Struggling Against Gentrification in Brooklyn

the antigentrification crew

This is a paper that me and three of my fellow social work students wrote for our Clinical Practice Lab class in the Spring of 2014. I think it turned out really well even if it was a little rushed. We’re all still at Hunter, battling the forces of evil, doing our best to do the good work and survive. Check out this paper and share it if you like it! Sascha

 

Struggling Against Gentrification in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 2014

Sascha Altman DuBrul, Linnell Baugham, Edith Estrella Ramos, Amina Woods

Clinical Practice Lab I

Silberman School of Social Work

 

Abstract: This paper will define and examine the modern urban economic and social phenomenon of gentrification, specifically highlighting the neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn. Through interviews and research we focus on the impact of gentrification on rising police activity, the housing market, small businesses, and on the school system. Much of our analysis comes from Equality for Flatbush (E4F) a local community group that is actively organizing residents and fighting for affordable housing.

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation.”

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

 

“This is colonization, post-colonial-style. After all, the people who are “sent back” to recover the territory are always those who don’t mind associating with the colored people! And it’s a double bind, because some of these people could be allies. Some gay white men are proactive about racism, even while being entrepreneurial. But in the end, they take spaces, redo them, sell them for a certain amount of money, while the people who have been there are displaced. And in some cases, the people of color who are there are perceived as enemies by white newcomers.”

Bell Hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism

 

“There is nothing hip and cool happening in Brooklyn. It’s a war.”

Imani Henry, Equality for Flatbush

 

Introduction

This topic is personal to all of us, but in different ways. Edith was displaced from her home in on the edge of Prospect Park when the rents got too high and now lives in Crotona Park in the Bronx. Amina grew up in Bed Stuy and lived in Prospect Leffert’s Gardens, and now can’t afford the rents in Brooklyn and has been living in Jamaica, Queens for the past two years. Linnell grew up in Clinton Hill and has watched gentrification change the face of educational opportunities for youth through the charter lottery system. Sascha grew up in Manhattan and watched the violent gentrification of the Lower East Side. Now, as a lower middle-class white person, he’s part of the gentrification process of Flatbush. Together, our experiences tell an important story about the present and future of New York City.

 

What is Gentrification?

 

According to local community group Equality for Flatbush, gentrification is “the deliberate pricing out of low-to-middle income residents from neighborhoods by corporations, real estate developers, and landlords in favor of renting, selling, and catering to people of higher and/or more flexible incomes.” Equality for Flatbush, sees gentrification as an intersectional issue that is deeply connected to the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, age, ability, nation of origin, immigration status, physical and mental capacity, and other characteristics that impact individuals and our communities.

 

Right now New York City is in a process of what some people are calling “hypergentrification.” According to CUNY professor Neil Smith (2012), gentrification has a deep political and economic agenda:

 

“[In] the 1980s…[g]entrification became a systematic attempt to remake the central city, to take it back from the working class, from minorities, from homeless people, from immigrants who, in the minds of those who decamped to the suburbs, had stolen the city from its rightful white middle-class owners. What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban “frontier” became in the 1990s broad based market driven policy.”

 

If the rehabilitation of a brownstone in the West Village or Park Slope typified gentrification in the 1970s, by the 1990s and 2000s it was the Disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill in of the previously low rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan: Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. According to Smith, today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city.

 

According to Jeremiah Moss from the blog Vanishing New York, hyper-gentrification

has five components that are different from earlier eras of gentrification:

“1. Intensified partnerships between the city government and private capital, resulting in larger, more expensive, and more symbolic” real estate developments.

  1. A “new influx of global capital into large mega-developments,” as well as smaller neighborhood developments like luxury condos on the Lower East Side, in which, for example, Israeli developers are sponsored by European banks.
  2. Authoritarian city politicians and police working to crush anti-gentrification opposition.
  3. Outward diffusion as prices rise at the city’s center, generalized gentrification spreads out to more distant neighborhoods.
  4. Finally, this third wave is unregulated, free market gentrification, independent of public financing and therefore unaccountable to larger social needs. It is the first brand of gentrification to enjoy “the full weight of private market finance.” (Moss, 2014)

 

Flatbush, Brooklyn

 

Flatbush is a community which consists of several neighborhoods in the New York City Borough of Brooklyn. Comparatively, it has been slow to gentrify because it is further from the city center. The boundaries differ depending on who you speak to (or interview). Technically, the neighborhood of Flatbush exists only in zip code 11226, but the area that is considered “Flatbush” is much larger: Flatbush begins at Parkside and Ocean Avenues at the southwest entrance of Prospect Park, includes some of Coney Island Avenue, spans east to Nostrand Avenue, and either “The Junction” — the intersection of Flatbush and Nostrand Aves. — or Kings Highway and Flatbush, or Avenue H mark its southern edge. To add to the confusion, 12 small communities including Prospect Park South, Ditmas Park, Fiske Terrace, Wingate, South Midwood, Midwood Park and West Midwood are considered part of Flatbush proper, too- and yet Midwood itself is not (Leslie, 2008).

