Wednesday, May 9, 2007

News: The Uncertain Fate of an Old Brooklyn Nook

Construction for a school continues on Franklin Avenue as Crown Heights becomes a focal point for gentrification. Photographed by Sam Lewis.

By Kevin Dugan

Nigel lights a cigar and looks out from his deli onto the neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Outside, storefront churches dot the streets where, with some luck, the garbage trucks pick up the day's trash.

Inside, he tapes up money for good fortune over a thick-paned window: 50 Haitian gourdes, 50 Jamaican dollars, and above them, 50 Euros.

But Nigel may not stick around to see how long his fortune lasts.

"It's not worth it to me," he said. Nigel, a New York native who declined to give his last name, has been in Crown Heights since the early 1960s. He says the neighborhood has seen better days, and that gentrification will only make life harder for local residents.

"These kids don't realize how easy it is to replace them," he said, referring to young, black Crown Heights residents.

White residents have been moving to the city in droves in the last decade or so, transforming ethnic neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Williamsburg into bohemian enclaves. As rising rents displace the locals, they are forced to find new homes in other poorer areas. Old residents often feel bitter, causing tension between new and former tenants. Displaced residents have, rightly or not, charged landlords with racism and preferential treatment for younger, white inhabitants.

But New York's neighborhoods have always been shape shifting, often in tandem with the ups and downs of the economy. What is unique about gentrification is not the displacement of one ethnicity over another, social scientists say, but an influx of amalgamated cultural values. A century ago, an Italian neighborhood certainly looked very different from a Jewish one. Today, white cultures have largely been lumped together, in part because far fewer immigrants come to the United States from Western Europe.

The gentrifying process often follows the same script. First, new residents, typically young professionals and students, cannot afford richer areas and move into poorer ones. As the demographics begin to change, landlords raise their rents to profit off of the influx. This prices out many of the former residents, who find refuge in other affordable neighborhoods. Then, banks and businesses move in, looking to capitalize on the new market. Old businesses often cannot compete, and the local character evanesces.

Crown Heights seems on the cusp of such a transformation.

Lying east of Prospect Heights and south of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights is in the heart of Brooklyn. African-Americans and black Caribbeans make up most of the neighborhood. According to the city, the 77th precinct, which includes Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, was 80% black in 2000, the last date available. There is also a sizable Hasidic Jewish community centered around the Chabad-Lubavitch international headquarters on Eastern Parkway.

Andrew Lewis, a Heights resident and student at Medgar Evers College, said that the area is getting "rougher" and that it won't end up "like Williamsburg." According to the city, 30% of residents live at or below the poverty line.

But Nigel sees the hard days in the neighborhood as only the first step in mass displacement. He expects "crazy, crazy gentrification," and says the warning signs are obvious. Residents have no choice but to "prepare for their own slaughter," he said.

"The best thing that can happen to Brooklyn and Queens is for the economy to crash," he added.

Within the last year, numerous buildings in the neighborhood have undergone major renovations. The Landmarks Preservation Committee voted to preserve 472 buildings as landmarks in April. The Landmark status keeps residents from changing their building's facade without commission approval.

According to The New York Times, "the beauty of the architecture owes much to a lack of money in the 1970s and 1980s."

The Committee wants to form "a historic district that will serve as the cornerstone for establishing similar districts in the neighborhood," according to their website. Nearly one thousand more buildings have been proposed for landmark status.

In 1985, a Crown Heights studio apartment could cost between $300 and $350 a month, according to a study by The New York Times. Now, a search through multiple real estate companies and private listings yield prices that begin at $825, but are often in the $1000+ range.

The issue of gentrification has left conflicting emotions for white residents all over the city.

Ivan Raykoff, music professor at Lang and Harlem inhabitant, does not feel personally responsible for gentrification.

"I don't feel guilty personally because I don't exactly see myself as part of the force of gentrification,รข€ he said. Raykoff cited "corporate interests" as the main agency behind Harlem's transformation.

Brendon Rist, Lang senior and Crown Heights resident agrees. "I realized that we were kind of the bleeding edge of gentrification," he said. But he "wasn't concerned."

But Sari Ganulin, Lang sophomore and Inwood, Manhattan occupant, differs. "The whole process sucks, and no one should be wrongfully forced out of their home," she said. But gentrification is mostly caused by "luxury condos going in [rather] than my personal renting of an apartment," she added.

"When a Starbucks opens up, it seems to be a sign," she said.

Ganulin and Raykoff both have Eastern European backgrounds. Rist claims to have had family in New York since the American Revolution, but also cites an Irish and Italian background.

Crown Heights has had to fight an uphill battle against its negative image. Extreme poverty in the '70s and '80s forced poorer New Yorkers into the area, where crime rates surged. In 1980, the 77th precinct lead the city in homicides with 88 murders. In 1991, a Jewish man ran over a Guyanese boy, sparking underlying racial tensions into a three-day riot that resulted in the death of one Hasidic man. Racial tensions are still apparent. Several residents interviewed expressed anti-semitic sentiments on the gentrification issue.

The riots are still a sensitive issue for the neighborhood. None of the buildings approved for preservation by the Landmarks Preservation Committee are where the "unrest" occurred, according to The New York Times.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has seemingly given landlords free reign to choose who they rent to. However, he has "asked for a guaranteed minimum of 30 percent affordable housing for area residents, 86 percent of whom rent their homes," according to the North Brooklyn Alliance.

When called for an official opinion, his office declined to comment, citing time constraints.

Markowitz, who grew up in Crown Heights, supports the buildings' new historic standing. Speaking at the Landmark Preservation Committee in 2006, he said the new status "strikes the right balance between preserving the character of some of our most beautiful historic areas while also planning for our bright future."

Chilling at a Franklin Ave. bodega. Photographed by Sam Lewis.


Jim Winters said...

Hello. One aspect of this story is unfair and misrepresents the residents of Crown Heights. My wife and I are new to the neighborhood and in the process of renovating our house. In direct contrast to one of the author’s assertions, we have sensed no bitterness, but have found our neighbors to be lovely, very friendly, and overwhelmingly welcoming.

Anonymous said...

haha my cell phone was stolen in the very same bodega at the end.

Anonymous said...

it's crazy man these white people want to come and force their way into our neighborhoods and act like we are all supposed to be happy about it. When a black person walks around certain parts of neighborhoods like Park Slope, he is met with uncomfortable stares and attitudes. I say this because this has happened to me and many others who have been in these "hip" neighborhoods. Let me just say that i have no criminal record and have never been arrested so no smart comments