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Posts Tagged ‘Gentrification’

My curious position in NY as a freelance housepainter brings me into odd neighborhoods, most recently to the area just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, the pocket of co-op hi-rises divided from the Lower East Side by the industrial bulk of the bridge, contained to the West by the ever-expanding bustle of Chinatown and to the East by the expressway and the river. 

The lower Lower East Side is a remnant of a time when the LES was Jewish (Leon Trotsky spent time there before heading back to Russia to play his part in the Glorious Proletarian Revolution), a collection of tenements like north of Delancey. In the 40’s and 50’s a coalition of Jewish socialists and organizations like the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union got together, bought land from the city, demolished the tenements and built co-ops to provide decent housing for their members – the current blocks of stolid brick hi-rises with their gated coutyards.

   Inside, the flats are comfortable enough, in that 40’s and 50’s hi rise kind of way with some odd curiousities – for example some elevators stop on every floor during the Sabbath because the Orthodox are not allowed to do work of any kind on that day. It is an odd neighborhood, neither one thing nor another. Parts of Grand Street remind me of suburban Jewish areas in Toronto, with Orthodox Jews in black suits and yarmulkes walking past strip mall like rows of bagel shops and delis. My first day in the neighborhood, a new deli had opened, and a woman was handing out containers of what smelled like chicken soup, next to a big bowl with what looked like the world’s biggest matzoh ball sitting in some sort of gravy – about as appetizing as a huge ball of lard.

Then comes the inevitable Chinese take-away, a pizza place staffed by overworked Latinos, a bike shop with the bikes piled up inside, repairs being done right out on the sidewalk with prospective customers standing around watching – an informality you rarely see in Manhattan amymore. 

Old Jews, pioneers I imagine from the original settlement, so old and bent over they need walkers or have to lean, bent right over, against a wall to wait for the bus, circulate in the daytime. Their children, or grandchildren, capitalists now, have sold off many of the co-ops and the professional class has moved in, yet for whatever reason they haven’t brought in the usual coffee shops, bars, what have you. 

Up Essex, the old pickle shop I remember from the first time I went to the area, is still there, further down the street a Jewish family-run paint store then, suddenly, in that classic Manhattan lack of transition, the Mandarin-scripted signs, the crowded streets of Chinatown. To the North, the brute industrial strength of the Williamsburg Bridge, the trains clattering back and forth behind the iron cage, then the even more brutal faces of the projects which ring that stretch of the Lower East Side, right up to 14th street – the ultimate example of the fortress style public housing, with sheer brick faces rising maybe fifteen stories high – housing built all over America in the 60’s, in an even more spectacular, and violent, failure than the the dismal concrete towers the same mindset built in Britain. 

Yet in the afternoon, the estates are quiet, the greens below the towers well-kept, city workers in blue uniforms circulating around the playgrounds, the old Puerto Rican men hanging around the shops along Pitt Ave, a postcard of the Manhattan I used to know . ..

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I had the honour of being invited to attend a forum on the Brian Lehrer show called Dollars and Sense of Blackness in Central Brooklyn yesterday. I didn’t have much to contribute since I”m basically a part-time – if long-term part-time –  resident of New York and Brooklyn and the other people on the panel and in the audience had much more acute, pressing and pointed concerns than I would have done. However it was a good insight into the forces at work in Bed-Stuy and communities like Bed-Stuy and I’ll be commenting on the experience, and those concerns, in the days to come. 

Also, one of my photographs, ‘Girls Jumping Rope in Bed-Stuy’ appears on the website.

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Walking down Nostrand Ave, on a Saturday afternoon . . . 

Saw a black woman cop legging it up the Avenue, running across the street and down Hancock. 

Hancock’s a nice street of old brownstones, maybe some of the nicest in Bed-Stuy, built at a time when Bedord-Stuyvesant was home to Brooklyn’s middle and upper-middle and even upper classes. Anglos, Germans, Jews. A street that stayed middle class, even through the bad bad years in the 80’s and 90’s when Bed-Stuy was synonymous with ghetto. A friend of a friend  lived there for awhile and said there was so much hostility on the sreet from being white, that she had to move. 

Anyway, the black woman cop disappeared down Hancock, running up what looked like an alley halfway up the street. Then came one squad car, then two, sirens on, turning on Hancock, screeching to a halt and three or four white male cops jumping out of their cars and following the woman cop down the alley. 

Then came two more cars, then two more, until the whole bottom of the street was packed with squad cars. A black guy, maybe in his middle fourties, stood on the corner guiding the cars in. 

Then, suddenly, maybe ten more officers were legging it down Nostrand, following the other cops down Hancock into the alley. Big white guys, some of them so fat they could barely run. 

