“Letter to Bushwick” is a new column where members of Bushwick community are encouraged to express their opinions on matters important for the community as a whole. Would you also like to write a letter, perhaps not to Obama, but to the Bushwick community? We will publish letters that positively and constructively contribute to the ongoing debate. We can accept only letters on non-commercial subjects signed by the true name of their author. We will publish well-written, well-argued letters based on verifiable facts. Email us at bushwickdaily[at]gmail.com with the subject “Letter to Bushwick.”
The other day I went outside of my newly renovated apartment on Cornelia Street in Bushwick and lit a cigarette. As I took my first puff, I noticed a couple of older men from the neighborhood look over my way, do a double take and then a triple take. They seemed slightly confused and eventually we smiled at each other, waved and shared a laugh. As innocent as this interaction was, I couldn’t shake the implications. I was now a manifestation of gentrification in the neighborhood and these guys knew it.
Now, I’m from the Bay Area in California. My hometown of Hayward is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States and I grew up in a household run by a single Filipino mother. But as much as I want to sit on my cultural high horse, I look like a wiry white kid, resembling a slightly more Asian Jamie Lee Curtis instead of the son of a struggling immigrant parent. Eventually, I decided—like most naïve Californian youths—to take on the challenge of moving to NewYork. I didn’t know much about the neighbors or the current state of gentrification, but it didn’t take long to realize the part I was playing. Today, I am contributing to gentrification in Bushwick.
Although there are plenty of other articles on gentrification, I wanted to understand it on a personal level – how it’s affected my neighbors and the families that have seen New York City change drastically over the last 10-15 years. Gentrification is currently at its infancy stages in my neighborhood, so I took to the streets to speak with some people about the area’s changing landscape.
“It feels like forced occupation,” laments J.B. In his early thirties, J.B. grew up in Harlem but spends a lot of time at his friend’s liquor store near my apartment. “Some Columbus shit.”
He offers these words to me sincerely—his voice trails and he sighs, exhausted. It’s the end of the week and I’m in the back room of the aptly named “The Neighborhood Liquor Store” on Cornelia and Knickerbocker. After I spoke with his friend Gill about writing this piece on gentrification, they invited me back and we talked about the neighborhood.
“When I was growing up, there’d be lines to pick up crack in the middle of the block,” says Gill. “In the 90’s, Putnam was a jungle—lots of drugs, waking up and seeing bodies in cars.” The liquor store we’re sitting in was once boarded up for a number of years until his friend Danny—also from the neighborhood—decided to buy the place and keep it going. “It was mostly Italians here at first, then they moved to Long Island and more Hispanics came in, and now…”
Now it’s people like me. Young people not from New York populating an already overpopulated city, bringing with us dreams of making it while conveniently forgetting that this place is somebody’s home. Imagine a bunch of drunk post-college kids running around where you grew up and forcing your mom and grandma out of their homes. It’s happening every day and if J.B.’s analogy holds, I came in on Columbus’ ship.
We’re aware of this fact as we speak, and as welcoming as all my neighbors have been, I’m part of the problem. “The beautification of my neighborhood has been great and businesses have been doing well,” Gill says, “but it’s a gift and a curse. How you gonna pay $2,500 for rent when you’re making minimum wage and supporting a family, and your Grandma.” He lets that sit for a minute and J.B. says he wished the change would be more constructive, that he would’ve felt better if the change came from within. Why does it take a bunch of young white kids coming in to finally make the place deserving of positive change?
Towards the end of our conversation, J.B. poses a question for me—and everyone else moving into the neighborhood —“What’re you bringing here?” For me, the answer lies in our capacity and desire to take active steps to contribute positively to the community and to champion those who’ve set the foundation here. It’s a seemingly abstract answer, but starting can be as easy as engaging neighbors in conversation about each other’s experiences and promoting a level of understanding and trust. The next steps are up to you.