A Summer in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn: Thoughts on Gentrification, Street Harassment, and My Privilege

sun on worship street

Since moving to New York for the summer, gentrification and street harassment–and their intersections–have become much more explicit in my everyday experience.

My manic hunt for summer housing ended with a post from an unknown classmate in a “Brown in New York” Facebook group.  It was a classic case.  She was asking on behalf of a friend who needed subletters.

Having spent all of finals period zooming through Craigslist postings for $1200-a-month studios on my study breaks, the $700-a-month rate had me salivating at my computer.  Thanks to the “street view” option on Google maps, I did a quick appraisal of the area surrounding the apartment.  In part because of my bougie romanticization of “life in the city in my first apartment in my 20s” and in full because of my immense privilege, I indulged myself.  I remember simultaneously clicking through the neighborhood and Yelp-ing to test for proximity to parks and coffee shops.  I said to myself things like, “Wow the street is so wide!  I wonder if these bars are strict about carding.  Is there a rooftop view?” I remember texting my friends to ask about my possible new place, asking them “What do you know about Bed Stuy?” Most had never heard of it.  One replied, “It’s the new Bushwick, which is the new Williamsburg.”  Another said, “Uh, isn’t that where the HONY guy is based out of?”  (Yes.)

bedsty

My home (although I strongly hesitate to use this word) for the summer is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, also known as Bed Stuy.  (My relationship with the area is so newfound that I just misspelled “Stuyvesant” in this Word document and would never have known had it not been for that pesky red underline.)  Considered a black cultural mecca in New York, people have said that Bed Stuy is to Brooklyn as Harlem is to Manhattan.  In fact, following the construction of the subway line between Harlem and Bedford in 1936, African-Americans left an overcrowded Harlem for more housing availability in Bed Stuy [1].  The gentrification of Bed Stuy began about a couple years ago.  I expect that if this trajectory continues, in a decade or so it will look something like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a notoriously gentrified area that is now fraught with a predominantly white hipster and art culture.  In my time in Bed Stuy, I have not seen another Asian person in the neighborhood apart from one of my housemates who is a college student from Minneapolis.  I perceive most of the newcomers to the neighborhood to be white.  I wonder now if the local residents group me with the white gentrifiers, if they possibly see us as one and the same.  This would be strange, as in every other circumstance my asianness NEVER gives me the same privileges as whiteness would.

Nevertheless, the fact that I had the ability to do a virtual checkout of my neighborhood before moving in is indicative enough of my class privilege.  More damaging, however, is the fact that in those moments, I spent little time thinking about the class/race implications of what I was seeing and even less time on the implications of those implications with regard to my privilege in the process of gentrification.

Privilege frequently holds power in this way, by neutering attitudes, behaviors, etc. of their political weight.  This is how people are often guilty of saying oppressive things and never blinking an eye; because of their privilege, they do not even have the thought to have the thought to have the thought about how or why they just said something problematic and hurtful.

It really wasn’t until I left my home in the D.C. Metro suburbs, drove across the Brooklyn bridge, and pulled up into my neighborhood for the first time that I realized that I had joined the horde of gentrifiers pursuing summer internships and their first post-grad jobs.  I am a gentrifier.

I have witnessed a strange camaraderie in conversation around this reality.  Replies to the ubiquitous “Where are you living?” question often trail off into a confession of participating in gentrification which—like so many things that are expressed at this age—usually come with the intent of being more sincere than sarcastic but almost always result in the safer option of the exact opposite:

“Yea, I’m living in Bed Stuy for the summer.  Three cheers for gentrification.  I’m an asshole.”

gent3

This is usually followed by a few laughs, a Greek chorus of “Word that’s so real,” and then a rapid fire discussion of how bad the subway has been (“Dude, fuck the G Train.”)–a topic that has characterized the majority of my small talk so far in New York.  Then, usually, the discussion will become serious again.  Everyone starts to massage their liberal guilt bruises, latching onto larger forces like income inequality and neoliberalism that give middle class kids “like us” little choice in our living situations.  “If we could, we would live somewhere else.”

When I am on the streets of my neighborhood, this camaraderie feels more tense, riddled by the awkwardness of feeling complicit with one another in structural racism and privilege.  The tension manifests in little ways.  The quiet nods I get from fellow gentrifiers in grocery stores as we all look for the organic options in the produce aisle.  The handful of people in the gym working out in old t-shirts emblazoned with the name of their Ivy League alma maters.  The white people who choose to sit next to me on the bus rather than any of the black boys in hoodies and baggy shorts.  The white girl with a Barnard tote bag conducting ethnographic research on the stoop of a brownstone, asking an obese black woman questions about the changing neighborhood as her three children fight over a game on her shiny white iPhone.  Talk about meta.