By now, I didn’t care if people yelled at me on the street for being white, I was too curious. I figured there had to have been a shooting or maybe some big robbery. Something. The alley was clear, but soon some cops came out, and ran down Hancock, evidently to block off another exit. An old guy on a stoop was pointing down the alley, showing the cops which direction the culprit had run and behind me, some teenagers were standing in their front yards, “Yo, that old man is ALWAYS finkin’ people out, yo – he’s just a FINK!’. People were out on their stoops all up and down the street, watching the show, but it was relaxed, and no one paid me any attention – in the middle of the melee, a white couple rode by on their bikes. 

Presently, the cops trailed out of the alley, some on their radios, some moving up and down the street to block off the entrances, but mostly they were relaxed, joking with each other. I walked back down Hancox in time to see a few cruisers circling the street. 

A lady came up. She was maybe in her 30’s, well-presented like maybe she worked in an office. She said she lived on the street, that she’d been there five years “and it ain’t the hood no more – it’s much more varied” giving me a pointed look on the last word. I asked her what was going on and she said it had been a kid who snatched someone’s chain. “Don’t even know why he’d want to do it. Not like you get any money for that anymore . . . not like in the 90’s when everyone wore them big gold chains . . . ”

There must have been a dozen squad cars, all for one kid who snatched a chain. Too much. That must have been one scared kid, when all those cops came after him. 

What a change from just threee years ago, when I was mugged on Clifton Place by two kids with a switchblade. It was the last day of school and the cops who came round said there’d been four muggings in their precint in the past hour, that I’d been lucky it had just been a blade because all the others had happened at gunpoint and you could tell they saw the worst of Bed-Stuy, probably the worst of humanity, every day of their working lives. Or fifteen years ago, when I’d been walking down Bedford on one of the random strolls I took in those days, and six kids had swarmed me – and the only thing that had saved me from getting robbed or worse, was the guy who came up and chased them off with a gun. He was a big guy, tough and ghetto hard, and he said he never left home without his gun, things were that bad, that just the week the before he’d been held up by two crackheads and shot one of them dead. “And I’ll shoot the other one too, if I find ‘im – I’m sick of those crazy motherfuckers.” 

No cops would have come then, even if I’d called them. 

So it’s amazing that now, even during the recession, Bed-Stuy, or that section of Bed-Stuy, has become important enough for a dozen squad cars to show up for one kid . . .

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Back to the old sod . . . 

Recession or not, Ratner Atlantic Yards project on hold or not, development continues apace. Downtown Brooklyn has not just one but several new condos/ office towers, including this one here, which must rate as one of the most hideous condo/ office towers I’ve seen in quite some time. Like a combination  roadside motel/ battleship . .. 

Condo/ office tower on flatbush ave.

Condo/ office tower on flatbush ave.

And in my old neighborhood, Fort Greene, another huge complex, which I’m sure will change the character of DeKalb for good, 80 DeKalb: 

80 Dekalb

80 Dekalb

Not to mention another tower going up around the corner from a deserted patch of Willoughby Street, courtesy of Land-Lease, the Aussie development company now in negotiation with London’s Southwark Council to ‘regenerate’ the Elephant and Castle in what will be the largest such scheme in all of Europe: 

Lend Lease Tower

Lend Lease Tower

Let’s face it. Downtown Brooklyn is a short subway/ bike/ car ride from lower Manhattan. People with families don’t want to live in Manhattan. Downtown Brooklyn, and the areas around downtown Brooklyn, are just going to get more and more expensive. The recession hasn’t slowed development any – even out in Bed-Stuy the condos are still going up. Two huge towers on Greene Ave, one ten or twelve stories high, the other four or five but covering half a city block. When these are filled, Bed-Stuy, or that corner of Bed-Stuy, will become a crowded place. 

The place to rent, I hear, is no longer Brooklyn, but parts of Manhattan like the Upper East Side, or even Chelsea . . .

But the recession has slowed development somewhat. The above-mentioned Atlantic Yards which, if it ever goes through, will make most of central Brooklyn unrecognizable. But also on Willoughby, around the corner from the Land Lease tower, is two blocks of total desolation.  Seems a development company called United American Land booted out the thirty merchants from Willoughy, Duffield and Bridge streets to build a $208 million dollar commercial and residential complex. But the recession kicked in, and the project is on hold. 

