Documenting the Gentrification of New York

DW Gibson reads from his new book tomorrow night at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene.
Last week, New York magazine ran an as-told-to account of a landlord who exemplified the worst of what we think about heinous real estate practices in New York. He was just one person, though–and really the most reprehensible one–featured in DW Gibson’s new book, The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century. Gibson spent three years interviewing people who are all involved in the story of how New York’s neighborhoods have radically changed over the past 15 years. He chose the most compelling personalities from all sides of the conversation–landlords, tenants, architects, developers, and activists–to deliver personal accounts that put faces on the established narratives surrounding gentrification, like the effect that market-rate renters have upon rent-stabilized tenants in the same building. We learn how a man who moved into his Crown Heights apartment in the first grade is later taken to housing court ostensibly because he upgraded his cabinets (just as the building’s landlord has offered him $30,000 to move); how one Bed-Stuy native jumps in front of headphone-wearing newcomers to get them to become more present; and how a Ridgewood architect sees the evolution of land use in New York as vital and as natural as the evolution of language.It’s a truly absorbing book, and it sold out on Amazon in a matter of days. You can find copies on the shelves of local bookstores like Greenlight, though, where Gibson will be reading tomorrow night at 8pm. Below is an edited version of our interview.Brooklyn Based: A point you often make in the book, and that you hear from the various people you interviewed, is that gentrification is not just an us-versus-them debate. There are many different types of gentrifiers. And it seems as though the gentrifiers that long-time residents get most upset about are the new residents who don’t seem to want to engage at all with the existing community. People who have moved to a neighborhood simply because it’s cheaper.

If every new resident just engaged with their new community in a meaningful way, do you think gentrification would no longer be as loaded or as bad a word as it is?

DW Gibson: I would say yes. I don’t think it’s a panacea and it would fix everything, but to answer your question precisely, I don’t think it would be as toxic of a word as it is. This is one of the points in the book that I can speak to directly as an individual, as a New Yorker. I live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on a small street where it’s safe to say the vast majority of the folks who live on this block are Caribbean. They’re from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago. I’m very different from them on the surface. I feel conscious about that. I feel aware of that. And the best that I can do, and what I strive to do is simply to develop personal connections with all the people around me, my neighbors and the people down the street and introduce myself and get to know them and become involved in the community in any way I can.

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