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Don't You Be My Neighbor

Colson Whitehead laments the latest death of Brooklyn at the hands of developers— but says we all practice forms of eminent domain.

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I used to live in Fort Greene, and whenever I visit my old neighborhood, I am tormented by the same absurd thought: I should have bought that crack house when I had the chance. Never mind that I was broke—this line of thinking is a natural member of that gang of peculiar New York regrets. Regrets about places you loved but had to leave, places you coveted but could never pay the admission price, places that were surrounded by invisible barbed wire before you were born. Regrets about quaint little crack houses with southern-exposure gardens, owner duplex, needs TLC.

The renovations to the Atlantic Avenue station are almost done. It used to be my home stop. Now it’s a transfer point that brings me deeper into Brooklyn, but I still feel more than a little affection for it. Twelve years ago, you could always tell when there was something artsy going on, because at 7:30 p.m. the BAM Special would roll in and all these white people would emerge from underground with this look on their faces: Where the hell are we? These days, that station is the gateway for the Fort Greene cultural nexus—the many-limbed BAM octopus, the Mark Morris Dance Group, the hip lounges. Food critics have stopped issuing apologies about how “it’s worth the trip,” and many of the folks who go to those places aren’t taking the train at all but walking a few blocks from home. They came because they wanted to be a part of it.

A few years into the future, the station will serve an even bigger mess of people—the Nets Special. The renovations underground will suit all the flashy stuff on the street. Office towers, 300,000 square feet of retail space, high-rise apartment buildings. An ice rink! Glorious sunlight will gleam across the surfaces of Gehry-designed structures, and, of course, there will be a few units of affordable housing, which is the magnate’s version of “the check is in the mail.”

For weeks now, signs have been visible in the windows of Pacific Street apartments, saying SAVE OUR HOMES and HELL NO WE WON’T GO. Apartment buildings and businesses will be demolished to make way for these grand plans, and it’s estimated that 200 to 400 people will be displaced, though this figure doesn’t include a shadow number—the people who would have lived in the neighborhood in its current incarnation but won’t be able to afford it. Half of them probably don’t even live in the city limits now, haven’t bought their tickets yet.

At a recent rally held on the site, yellow balloons with GROWTH NOT GREED on them whipped back and forth in the wind. I’d heard about the protest from a flyer I picked up in a rib joint on Flatbush and Seventh Avenue, which is not in the ground zero of Ratner’s plan but well within its vast radius of influence. I watched as people converged from Prospect Heights, from Boerum Hill, from all the surrounding neighborhoods. One kid held a sign that said BROOKLYN IS A WORLD CLASS CITY NOW, a statement of fact that contained a remarkable amount of ambiguity. Was that a yes or a no to the stadium?

It was impossible not to notice the sky that afternoon. You could see it, lots of it. There was simply too much sky there, and the city hates it when there’s too much sky. The space needs to be filled. The anti-development folks were so small compared with the empty railroad tracks. You had to ask, What is the power of people against the might of buildings? I wish them luck. The people, that is. The buildings don’t need it.

The next new thing is always ugly in proportion to its inevitability. Is it the death of Fort Greene? It’s the death of Fort Greene.

But the current Fort Greene was the death of the one before it. Eminent domain approaches in many guises. It comes in sledgehammers, bulldozers, pieces of paper that declare in legalese, “This building condemned.” Then there is eminent domain in its quieter, less bombastic forms: the arrival of the goateed and bohemian-minded, rent increases, the monied, the condoed. Soon enough, you’ll be able to go to Amazon and order a starter kit for these transformations: Gentrification in a Box. The contents include: one economically depressed neighborhood, a bargain compared with other places in the city; one wave of artists looking for a place to hang their easels and sleeping bags; one handful of the young and priced-out; one dozen lucky landowners and real-estate speculators rolling dice; one gaggle of new businesses looking for a foothold. If you can afford it, the Deluxe Edition comes with a branch of Corcoran, for that extra-fine, glossy finish.

Listen to me, with my “back in the day” and “can’t throw a rock without hitting a bistro.” As if putting in eleven years in this borough makes me an old hand. The longtime residents—longer-time residents—know I’m just another one of the displaced Manhattan chumps. Everybody is someone’s newcomer, someone else’s gentrifier. I gave somebody the boot out of an apartment in Brooklyn a while back, and recently someone else gave me the boot. What do I know about Brooklyn? I know it’s part of New York City, and that means that every inch of it is constantly screaming, “Move, get out the way!” Bike messenger, delivery truck, sports stadium coming through. Honk honk. It’s a white neighborhood, it’s a black neighborhood, it’s an immigrant neighborhood, it’s a subplot on a sitcom about yuppies. It’s a working-class neighborhood, then it’s not. It’s changing so fast you shouldn’t bother unpacking, and you might as well blame water for being wet.

No one is safe, up and down the food chain. I recently had the opportunity to interview some pit bulls in Bed-Stuy, who were, to say the least, a little distressed. Their favorite lampposts had been taken over by a bunch of “blow-dried bichons who walk around like it’s Park Avenue or something.”

How do we all fit? Where do we go? The next stop over, the next stop uptown or down, somewhere pressed up against the river. A few neighborhoods deeper into the bosom. After I got the heave-ho from Fort Greene last summer, I set up shop in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, which sounds as if it were cooked up in a cauldron in the basement of some real-estate office. It probably was—a few decades ago. The name is a token of a previous generation’s optimism and speculation; the present holds no monopoly on such things. Decade after decade, we fight for our precious square feet of the New York dream, and the language of marketing always keeps pace. This year’s Gowanus is next year’s River View Estates (and since I wrote those words, both the Times and the Voice have run “So you want to live in X?” pieces about my new nabe. Time to move!).

In the end, the same energy that draws us here, binds us to this place, is alternately creative and destructive, razing here, renovating there, and it’s all we can do to adapt. I doubt that the well-heeled future inhabitants of those Pacific Street high-rises will be happy come game day, when the jerseyed hordes bubble out of the Atlantic Avenue station. The only people who are happy and without care are the little cartoon people who promenade across architectural plans, in the artist’s renderings of the Atlantic Yards, the new World Trade Center, the Olympic Village in Queens. Certainly their features betray no troubled thoughts as they stand before the fountains, stadiums, and tree-lined plazas. It helps that they have no faces.


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