In the meantime, the company struck a deal with the Metrotech Business Improvement District and art-hoc an arts organization. to create Willoughby Windows, art installations in a dozen of the abandoned storefronts. From the Daily News: ‘Artwork Helps Brighten Gloomy Brooklyn street as construction stalls”

Storefront by Cycle

Storefront by Cycle

 

 

Wiiloughby Windows

Wiiloughby Windows

 

 

Kind of cool and everything, but but on the two afternoons I went down, one weekday, the other weekend, the street was pretty much empty. And anyway, what does this art really mean, when it’s sponsored by the very development company that is responsible for evicting the small businesspeople who kept the area alive? 

As always, artists and development/ gentrification are inextricably, inexplicably and inevitably linked . . .whether they want to be or not.

 

Close up - Cycle

Close up - Cycle

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The Mall in all it's glory

The Mall in all it's glory

You wanted it . . . you got it.

The most popular posting on this blog has nothing to do with Brooklyn Obama Art Culture  or even Planet Toronot  but . . . .

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall.

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

Britain’s oldest indoor mall, like the Heygate Estate behind it, is part of an earlier regeneration scheme for the Elephant Castle, which had been devastated during WWII. The mall , like the Heygate Estate and pretty much everything else in the Elephant, is slated for demolition to make way for another attempt at ‘regeneration’, though the mall likely won’t be torn down until 2012 – at the earliest. 

It’s easy to hate the mall, and up until a couple of years ago I basically did. In the late 80’s, it was depressing, and the tunnels that fed into it from the nightmare roundabout were not just depressing but sometimes even dangerous. Packs of kids hung around the mall, especially on the upper levels, along with more than a few drunks. The few cafes were dingy, served terrible food; the garish reds and pinks, the muzak, the vandalized phone boxes, made it seem like some awful caricature of the malls I’d left behind in North America. 

 

Perhaps it was just familiarity, even sentimentality, but eventually . . . while I can’t say I came to love it ,  I had to admit a sneaking affection came over me when I lived on the neighboring Heygate a year ago. 

Columbians had taken over many of the stores on the upper level. They served great coffee, and you could sit and watch the waves of pedestrians in and out of the concrete terminal of the neighboring train station. There are two kiosque type places, and La Bodeguita, a Columbian restaurant with big glass windows that plays Columbian music out into the mall, offsetting the muzak classical drifting from the ceiling . . . 

Cafe on second floor

Cafe on second floor

Underneath the railway arches, where there’d been the original raver’s clubs back in the 80’s, were more cafes with more good coffee and that rarity of rarities in London: good, cheap food. They also have South American music, films. Nice place to hang out for a half hour or so. Up the street was a bike shop, with the bikes stacked up outside.  

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

The Charlie Chaplin pub had been taken over by squat Latin American men with profiles straight out of the great Mayan frescoes. The first time I went in, I thought I was hallucinating and that I was back in New York. 

The Elephant's most famous citizen

The Elephant's most famous native son

The murals. The kids breakdancing on thursday (or was it wednesday) evenings, inhabiting the airport lounge space on the second level, almost out of sight as you went by for the train. The great used booksellers on the lower level (I never had the money to actually buy any books, but that’s London for you). The Chinese Herbal medicine place by the 2nd floor entrance advertising remedies for ‘man problem’. 

Pink elephants racing through the mall

Pink elephants racing through the mall

And the market, open most days, running through the concrete cavern next to the mall. ‘Cheap and cheerful’ clothes, some electronics – mostly junk by and large. But I’d stop at the fruit and veg market just beside the ground floor entranceon the way home. For London, it was almost cheap and the young South Asian guys who ran it were always friendly, a welcome pause after the frenzied, usually alienating ride home.  

Market on a weekday afternoon

Market on a weekday afternoon

Curiously the Super Bowl was still in use. I didn’t know people still bowled in the Elephant or anywhere else, but on the weekends and evenings, I’d see families going up and down the escalators. There was some sort of patio bar place on the roof behind the Super Bowl and there always seemed to be people out in the evenings, even in winter  . . . 

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper level

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper leve

The mall is decrepit certainly, but it’s that  very decrepitude allows people like the Columbians, the market, the used booksellers to flourish. Once it’s gone, the Elephant will look just like any other part of London – that is to say, homogenized, gentrified – and boring. If they do blow up the Heygate this summer and, as expected, not have the money to put up anything in it’s place, how will the mall be in one year, two years time? What will happen to the booksellers, Columbians, the South Asians in the market? Whither the Elephant?

