Have You Heard of Gentrification? by Lou Cespedes
When you hear the word “gentrification” what do you think of? Do you imagine groups of white people suddenly flooding your neighborhood? What does gentrification mean to you? Does it mean that you are excluded from something? From what exactly? What does gentrification look and sound like? Is it the sound of happy people eating and drinking on sidewalk cafés with their dogs, and the waiter bringing them biscuits? Is gentrification leaving a pair of lightly worn Manolo’s on your stoop for a poorer passerby to scoop up? These are the things we think we should fear but are actually the things we desire most. How do I know this? Simple; I see black people do it on Franklin Ave, in Clinton Hill and in Crown Heights. We call those folks “bourgeois blacks” because we’ve somehow managed to separate our own image as people of color from the image of affluence. When we use the word “gentrification”, what we are really saying is we reject affluence for ourselves, even while we carry Whole Foods grocery bags from Gowanus back to East Flatbush. What we are also doing is attributing affluence to others we call “white” even when that affluence is not there.
There is a much more complex dynamic to the concept of gentrification versus its quotidian social and linguistic constructs. The word comes from “gentry” meaning: a class below nobility, people of good social position – usually closely associated with owning land and money. Gentrification is not to be confused with its doppelganger, Racism, although in our exchanges the two are often conflated. In our application of day to day actions and decisions – as we process our needs as a community – when we verbalize that we don’t want gentrification, you automatically enable it, and are forced to personify it in the image of “someone” that isn’t like you, or has something you don’t. That may be real, but it could also be imagined.
Last year, a Haitian neighbor, the son of a longtime homeowner said to me: “…things would only improve in E. Flatbush when white people move in”. When I attend Community Board 17 meetings, my neighbors tell me my opinions and thoughts don’t count because – “you just got here – we’ve been here for 40 years”. They call me “the enemy” because I have mortgage and I make more money than 80% of the district’s residents and I don’t share their worldview. The big problem is I’m not white! Yet, less wealthy and inexperienced whites without my skillset on the community board command more respect than I do. I’m considered a gentrifying force in my own community, and it is most often white’s that are beating the “gentrification” drum when addressing me as an Afro-Latino.
There is an unusual and perverse effect in the use of the word gentrification that works to sort and divide those ignorant of the words meaning. There is the ever-present danger, as Borough President Eric Adams recently illustrated, that the misuse and misunderstanding of gentrification as a trigger word for racism will inevitably result in manifestations of “hate”. Racism is real. Hate is real. Gentrification is their trojan horse. In other words, to address the effects of gentrification, you must first address the agencies of structural racism that are carried out in the name of gentrification. Those agencies are: Re-Zoning and Land Use, Housing, Education, Criminal Justice, Policing, Business Development, Governance, Health, and Security. To accomplish this, you must understand how the apparatus of government facilitates racism and disenfranchisement in our community, and how this trickles down to our elected officials, religious leaders, activists, and your vote.
Over the next few months I’ll ask my readers to accompany me on a journey to understand the psychology and physiology of our community. In this series on Gentrification, I will address the misconceptions about wealth in black communities, I will address the mediums through which racism is deployed, I will analytically dissect the figure known as “politician” and her particular function as a device of power. To be clear, I expect many to be jarred by my analysis, but I don’t suspect anyone will take issue with my conclusions, because they ARE self-evident on our streets and in our parlance. Through this series, I will attempt to give our community the tools they need to define futures for themselves by equipping them with information and real choices, rather than disarming them through fear. Furthermore, I hope to point out some contradictions as we discuss racism in our community, even among ourselves as people of color – West Indians – You know what I mean! Orthodox Jews – You know what I mean! If we aren’t talking to each-other, we are talking about each-other, and I was taught never to talk smack behind anyone’s back. I face challenges head on, and I hide from no one. Will you please join me in this process of self-reflection? It will be a difficult task, but G-d prepares his servants for difficult things. If you are ready to do this with me, then let us begin in earnest.
Jeremiah 12: v.4-5 Twitter: @loufor45 Instagram: Loucespedes