On a recent chilly night, I was bundled up and on my way to Boerum Hill to have dinner at a friend’s apartment. As I walked down Washington Avenue the B45 bus pulled up next to me, and I hesitated. “Which would be faster, the train or the bus?” I thought. Before I could make a decision, the bus doors had shuttered. Luckily, the light at Atlantic and Washington was still red and I approached the bus and knocked on the door. The driver, a middle-aged African-American man, refused to open the door, gesturing to the next stop, three street crossings away, even though his bus was still idling perfectly in front of a designated stop. It was 15 degrees outside and I’ll admit it, I felt like the driver was sticking it to me for being white.
Luckily, after walking two extra blocks down to the C train, I hopped right on and plunked down comfortably across from two teenaged African-American girls. As I was admiring their fashion sense, the doors opened at Lafayette Avenue and a group of four 20-something white people appeared. The voices of a guy and three ladies boomed as they boarded the otherwise quiet car, chatting about their friends and lives and were, perhaps, a bit intoxicated. One young woman was wearing only mary jane shoes on her feet, with no socks, which, because of the insanely cold temperatures that evening, drew the attention of the young African-American women. The young duo exchanged vexed looks when the loud conversation turned to the employment status of one of the white woman’s suburban parents. “My mother’s a housewife,” she said, her face red and her volume dropping. “My father’s basically retired.”
There was also the bodega full of middle-aged Hispanic men whose conversation abruptly ended upon my entrance; and the disheveled African-American man who inquired with me about potential odd jobs after assuming that I was the new owner of my building.
These experiences are merely anecdotal, the everyday manifestations of class and race in a fluctuating neighborhood like Prospect Heights. New Yorkers have intensely territorial feelings for their neighborhoods – whether they are newcomers or long-time residents. I’m just as guilty of this: I was distraught when it became apparent that the only people who could afford my childhood neighborhood Hell’s Kitchen were bankers and other upwardly mobile professionals with an income range I can’t begin to fathom. Or when my last neighborhood, Greenpoint, started to get an influx of obnoxious college students pushing up rental prices. Now I feel destined to simultaneously be gentrified and gentrifying, but to most people I just look like the new white girl on the block.
Once I arrived at my girlfriend’s house for wine and sushi – the balanced diet of any decent gentrifier! – conversation turned to our apartment searches and surrounding areas. She also searched in northern Brooklyn, as I had, but was shocked to find a relatively cheap one-bedroom apartment in Boerum Hill for herself and her boyfriend, a neighborhood I assumed I couldn’t afford. But though it’s a nice, and, at times, pricey neighborhood, she added, “One block in the wrong direction and it gets a little scary.” That one block takes you to the housing projects that are smack-dab in the middle of Boreum Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope.
Her words dwelled in my mind on my trip home, which, thankfully did not involve getting shut out of another bus ride. I thought of the articles that refer to “pioneers” moving into otherwise sketchy Brooklyn neighborhoods, a code for white people gobbling up real estate in marginalized minority areas.
So is Brooklyn indeed a stage for modern, urban manifest destiny? Is our “progress” – in the form of Brooklyn’s physical rehabilitation – actually progress if it’s not all-inclusive? I think it is a virtuous goal to build new homes, spruce up old ones and form communities where they’ve been lost to crime and decay. While greater forces than I are behind the transitional nature of gentrification, I think our city has to find a way to strike a balance between protecting the people who stood by their communities through thick and thin, and the newcomers who flock here every year to live in our nation’s most diverse city.
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