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Posts Tagged ‘Gentrification’

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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The Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Mall . . . Britain’s first ever indoor shopping mall. I still drop in. I feel almost affectionate for it now, this decaying hulk that has been so central to my London for going on twenty years – ever since I first moved here as an adult in the fall of 87, not a month before the stock market tanked just as it did last week.

The mall feels embattled, though I wonder how long this feeling will last if the credit crunch deepens. At what point will the plug be pulled on all those new towers going up north and west of the roundabout, at what point will the ‘revitalization’ of the Elephant be put on hold? In the late 1980’s, when I was living in Montreal, you could walk downtown and see empty lots everywhere. Empty hi-rises and luxury shopping malls as well, with vacancy rates of 50% and up. You’d go on the top floor of Cours Mont Royal and see mannequins stacked up in the empty storefronts . . .

The Heygate Estate is half sealed off. Talked to my old flatmate last week and he said he was being moved out in a couple of weeks. Yet somehow, the mall survives. The little Columbian cafe in the middle of the second floor is almost pleasant with the Columbian accordion music in the background. On Sunday, when I was down, sunlight poured through the open doors and the traffic was minimal so you were spared the usual traffic roar that makes anywhere in the Elephant feel like the edge of an expressway.

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

You can never get away from the basic airport terminal feel of the mall’s upper level, with the terrible muzak played a little too loud, the concrete ceilings with the water sprinkler plugs, the flourescent lights reflecting off those strange pink and orange pillars- more than an hour there has a curiously deadening effect, but all malls feel deadening to some extent. In the evenings it is mostly empty but for a few stragglers off the trains, and people in the cafe. yet the doors remain open, so you can continue off the tunnels, through the mall to New Kent Road – I guess the Bingo Palace must stay open late.

It’s never menacing like it seemed when I first came to the Elephant in the late 80’s. One evening I came in to find a bunch of kids breakdancing in front of all the funky, council-issue graffiti on the billboards covering the empty storefronts. The main floor has not one, but two, excellent second hand bookstores and Le Bodeguita, the Columbian restaurant with the big glass windows in the corner, has dancing and great food. The Bingo Palace has been refurbished and does a good business, and there is some sort of bar on top with tables out on the roof. The Polish deli by the entrance to the train station has good sausage and Polish deli stuff cheap. An artist has taken over one of the storefronts, displaying drawings in an exhibition called Elephant Hotel. By the main roundabout entrance is a Chinese Herbalist advertising remedies for ‘man problems.’

You may not want to hang out here, but for an hour on a rainy day, the Elephant Mall is a little more interesting than most shopping malls.

Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

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Towers In the Woods

Towers In the Woods


North Tower

North Tower


KingHill Rising

KingHill Rising

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Had my hair cut down in Pimlico last week. The barber was a young guy from Macedonia who had a sister in New Jersey. He said he regretted not going to the US with his sister when he had the chance a few years ago. He was a voluble guy, waving his arms around which was a little unsettling at the end when he had a razor in his hand, shaving the back of my neck between bursts of conversation. But when he was finished, he sighed and said:

   “The English idea is corrupt. They don’t produce anything here, they just trade money. So if you have money, they’ll make you more money – but it’ll cost you. And everyone else has to live on the edge of that system . . . “

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I was sitting with B in the Prospect Park the other day. Mothers with SUV sized baby carriages, moving en masse up the pavement, the guy with the hands-free pacing back and forth nattering in business speak about deals made, deals yet to be made. A few joggers. The usual Park Slope side of the park scene.  

   We wondered if if the recession wouldn’t put an end to gentrification, speculating on it from both sides. The fact is, I think the suburbs have come to the city, in a reverse of white flight – the inner cities have been made safe so the suburbanites are re-colonizing them and giving cities a whole new identity. 

   And, recession or not, I don’t see it getting any better. The oil crisis might even make it worse – as driving becomes more and more expensive, city centre will become the place to be and all the poor people will have to go somewhere else. Maybe American cities will follow the European model (I hear cities like Philedelphia and Boston, not to mention Washington DC, already have), with cute city centres dominated by yuppies, and the poor in sprawling housing projects around the periphery. 

   In a way this is just returning to the old pattern – neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and even East New York were originally built for the bourgeousie – but the difference is in the homogenity. No more working class areas side by side with the rich, like what used to exist in Manhattan. Less and less middle class. Gentrification is, above all, a blitzkrieg of homogenization. 

