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The What You Are Afraid Of

To be fair, reading through the Brownstoner comments, you won’t just find animosity. You won’t just find acrimony, aggression, name-calling, neighborhood-bashing, exotic new curse words employed in inventive combinations, race-baiting, and naked hate. You will also find fear. It’s the drumbeat beneath the symphony. This fear is expressed in different ways, on many different topics. This fear, like a resilient parasite, attaches itself to a variety of hosts. There is fear that your old neighborhood is changing. Fear that your new neighborhood is unsafe. Fear that you waited too long, or got in too late, that you bought at the peak, that your savings are worthless. Fear that your school district is substandard, your block on the decline, your choices were the wrong ones, you can’t go back and fix it now. Fear of roving packs of kids, or rolling herds of strollers. Fear that this isn’t turning out how you thought it would.

Thanks to the fact that, on the Internet, no one can see your face, and everyone knows only as much about you as you choose to reveal (or they choose to believe), the Brownstoner comments are divided most obviously not along race or class, or even Old Brooklyn versus New Brooklyn (because, let’s face it, Old Brooklyn—by which we mean Carroll Gardens lifers, not people who arrived in 1998—aren’t spending all their time on a Website about Brooklyn), but instead are divided along a simple schism: owners versus renters. There is no greater put-down on the Brownstoner boards than to call someone “a bitter renter.” To be branded a bitter renter is to be exiled to the lowest caste. The implication is that you dawdled when others were decisive; you slept while others moved swiftly; you missed out while others struck gold.

All the streams and tributaries of complaint on the site reliably run back into this ocean of anxiety. And The What is just noisily splashing about in these waters; he’s certainly not the only one drinking it up. Other commenters complain that the site is too optimistic. Or they complain that anyone predicting a downturn is only sore because they’re throwing their money away on rent, and so they’re hoping for a crash so they can buy in, too. Or they moan that a million dollars for a fixer-upper in Bed-Stuy is sheer lunacy. Or they sneer that if you can’t make money in this market, it’s because you don’t know how to make money in real estate, as evidenced by the fact that you are a renter. A bitter, bitter renter.

Among these streams, though, you will also find stories, like little pebbles shaped by fear, that you can pick up and examine. Again, you can’t know these commenters’ exact histories. And yet, despite this, or because of it, there these stories are: a thousand daily dramas played out in the comment threads in telling detail, like tiny passion plays of the everyday.

Sometimes the stories are straightforward and transparent. Sometimes they come in impassioned response to an anodyne comment, like the person who wrote, under an item about foreclosures, “I cannot imagine how it feels to know you are losing your home.” To which another commenter responded:

“Can’t imagine what it feels like to know you are losing your home? Why, I imagine it sort of feels like being priced out (i.e., kicked out) of an apartment you’ve lived in for years, and a neighborhood you’ve invested in by shopping there, perhaps planting flowers at the park or joining the PTA or starting a business. But for whatever reason, you couldn’t get a down payment together (maybe you work in a service profession and don’t have family money), and though you worked with acorn and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and signed up for every housing lottery, the fact is that you couldn’t afford to buy, and you didn’t get lucky, so you rent. Yes, I imagine not being able to pay the mortgage feels, to some extent, like being told that your rent is going up $500 a month because the market has changed, and that you’ll just have to move, and too bad, so move it along. Probably it feels sort of like that.”

Bitter renter.

Other stories are more abstract, sketched out in a sentence or two. Yet they paint the portrait of a neighborhood, or a block, or a wordless exchange at a bodega, better than any newspaper item could hope to do. Like the story, let’s imagine, of a person who, let’s say, paid about $2 million for a brownstone in Boerum Hill (an average price), because she and her husband were told it was getting better and all their friends are moving to Brooklyn anyway. But they’re not too far from the projects and, you know, there are people in the neighborhood who seem kind of shady. She’d prefer not to say exactly why. She understands, and is victim of, what we might call the Gentrifier’s Dilemma: that the people most likely to be acutely aware of the ethical complexities and itchy racial politics of gentrification are also, ironically, the exact same people (white, moneyed, liberal) most likely to be gentrifiers themselves. After all, if you’re a raging right-wing bigot, you’re not going to move to the funky new neighborhood three blocks from a housing project because you love nineteenth-century architecture. No, that’s going to be a person like her—and again, this is all speculation, we can’t know who these faceless voices are—who’s likely to feel slightly uneasy about the men who hang out in front of the corner deli, the one she pops into occasionally if she needs to buy milk but where the selection is pretty terrible, as if they’re not even trying, yet still she smiles and does her best to be courteous, but, truth be told, those people are kind of cold to her (though she would never say this to anyone, not even her husband). She is exactly the kind of person who, when stumbling onto an item on Brownstoner headlined “StreetLevel: Bodega Goes Up in Smoke,” about a deli shut down for selling untaxed cigarettes, might find herself posting in the comments: “I live around the corner from this place and can say it will not be missed. There are always a bunch of sketchy-types hanging out in front.” Or maybe she was the one who wrote, “I live on this block a few houses down and all I can say is good riddance. There are always people hanging around outside that are obviously up to something illegal. No one will miss this place!”


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