 

Demographics

While Flatbush today is predominantly African American and West Indian, there are sizable numbers of Caucasians, Latinos and Indian Americans living within its borders. While a majority of residents are working class, there also are middle-class and wealthier residents who call Flatbush home. The primary commercial strips are Flatbush, Church, and Nostrand Avenues, with Coney Island Avenue also emerging as a major strip. Most of the businesses are small, with some larger businesses also present. Flatbush housing varies in character. It generally features apartment buildings, though some rowhouses also are present.

In 2010 the population of Flatbush, regardless of ZIP code, was 110,875. The Flatbush community has been receiving an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean (West Indies), mostly from Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Belize, since the 1980s, as well as immigrants from South Asia, primarily India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and African countries like Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya. Haitians are the largest ethnic group in Flatbush. Prior to the arrival of these groups, the Flatbush community had already been diverse, with many Italian-Americans, African-Americans and Jewish-Americans. (nyc.gov)

At the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 37,132 housing units with 106,154 people living in Zip Code 11226. Of those 79.8% were Black or African American, 14% were Hispanic or Latino, 6.5% were White, 2.8% were Asian, 0.4% Native American, 5.7% were some other race and 4.9% were two or more races. Of the population 25 and older 64.5% are High School graduates or higher and 12.4% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. 39.9% speak a language other than English at home. The median family income in ZIP code 11226 in 1999 was $30,985, the median per capita income was $13,052. 23.2% of residents in this area were below the poverty level. (nyc.gov)

The Changing Housing Market in Flatbush (Unaffordable Housing!)

“We know from first-hand experience, that the same unscrupulous property owners who use tactics to force long-time older tenants of color out of their rent-stabilized apartments will illegally overcharge incoming younger white tenants for the same apartment. For this very reason, we believe all of us, long-time and new residents, communities of color and white communities, low-income and middle-class people have a stake in the urgent struggle to fight gentrification and save affordable housing in Brooklyn” (E4F, 2014).

Edith’s Perspective: When I walk around Flatbush these days, I cannot help but see how different it looks. I often wondered where were all my neighbors going and why did they leave. There are so many new and different faces. There are many times when I can tell that someone that recently moved there had never stepped into the neighborhood until they went apartment hunting. The people that now live there are not the only thing that is different about the neighborhood. Buildings in the area have been getting facelifts recently and new buildings are suddenly appearing. The buildings seem somewhat out of place with their perfect laws and outrageous rent prices. I thought that no one would be crazy enough to move into those condominium-style apartments placed in our neighborhood. I slowly found out that the tenants in my building were being made to move by the new owners of our building. Shortly after the new owners bought the building, they began to search for loopholes that made people’s leases void. When they made the first moves to take people to court, they offered thousands of dollars to the tenant to avoid going to court and help them ‘make a decision’ a little bit faster. Many people took the money and the old neighbors in the building dwindled down to a handful.

There have been numerous development projects surfacing around Flatbush. Most of these projects are luxury buildings looking to attract high income earners to this area. The contractors target areas that have not been in use for a long time. This is the case with the 123 On the Park property that used to be Caledonian Hospital. According to their website, 123 On the Park promises “Luxe Living” across the street from Prospect Park in an area that was once deemed one of most dangerous blocks in the area. In the year 2000, police patrolled every corner of this small area of Brooklyn around the clock in order to decrease crime. Not far from 123, the 626 Flatbush Avenue development is scheduled to be ready by 2016. There have been a lot of controversy and push back for this particular development. The building is built where there used to be a parking lot and a business. 626 is an 80/20 building that will offer 20% of their 254 units for affordable housing. This project claims that the area medium income is 83, 500 and to be eligible for affordable housing, a household has to fall between 40-50% of the mean area income. If new properties attract higher incomes to an impoverished area, it can be assumed that this will change the medium income of this neighborhood not only increase the minimum income for someone to be eligible for affordable housing because it is determined by a percentage of the median income.

Kings County Hospital former psychiatric building, also known as G building, is being redeveloped into an affordable housing complex by the nonprofit, CAMBA. They will also provide on-site social services for residents. Future residents are expected to pay 30% of their income for rent. While this project has noble intentions, this seems to create further segregation of people according to their income. This project seems like it is only one step above low-income housing. The amenities offered by CAMBA range from “resume writing” to “case management” for tenants that qualify because of their special needs. Affordable housing does not provide the luxury offered by the other projects like 626 Flatbush and 123 on the Park like a roof deck and state of the art fitness rooms. While the availability of these units gives hope to residents that there will be affordable housing available to them, it is still another way to separate and stigmatize the tenants that rent these apartments.

