“It’s funny because I remember growing up in Bushwick, six blocks from here. I was a nerd, and people would say, ‘Where you from?’ I had to drop it in a certain way: ‘Yo, I grew up in Bushwick.” People would be all, ‘Really?’ Now people say, ‘Ah, Bushwick, what does that mean? Hipsterville?'” – From The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification
At the risk of burying the most obvious lede ever, author DW Gibson, who spoke to a wide range of New Yorkers struggling to reckon with the meaning behind the infamous G-Word in his latest book, The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification, thinks that if you’re betting on the prospect that Bushwick won’t become “the next Williamsburg,” the reality of its large amount of industrial factory stock as an appealing live/work space for artists, makes that prospect unlikely.
Observing generally from the conversations he had with artists who call the neighborhood home, Gibson notes that “gentrification is driven by artists because they’re looking for places to work but also [because they’re] looking for community. It’s not necessarily about ‘I need a big studio,” as much as it is ‘I want to live with people who help me.'”
Speaking to Bushwick Daily as part of a larger Q&A with fellow author Mark Binelli (writer of Detroit City is the Place to Be) at the POWERHOUSE Arena in DUMBO on Wednesday two weeks ago, Gibson is also quick to note however, that that same desire of Bushwick artists to live and work around fellow creatives can be leveraged to cultivate community in a positive way, through smarter development policies that favor art-making over art galleries, and through a larger shift in the American narrative around public space.
“We really have to think about our relationship to land ‘ownership,’ says Gibson. “Why can’t we think of it in terms of community uses?”
If you haven’t read all of the personal histories and anecdotes from the many artists, activists, realtors, residents, contractors, squatters and others reflecting on the nature of gentrification in Gibson’s book, you might know at least one, that of Ephraim, an anonymous Brooklyn landlord whose account of how distressed properties are acquired, rehabbed and then marketed to new tenants was excerpted in New York Magazine this past May, and served as a popular discussion topic for readers who marveled at how nakedly discriminatory New York’s housing market can be.
In our conversation, Gibson noted that Ephraim actually did a fair amount of business in Bushwick, and that communication among neighbors is among one of the best things that tenants can do to prevent against converting apartment buildings into high-priced condos. For example, if a landlord like Ephraim were to go to a tenant on the first floor of an apartment building and offer them $10,000 for their unit, but a tenant on the second floor demands $20,000, he’s willing to pay that tenant on the second floor the $20,000, so long as the tenant on the first floor doesn’t find out.
While it’s tempting to look for a bogeyman in the form of an unscrupulous landlord however, one of the most striking things about The Edge Becomes the Center is how the people gathered on multiple sides of the issue hardly exist in neat boxes of “gentrifier” and “gentrified.” Community activists like Shatia Strothers, who makes a habit of jumping in front of newcomers to her Bedstuy neighborhood and yelling “Look up!” as a way to get them to engage with their neighbors, left a high-paying job in fashion design that no doubt drove up rental prices for her black and white neighbors alike. Shatia is well aware of her dual roles, and her thoughtful observations on her space in the gentrification zone are nimbly juxtaposed with other stories like that of Tarek Ismail, a Palestinian-American who sees opportunity in opening a coffee shop in East Harlem, while also juggling a full-time job as a public interest lawyer for parents whose children have entered the foster care system.
For his part, Gibson sees the lines between the ugly effects of gentrification that result in the displacement of long-term residents and businesses, as less a function of division between the well-off and the poor (or whites and minorities), and more of a function between those who actually live in a neighborhood and those who don’t, noting that one of the results of New York’s designation as a luxury product has been that properties and neighborhoods are identified as little more than a portfolio item for global investors with little connection to the neighborhoods they invest in: “There really is a segregation between the people who spend the most time in a neighborhood and the people who spend the most money in a neighborhood,” says Gibson.
Regardless of where you land on the gentrification debate, The Edge Becomes the Center, is a searching attempt to delineate an incredibly complex issue, with plenty of funny and poignant anecdotes to cull from when reading at the beach, and spark a discussion or two at a neighborhood bar.
DW Gibson is also the author of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy. He serves as the director of Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, as well as the co-founder of Sangam House, a writers residency program in India.