, there was a sense of solidarity in the streets, an energy and open-ness that hadn’t existed since just after 9-11. It was like a more genteel version of the New York I experienced when I first started coming here in the late 80’s. Even the East Village seemed to take a momentary respite from gentrification. If there were more white people with kids on Ave. A than ever before, they were a welcome change from the internationally trendy.

I’d say the latest big change in New York started happening in Bush’s second term. I came and went a lot during those years, and every time I came back, Manhattan seemed a little more affluent, a little more bland, even withdrawn, the bars I used to go to more expensive, familiar neighborhoods that much more homogenous, cellphone/ computer/ corporate culture that much more intrusive. By 2006 or so, the process seemed to have taken over everything else.

But if New York is about anything, it is change. In my limited (fifteen year) experience, the city seems to change direction every five years or so. Possibly, we’re at the end of one cycle now. I’d hoped that the big crash last year would put the breaks on gentrification, and bring back the city I’d loved, but that hasn’t happened yet, at least not in any obvious way.

What do you think, readers? What will the next cycle bring – in New York, London, Toronto, wherever?

Down Ludlow street

Down Ludlow street

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Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

Since the Pink Elephant Shopping centre continues to be the number one hit on this blog (who knew?) I should provide a link to my other blog ‘live from the heygate’. I started this blog when I lived on the Heygate Estate from October, 2007 until April the following year. In part I wanted to record the experience of living on the estate and the Elephant in what I thought might be it’s last moments before being demolished. Since then, I have followed developments both from while living in adjacent neighborhoods, and now from New York. I try and keep up with the regeneration, how the tenants are faring, and any artistic projects taking place in or around the estate – with anything to do with the Elephant generally.

Posts specifically about the shopping centre:

Elephant Saved (one month ago)

The Mall (from March, 2008)

and Deja Vu All Over Again (today)

I also have many posts about the regeneration, the heygate estate, the Elephant and Castle area in general.

Include from Time Out: a fine post about the Elephant and Castle mall in 2006.

Also, for a bit of recent history: A great post from Micheal Collins from 2001 (The Likes of Us), about growing up on the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle: “The Elephant’s Graveyard”

Escalators to Bingo Palace

Escalators to Bingo Palace

I’m interested in marginal areas in transition, and the Elephant is about as marginal and in transition as it gets. I have also lived in the Elephant, on a mostly transient basis, since 1987, when I first came back to the UK as an adult after growing up in Canada. I lived in a squat across the New Kent Road in one of the inter-war brick estates. Squatting was very common back then – the law supported it, and there were many empty flats across London. I’ve heard it’s making a comeback now, but I doubt it will ever reach the popularity it had in the 80’s, when basically any newcomer to London with any sense lived  in a squat.

The regeneration scheme, the largest construction project in all of Europe, is designed to completely remake the entire area, including the estate, the mall, and the roundabout, encompassing several city blocks, is falling further and further behind schedule. No deal has been signed with preferred bidder Lend Lease. In the latest statement, Councillor Nick Stanton of Southwark Council says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that a deal will be reached with preferred bidder Lend-Lease by the end of 2009, but no deal his been reached.

People remain on the estate – including exactly one lease-holder living on the Kingshill Estate, a building which once held 800 or 900 people. One person in an empty building, the flats covered in thick iron slabs to keep out squatters.

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As I wrote a couple of posts (and at least a month – I’ve been AWOL on this blog lately) ago, I was invited to observe/ participate a Brian Lehrer form at the WNYC sound studios a couple of weeks ago. The invitation came basically that morning and I went because I thought it might illuminate some things about Bed-Stuy, where I’ve been a part-time resident for six years, and my quest to understand the roots of gentrification. 

And it did. 

Some stats: 

– According to one participant on the panel, Ibrahim Abdul Matin, a community organizer with the Black Muslim community in Brooklyn, 50% of black men in New York are unemployed. What he probably means is, not officially employed. They are unemployed the way I’m unemployed, working off the radar, here and there. Nonetheless, that’s huge number of people not integrated into the official economy. 

   He pointed out that the underground economy is not as strong in New York as it once was:

“As someone who grew up watching the crack era and seeing it all evolve, there was a time in New York where things were not that great, but you could join the underground economy and make a lot of money. You can’t do that any more. People aren’t making big money hustling.”

   Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does point to one reason why crime rates remain relatively low, despite the job losses, the unemployment. Folks in the inner city don’t want to do crack. 

– According to Pam Green, a____, the sub-prime mortgage hit Bed-Stuy hard. People lost their homes, left the neighborhood. Conversely, this has hastened rather than slowed down gentrification. She claimed there has been a 255% increase in white people moving into Bed-Stuy in the last year. “This change is too fast – you see the architecture changing, symmetry of housing changing, big condos going up . . .” 

– Ironically, those very factors that make Bed-Stuy a more liveable place for it’s residents than it was  a few years ago – stronger sense of community, a massive drop in crime rate, obvious drug use – has made it more vulnerable to gentrification. Crime rates are actually higher in neighboring Fort Greene and Park Slope, where more people have more money. Long-term residents have worked hard to make Bed-Stuy more safe, so now it’s more safe for the condo developers, and the people who want to live in those condos as well. 

– Which leads to: Rental prices in central Brooklyn have tripled in the last few years. Where the average price for a one-bedroom was five hundred, not it’s fifteen hundred. As storeowner Atim Annette Okim (calabra imports) pointed out, who can afford $1500 a month making $7.50 an hour, which is what so many low-skilled jobs pay?

   So gentrification marches on, even in the recession . . .

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