The neighborhood lost two medical facilities due to lack of funding and they are being replaced with luxury apartments.

The Changing School System

While it is indeed a reality that educational systems are changing all over this country, I am highly concerned about what this shift will mean for my children and others in the near future. Flatbush was always considered as the cultural Mecca of Brooklyn. Within its bounds one can find individuals from every country in the world. The education was culturally inspired because it was the direct decendant of those who had lived abroad. As a child I often imagined that my parent’s “southern drawl” was replaced with the linguistic choices of those whom had come from islands afar. Today, for so many immigrants who call Flatbush home, there is a quiet demand to trade centuries of cultural language for the common dialect of the community.

This change is especially hard for the countless number of immigrant families who have come to the United States of America seeking opportunities for a better tomorrow. These opportunities are seen through the education and elevation of their children. For many, the youth of the family will be the first generations to have obtained formal education. College is a reality, and more importantly a necessity. However the current lottery system associated with the privatization of the public school system through the charter program may drastically alter a child’s fate. A ticket or a selected number now determines if a child is eligible to receive a qualifying educational experience. For the economically impoverished youth of the Flatbush community, who are predominately Black and Hispanic seeing an educator who is of the same race is rare. The Explore Charter School located on Parkside Avenue in Flatbush is a daily reminder of the racial and socio-economic disconnect between student and teacher. In a 2012 New York Times article entitled, ‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’ author N.R. Kleinfield states: “One way race presents itself at Explore is in the makeup of teaching staff. It is 61 percent white and 35 percent black…Most of the administration and central staff members- including the schools founder, the current principal, the upper-school’s academic s and the lower schools academic head, as well as the high school counselor and social worker – are white” (p.2).

Integration of schools has been a right that has been fought for since the civil rights era. Here we are today, over fifty years post-civil rights era where individuals are consciously deciding to re-segregate the educational system. This will have an adverse effect on Black and Hispanic children, because they will not be culturally prepared to deal with the economic and sociological changes of other races. While test scores are important to the overall academic environment, children should walk away both having a connected experience to the educator and also to those who share this important moment in their lives with them.

Within the confines of the Flatbush community there are currently 12 Charter Schools which have emerged in the last 10 years. These schools are usually housed within the already existing public schools and are forcing the host location to reduce and in some cases remove programming such as Education Services and Physical Education Services, to make room for the new residents. Parents are fight tooth and nail to maintain a level of homeostasis for their children and are even being dissuaded by the New York City Department of Education at every turn. The DOE has made several co-location agreements with charter programs to house them not considering how this will affect the greatest casualty which are the children. The truth of the matter is Charter Schools do not accommodate the needs of special education students, based on the rigorous schedule and educational demands. This means that children such as my child who is a second grader with an Individualized Educational Plan will never be able to attend the Charter program. He is currently being bused from our home in Crown Heights to an accommodating school in the Boreum Hill section of Brooklyn. As more schools emerge our children will see further segregation which is highly disappointing especially in a so called “melting pot” of New York City. In a Daily News article “Parents fight to keep charter out of Flatbush school with lawsuit” written by Mark Morales (2011) it states: “It’s an egregious example of how the DOE is pushing its policy favoring charter schools to the detriment of and working-class students in the public school system”, said Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer for Advocates for Justice (p. 1).

 

Growing Police Presence in Flatbush

Police repression has been an instrumental tool in enforcing gentrification in our neighborhoods. Numerous articles have been written exposing the highest rates of “stop and frisk” reports have occurred in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. It has also been proven that “stop and frisk” does not to deter crime but instead has led to the rampant violations of people’s civil rights as well as police brutalization and murders of especially young people of color in our communities. (Martin, 2013) Equality for Flatbush (E4F) has launched a 6-month community survey on NYPD checkpoints for East Flatbush and Flatbush residents that began this November. “The overwhelming prevalence of NYPD checkpoints in Flatbush and East Flatbush has been part of the discussion at our community meetings.”, says Nevin Rao, an organizer with Equality for Flatbush and new resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Many people have talked about witnessing an increase in the amounts of checkpoints over this year “, says Rao, a social service worker at a Brooklyn hospital, “When we have gone out flyering, lots of community members have seen checkpoints being set up on a weekly basis in their neighborhoods and see it as a form of harassment. This is why NYPD checkpoint surveillance has become one of the focuses of our work anti-police repression work. ”

Racial Tension

Amina’s Perspective: Flatbush, while still predominantly black and working-class, became somewhat whiter but not much wealthier during the first dozen years of this millennium. The number of white people in the zip code around the Church Avenue station increased by 4,000 from 2000 to 2012 while the number of African Americans decreased by 10,000, so that white people now make up a 10th of the area’s population and black people constitute three quarters, according to census data. (Hurowitz, 2014)

As the statistics above reflects, Flatbush has been quite a diverse area for decades. However, there’s been a long standing tension between the different racial and ethnic groups who reside in Flatbush. The impact of gentrification seems to have increased the racial divide, especially between the residents who have lived in the area for generations and the new residents who are commonly known these days as “the gentrifiers”. Older residents of Flatbush are not pleased with the influx of new, rich and predominantly white residents. Some of the common issues that older communities have with the transformation are the rent hikes which affect their housing and local businesses; increase in police presence due to the apparent “fears” of the newer residents….