For more (and continuous) posts about the Elephant, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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If New York is about anything it is change. Change and re-invention is built right into this city’s fabric. To paraphrase the Last Poets, all New York does is change, change, change.
Every time I’ve come back here after being away for a few months, I’ve found a different city than when I left. Not just different people, but a different mood, a different definition. Just before 9-11, it was an overpowering materialism, the SUV’s, the yuppie store taking over even in Brooklyn. Six months later New York was a wounded, and more human, city. People talked to each other in the bars again, and that camraderie that is never far below the surface of New York life, even at it’s craziest, was out in the open.
In fall 2004, with hope that the Bush years would soon be over, New York was a great place to be. Wild, open, as dazzling as the fall colours. When the Republicans, using Ground Zero as a backdrop to appeal to the rest of the nation, while delivering a direct snub to this deeply Democratic city, held their convention here, some half-million people marched against it (as six hundred thousand braved 15 below cold and a chill wind off the East River to march against the Iraq war).

After Bush was re-elected, New York seemed to go on the retreat and by last spring, when I came back for the first time in a year and a half, it seemed the pod people had taken over everything. The Manhattan bars seemed to have been taken over by the super-rich, who flew between Manhattan, Dubai, London, wherever else the hyper-elite gathered. Brooklyn was only the downmarket version.
And now? Hard to say. Friends in the construction biz, who get a lot of their work from people working on Wall street, are having a hard time getting work – but that doesn’t mean they’re not working. A friend who invested her savings in mutual funds lost 30,000. Seems her bank invested only in the safest prospects – one of whom turned out to be Lehman Bros. The new condos in Brooklyn are mostly empty. My favorite bar in Manhattan was almost empty last night at happy hour but for a few old time old-regulars and some queen at the bar yapping into his cellphone, presumably to his boyfriend, about who gave who the most blowjobs (not to be a homophobe here, but some private matters should just stay private).
But rally it’s hard to say. My friends here still have new toys that would be out of the reach of the people I know in London or even Canada. Walking through Manhattan last night, it still seemed like the Midwestern suburbs dominated. Only time will tell which way this city will go.

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Bed-Stuy blues . . .

I left not long after Obama was nominated this summer and there weren’t many Obama posters at all – in fact I wondered if people in Bed-stuy even cared. Since then, Barack Obama has won the election, Wall street took a nosedive, and Barack Obama won the election. My friend CJ had this to say about election night:

   “The whole election was really amazing, though. Right up until Election Day none of us really dared to believe it could happen, despite the commanding lead Obama had in the polls. At best we hoped for a squeaker, with counting going on through the night. I must say, too, that the turnout at my polling place was even lower than in 2004. There was no line, no wait: just in and out. I guess all the voting age people are incarcerated or in the country illegally, or perhaps the district is just underpopulated. Then around nine pm I was in the Union Pub with some friends, and Pennsylvania went blue on the big screen, and having spent the last fortnight watching the pundits pore over the electoral map we knew (or at least I knew) that that made it almost mathematically impossible for McCain to win. Then Ohio went not long after, and everyone was screaming and jumping up and down and embracing each other. Then North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, and the Solid South crumbled.

    “In Bed Stuy everyone was honking and firing their guns in the air down in the projects just like New Years Eve. Every public place was a madhouse, and people who have probably never owned an American flag in their lives except perhaps to burn it in protest were waving all these flags like crazy. They even had those enormous ones you usually only see at car dealerships on Long Island. 

   “Then the next day there was that hung-over feeling. It was grey and drizzly, and Bed-Stuy looked every bit as trash-strewn and derelict as ever, with all the same bums on the same chairs on the same corners. I couldn’t stop crying for days, though, the emotion was so strong–and I’m normally pretty blase about these things. I noticed other people, too, would just start weeping on the subway. It was like we’d woken up one day in exile, and then woken up the next day in our own country, restored to us at last. Of course, about forty percent of the country feels the opposite way, and are busily hanging Obama in effigy, sending boxes of feces to their black neighbors, committing hate crimes, and in the case of a country store in Maine, conducting a betting pool on when Obama will be assassinated. (“Hope someone wins!” reads the sign.) And the messianistic hopes everyone has invested in Obama are just too much for any human being to fulfill. The kindly gentleman from the Community Garden up by Classon told me, as he pressed a bag of collard greens upon me, how now there was going to be peace everywhere in the world”

Three months on, Bed-Stuy doesn’t feel much different than from when I left. On the street, the new apartment houses are finished and ready for tennants – the Verizon telephone people were inside, presumably setting up telephone lines. The building on the corner of Franklin that has been derelict as long as I’ve been around is being fixed up – the windows boarded over, the brick repointed. Along Greene Ave, the hi-rises that had been started this spring or summer are still under construction, so no half-finished hulks, not yet anyway.

CJ says the word is that construction that has already been started will be finished, but there will be no more construction for some time. And the people I know here who work in the field aren’t working much. Some say the construction industry will be dead here for two years or more. What this means for Bed-Stuy, I really don’t know.

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