It has been uneasily easy for me to judge other privileged people for their behavior.  I scoffed as I overheard the girl from Barnard try to explain the idea of urban renewal to this woman, speaking too slowly and over-enunciating in the way that people talk to old people who have trouble hearing.

The other day as I was walking to the subway station I saw three young grungy white girls on bikes holding up traffic by taking up three-quarters of the road, a line of cars and pickup trucks slowly moving behind them and honking angrily.  I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Typical white brigade taking up space.”  As I scorned their “hipster bullshit,”I also noticed that I was able to identify the types of shoes and clothes they were wearing, all of which I had seen in my own closet or my friends’.  I also noticed that a group of men outside a deli on the street corner were giving these bikers dirty looks—to be both disapproving and sexually suggestive.  I immediately felt myself sympathizing with the group of girls, who were just now realizing their road etiquette faux pas and quickly biking away.  I personally have felt unsafe from similar stares many times in my life.

gent1

So much can be gleaned from this one moment in time.  On the one hand, I felt disgusted by these girls’ lack of self-awareness and subsequent overt display of privilege in this space.  On the other hand, I felt disgusted with myself for judging them and for my own sense of entitlement to the various spaces in this neighborhood.  I have stopped myself from entering a radical black bookstore with Occupy-esque messaging in its storefront windows for fear of being politically/culturally/spatially appropriating—and also for fear of being told off by the store owner for being just that.  I admit that I am afraid of being harassed by locals for being an unwelcome and entitled gentrifier.

 I am ashamed of this fear for it makes me feel complicit in a long history of falsely stereotyping black people as violent people.  I have found it difficult not to conflate this topical fear with my everyday fear of being sexually violated by men on sidewalks.  

The multiple instances of street harassment that I have experienced in Bed Stuy have been particularly fascinating and confusing to me because of how these two fears interact with each other.  Have men in my neighborhood told me to smile and called me “skinny ass bitch” because of my race—because I am Asian and thus not a member of their community but rather a group of people taking over their space?  Or have they done so because of my gender and sexuality—because I am a woman whose body they feel entitled to comment on and touch inappropriately?  Or do they use those kind of sexist gestures as a way to express both messages?

Or am I projecting all of this?

Perhaps most times I am.

But about a week ago I found myself living in the cross-section of these two fears.  As I left the gym, I walked past a black middle-aged man that sits all day on a street corner by my apartment.  One of them yelled at me, “Fuck me good and I’ll let you stay on this block!”

Burning with embarrassment and anger, I sped up and walked home.  Seeing me ignore him, he yelled “Then get out, bitch!”, his laughter echoing behind me.  Put bluntly, this comment was asking me to prostitute myself for free and safe mobility in this space.  Because of our shared context, the “femme Asian woman” identities attached to my body probably suggested another identity of “middle class gentrifier.” As a result, I think that this man in this one moment might have been asserting patriarchal power over my body to exert his power over my body’s invasive presence in his neighborhood.  I want to emphasize that I do not think that all men or all black men do this, or that even that this is what this man was doing in this instance.  I find it interesting that I did not say anything back to the man.  Usually when someone harasses me on the street, I respond in some way, by making eye contact or saying “Please stop” or to be honest, flipping them my middle finger.  I do not do this all the time.  I am not perfect at shutting down rape culture, nor do I believe that it is the best choice or my personal duty to do so in every instance.  But upon reflection, I think that I lowered my head and walked away from this man quietly because I felt guilty.

Yes, his sexism angered me, but I also felt guilty that I had entered and took up space in his space.  I considered and still consider his anger to be extremely justified.  And so, I am left conflicted from this experience.  Although I would never condone the use of harassment or any form of violence to make a point, I also understand that the gentrification of a neighborhood is destructive of history, culture, and communities, and thus, in its own way, full of violence.

Fear of street harassment and street violence is something ever-present for many people, in particular for queer and trans* people, women, and people of color.  The Trayvon Martin tragedy proves that this world is not as post-racial as lawmakers (i.e. Justice John Roberts on the Voting Rights Act) believe it to be.  People profile and hurt other people all the time based on assumptions they make about visible characteristics such as skin color and gender representation.  I think a lot about the politics of (in)visibility.  My visibility as an Asian woman with class privilege of some sort causes people to treat me in specific ways.  But moreover, these very identities are part of a movement of gentrification that may render an entire community of people displaced, and ultimately, invisible.  In 15 years, if Bed Stuy is transformed through gentrification, what will people be able to see?  Will the tensions that shaped my living experience still be visible then?  I suppose we may just have to wait and see.

By: Kristy Choi, Contributor

[1]: Echanove, Matias. “Bed-Stuy on the Move”. Master thesis. Urban Planning Program. Columbia University. Urbanology.org. 2003.)

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