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                             (photo: gkjarvis – flickr)

    Two years ago, when I stayed here last, I took the following notes: 

   ‘Plenty of activity in the building across the street with people coming and going. Big bust there recently. When I was working upstairs the other day, a couple pulled up in a new white Explorer. The guy had braids like Snoop Dog and the chick was dressed ‘ghetto fabulous’ in sunglasses and gold chains. They hung around on the front stoop talking to someone from inside a couple of hours, obviously waiting for someone. The guy especially looked easygoing, not at all threatening, but the vehicle and the clothes just looked like drug bling.

     An hour later two black Lexuses pulled up. Fat woman with big bags from K-mart or some mega-mall got out with two kids from the second Lexus – was the first an escort? – and went into the building.     In the daytime the street is busy with the big trucks coming in to the bottling plant across the way and Hispanic women lining up on the pavement to get into the textile factories. The Hasidic guy next door comes in and out of his factory – I’ve never figured out what he makes – and the cars pull into the ‘Foreign Already Owned’ car place across the way. Never figured out what goes on in that shop. A guy who was staying here before said he saw someone pull out a pistol as he was walking away from the car place a couple of weeks ago and fire into the air. 

   Traffic dissipates by evening and by nightfall the street is pretty much deserted.”

   A couple of days after I wrote this, I was woken up at 6 am by some large dog barking on and on. Finally, after a couple of hours, I opened the big metal door which guards the front of the building and found some huge black woman sitting on a couch chair next to the building steps. Two fire trucks and an EMS truck had been round the night before – it didn’t seem like a major emergency, no one even answered the door for a few minutes and fireman didn’t seem too worried – but still I felt like the woman and the barking dog were connected to whatever had happened the night before. The dog – a pit bull – was chained to a cinder block next to the woman and another couple in ragged clothes chatted with the woman then stumbled up the street. They looked poor, but okay, without that lantern glow in the eyes that makes crackheads look so disturbing. Every so often the woman in the chair would try to calm the dog down – the dog seemed to be barking at the woman and the man beside her – but the dog just kept getting more and more excited and when I finally left the house to get away from the noise it was barking more than ever.

      The couch chair remained outside for a week or so but I never saw the woman again nor heard the dog. Once, the guy who had been standing with the woman came out with the dog on the leash. The Japanese art kids who lived in some sort of loft above the woodworking shop came out at the same time with their little mutt and the guy was kind enough to wave and hold his pit bull back until they and their little dog were out of harm’s way.

   The building has been renovated now, the former tenants thrown out. Where do these people go?

   The whole street is changing. One new building up the street ready for tenants (low-income housing from the looks of it – part of Bloomberg’s push for more low-income units in this rabidly gentrified city), and another building beside it with balconies, presumably so the residents can look out on the trucks pulling into the bottling plant down below. The old Hasidim is still around, but the auto shop has been taken over by some white guys with some big woodworking shop who work all day with the doors open. Down the street, where a jerk chicken shack opened for a month then spent a year shuttered closed, the building has been torn down and a condo with big green windows – great views of the traffic pouring down Bedford Ave. – is almost finished. Even the liquour store across Bedford with the ‘Serving Fine Liquors Since 1926’ sign is being redone. Maybe they’ll even get rid of the pexiglass shield.     

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   The first thing I noticed coming back: despite all this talk of recession, of homes being reposessed, of record credit-card debt (and credit drying up) – despite the fin-de-regime weariness of the end of the Bush years and the loss of jobs to the globalized economy and the shabby airports and decaying infrastructure, the drain of the war in Iraq on the economy, the psyche of America – despite all this, compared to anywhere else I’ve been recently – 

   Americans have way more SHIT!!

   It was kind of overwhelming when i first came back.Even my artist friends, living on the edge of this very gentrified, corporatized city.  New Imacs, ipods, iphones; new vehicles, toasters, water filters, vintage guitars, new DVD players, hi-def cameras, radios, TV’s. All the vehicles are so much bigger than in England or Europe, as if everyone has to take up two, three times the space as people in other parts of the world. Even in Bed-Stuy – brand new Cadillac SUV’s hopped up with silver hubcaps, new Lexus here, new Mustang there – a Hummer or two. 

   Food prices might have gone way, way up (as bad as London). People in other parts of the country might be losing their homes. The fear might be settling in – and you can feel it walking around, just there below the surface. Affordable health care might be out of reach to 30 million Americans (and barely adequate to many who can afford it) – but by God that hasn’t stopped folks buying stuff. 

   And after the deprivation which is the lot of most of the non-rich in London town, it’s almost a relief. 

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