Residents feel that they are being pushed out in order to accommodate the more wealthy, white population. Flatbush has been a community of biological family members and a community where your neighbors become “like family”, including, for example, the neighborhood baker. However, the scene is changing. One by one, family members are separating as they are no longer able to afford to live in Flatbush. Members are forced to move to other areas of the borough of Brooklyn in search of more affordable rent. More drastic measures have occurred where community members are forced to other boroughs or even out of state. Community members are afraid that the distance between family members will cause isolation. Family members were able to visit with one another with a simple walk down the block. The former traditional community of Flatbush is slowly fading away as a new culture is being born.

 

The Impact of Gentrification on Small Business

I, Amina, was raised in the Bedford Stuyvesant (aka Bed-Stuy) Section of Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy is currently in the middle of a hypergentrification transformation. Compared to many areas of Flatbush, the entire community of Bed-Stuy appears to have quite a big head start in their transformation. As a resident of Bed-Stuy, since early childhood up until 2 years ago, I became familiar with the different types of small business that shared the community. Downtown Brooklyn was also a “shopping Mecca” for Bed-Stuy residents. However, for a little over a decade or so, I’ve witnessed possibly over 100 small business become displaced. These businesses were part of what made the community and were part of the livelihood of the local residents. As a displaced resident of a currently gentrified part of Brooklyn, I constantly wonder how I can make it back into Brooklyn? At this time, it doesn’t seem as if I’ll ever be able to afford to live in Brooklyn. What about opening a business in Brooklyn? I’m concerned about the continued longevity of the small businesses in the Flatbush.

Conclusion

Unfortunately this paper we have written together applies to lots of other neighborhoods in New York City. We would all love to stay in this city we call home but we all worry that we are going to be forced to leave. In our different ways, the four people that have written this paper still have the American Dream – but we feel like our generation and our children’s generation have been cheated out of it. It’s not fair that in order to pursue the dream of having our own home we need to leave where we’re from! Our folks are going (back) down South, to New Jersey, to Pittsburgh, just to have something that’s not going to be stolen from us. Or we’re house hopping, chasing the cheapest rent all over the five boroughs, trying to make it work and struggling. Gentrification isn’t completely bad – its brought in certain kinds of diversity – a lot of the vacant lots have been turned into housing and in some neighborhoods there is a lot of beautiful art and activities – but the people who are actually from the community are unable to enjoy the benefits and it leaves us feeling bitter. It seems like so much of gentrification is a process where privileged folks come in and take advantage of all the hard struggle working class and middle class people have put in to make their neighborhoods beautiful. In many ways it’s a class war: the wealthy get to have their luxury at the expense of the underclasses. And we’re all sharing the same city.

As we are finishing this paper, there is a movement erupting for justice in the streets, holding the city and police accountable for not respecting the lives of Black people. It is our hope that this movement grows into a flood for justice and we roll back the economic disaster that is unfolding in our home.

References

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/02/when-gentrification-and-stop-and-frisk-collide.htm

Grant, B. What Is Gentrification? Retrieved on 12/11/2004  from http://www.pbs.org/pov/flagwars/special_gentrification.php

hooks, B., & Mesa-Bains, A. (2006). Homegrown: Engaged cultural criticism. Cambridge, MA: South End Press

Leland, John. (May 28, 2011) In Williamsburg, Rocked Hard. The New York Times.  Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/nyregion/gentrification-brings-discord-to-williamsburg-brooklyn.html?_r=0

Leslie, J. (December 9, 2008) What’s it like in Flatbush? Brooklyn Based. Retrieved from http://brooklynbased.com/blog/2008/12/09/whats-it-like-in-flatbush/

Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, Berkeley.

Martin, Adam (February 6, 2013) Gentrification, Stop-and-Frisk Collide in Crown Heights. Intelligencer.  Retrieved from:

Moss, Jeremiah. “On Spike Lee and Hyper Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York

Retrieved from: http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/2014/03/onspikeleehypergentrification.html

Smith, N. (2006), “Gentrification Generalized: From Local Anomaly to Urban ‘Regeneration’ as Global Urban Strategy”, in Fisher, M. and Downey, G. (eds.), Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. Psychology Press.

 

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