I have lived in New York City for 17 years and in Park Slope, Brooklyn for 12 of those years. New York City has a peculiar way of simultaneously changing and staying the same and of quickly transforming newcomers into New Yorkers. Being a New Yorker, I too have found myself subtly changing as my neighborhood has but also staying pretty much the same.
When my husband and I first moved in together, back in 2002, we lived in one of Brooklyn’s in between neighborhoods near the corner of Myrtle and Bedford Avenues. It was at the intersection of the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg and Clinton-Hill where “Oy!” flipped to “Yo!” within the space of a block and which real estate agents claimed was either South Williamsburg or North Clinton-Hill, whichever they felt would close the deal. The building was a former factory newly converted into lofts and was populated, primarily, by very, very, very loud college students. When we realized we were too old to tolerate the parties next door that lasted well into the night, the all-day rock band practices and the occasional pop-up dancehall club across the street, we decided to move. It was the tail-end of 2003 and Park Slope seemed perfect. It was filled with grown-ups and families of varying hues and gender combinations, mom-and-pop businesses of all sorts and sprinkled with greasy, MSG laden Chinese take-out restaurants, dingy laundromats and bodegas blaring merengue, all topped off by beautiful Prospect Park. Former Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz would tell anyone that would listen that the rest of the world was green with envy over Prospect Park and I would have to agree. Shout out to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, well done!
We immediately felt at home in Park Slope. At the time, I didn’t realize these sprinklings that I cherished, not because I frequented these places but because they were, in my mind, integral parts of any New York City neighborhood, were actually the vestiges of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Even when a real estate agent drove us down 5th Avenue, assuring us that it, meaning 5th Avenue, wasn’t as nice as 7th but was getting better, what she meant by the “getting better” didn’t really register in my brain. All I could see was a beautiful blending of all the things I loved about New York City and didn’t hear the meaning behind her words—that many of those things would soon disappear.
Of course, all neighborhoods change over time and perhaps these changes happen more frequently and with greater speed in New York City and it has certainly happened to Park Slope. The real estate prices for buyers and renters alike never seem to plateau. Park Slope was one of the first places in the country to recover after the housing crisis of 2008, boosted in part, by the building of the Barclay Center and the draw of a great public school. A number of the diverse mom-and-pop businesses up and down the Avenues have shuttered and been replaced with nail salons. There are, at this very moment, at least twenty nail salons between Flatbush Avenue, to the north, and Prospect Avenue, to the south. (Click here to read up on the plight of nail salon workers. It ain’t pretty.) Walking down 5th Avenue on a late night, you might be greeted by the tinkling of beer mugs, shot glasses and moderately loud music but there will be no merengue and no questionable General Tso’s chicken to go along with it.
For the most part, I thought I had come to terms with how my Park Slope had changed. I still loved it and we had a Whole Foods now and isn’t that what all gentrifying neighborhoods really want? *le sigh* (Because ennui is best expressed en français.) But the thing is, some recent experiences have left me feeling like it’s not home anymore.
Here are a couple of examples:
Both of my kids are in school now and they are usually one of only a handful of children of color in their classes and usually only one of two children of African descent. To my pre-parent self, Park Slope was going to be the place where my children would get to go to school with lots of kids from all kinds of backgrounds and have their lives enriched by the experience but I fear that is not happening. As a result, I have had to join a school committee. A school committee. Me, on a committee, in an elementary school, not just helping out in the classroom or going on field trips but on a committee. People! Have I mentioned that I don’t like people in general and including children?! Do you see what gentrification is doing to me?! It’s forcing me engage with the people!
The other day (some time in late May or early June), I sat sipping my tea (Earl Grey, of course) with my husband (he was on a green tea kick) on one of our morning dates post school drop-off, amid my fellow regulars at a local cafe. Across the table from us, two white women (not regulars as far as I knew) were chatting. From snatches of their conversation that wafted over my way, it sounded like they too were parents at our school. So, I’m sipping my tea, scrolling through Facebook on my phone and talking to my husband about the nonsense to be found there before I decide to put my phone down because there is just too much crazy and stupid in the world. I sip. I ponder. I sip and gaze out the window. I breathe. It’s a lovely moment, a mini-haven (see Earl Grey—Black) in my lovely Park Slope. And then, one of the women across from me leans toward the other, covers her mouth and whispers something. I don’t pay any mind except her friend can’t understand what she is saying so the other woman has to speak up a little drawing my attention. I hear in pieces, “You know that mom”, “African-American”, “I couldn’t believe”. The other woman says in a normal voice and matter-of-factly, “Well, that was just inappropriate.” The whisperer says, “Have to watch what I say. Be mindful of my surroundings.” Her friend nervously glanced my way and I made sure to make eye contact to convey, “Yes, I can hear your friend and yes, I can also hear your silence in the face of your ignorant (at best) and or racist friend,” because, up to this point I haven’t given a damn. The lady apparently had an experience with another parent that wasn’t great. It happens. The thing that got me was that she felt like she had to be careful about what she said about this other parent because the other parent was black and she was saying whatever it was near me and thought I would think she was racist because of whatever she was saying. Huh?! I would only think that if she were attributing the black parent’s behavior to the fact that she is black which clearly she was because her friend looked like a swallow just flew up her butt and the whisperer looked in every which direction but mine which was directly across from her. I almost couldn’t finish my damn tea. I say almost because I’ll be damned if some squat, little, closet racist (because you know she would swear up and down the East River that she is not a racist and how dare I hurt her delicate feelings by even insinuating such a thing) is going to ruin my tea time in my mini-haven! The nerve of crazy to come up in MY Park Slope hang out, during MY tea time…. I was so pissed off I had to go home and call my sister at her job.
Park Slope has changed, for the better and for the worse, and it has forced me to change as well; to more fully and actively claim it as my own. To join the school committee and after years of resistance, even join the Park Slope Food Co-op. Yup, even more people time. We took the kids on the Staten Island Ferry one weekend to take in the view of our fair city from the harbor and when I looked back at Brooklyn, I could barely recognize the skyline. Borough landmark, Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower at 1 Hanson Place, with it’s glowing red clock-hands and once the tallest building in Brooklyn (1929-2009), was dwarfed by high rises and cranes building even more high rises. My heart sank a little. Up until then, I had held tightly to the idea that the physical and demographic changes would eventually slow down and at its heart Brooklyn would always be the Brooklyn I wanted it to be but that simply isn’t true and it never was.