On ‘The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century’

Credit Brittany Hutson/madamenoire.com

Credit Brittany Hutson/madamenoire.com

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, May 14, 2015

“Thrive, cities,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” one of his great love songs to urban life. “Expand” but “Keep your places.”

This tension is at the heart of DW Gibson’s “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century,” a noisy, tender tour of New York much in the mode of Studs Terkel, and a companion volume of sorts to Mr. Gibson’s “Not Working” (2012), which featured interviews with people who had recently lost their jobs. The new book is a slurry of voices. Mr. Gibson talks to the gentrifiers and the gentrified, state senators and the homeless men of the Bowery Mission, developers and community organizers, celebrated artists and the brokers who hype real estate as the art form of the moment.

“The momentum that was in the music business in the ’90s, where it was just so the place to be — that’s what’s going on in Brooklyn in the real estate market right now,” a wonderfully profane real estate agent says. “There is an energy that I can swim around in all the time.” He adds: “You either get down with it, or you gotta get out.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” is set in a city of awe-inspiring inequities, with an affordable housing shortage that is approaching full-blown crisis. The book is primarily focused on gentrifying Brooklyn, especially Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, largely black neighborhoods that have seen seismic changes in recent years. In 2011, the white population in Bedford-Stuyvesant grew by 633 percent — and rents have soared.

Mr. Gibson’s sympathies are plain. He refers to gentrification as “violence” and quotes the Marxist geographer Neil Smith frequently and approvingly. But he’s also keen on unseating certainties and is wary of arguments that pit an “us” against a “them.” His book strives to show how, in New York, the categories of landlord and renter, gentrifier and gentrified aren’t as discrete as one might suspect. And he’s not especially hot on the word “gentrification” to begin with. It’s a skimpy sort of word, he says, a simplistic term for complex, idiosyncratic behavior.

“Each of us defines gentrification in accordance with our own relationship to a piece of land, a neighborhood,” Mr. Gibson writes. “We have hopes for what the land may bring us — profits, security, community — and we have fears about what it can do, what it might become.”

It’s surprising, then, that the book should feature more confluence than clash. An architect who cheerfully describes herself as a gentrifier says, “How do you put the betterment of our city into the hands of the community. What are those structures that we could make happen?” That question is repeated by land rights lawyers and state senators.

Most of the people Mr. Gibson talks to also agree that development is welcome — it is displacement that is feared. “We want the coffee shops. We want the safety,” one woman says, recalling the urban activist Jane Jacobs’s maxim: “Fix the buildings. Keep the people.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” touches on the expansion of Columbia University, the construction of the High Line and the way landlords in Crown Heights conspire to eject long-term tenants so they can hike up rents, among other examples. In the book’s most chilling chapter, a Hasidic landlord matter-of-factly describes cheating black tenants out of their apartments. “Every black person has a price,” he says. “The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars.”

Throughout, Mr. Gibson is a skilled and sensitive interlocutor with an eye for the revealing gesture — for how one fastidious subject guards his goatee while eating or how another “always — always — yields to the car trying to take the lane in front of him.”

But he can get carried away. There are some dismal “literary” flourishes and, more frustratingly, a real lack of internal logic. The first few chapters move sinuously — one character introduces us to another and so on. The structure, however, soon grows scattershot. Characters crop up randomly; we’re occasionally given diligent descriptions of age, sex and race, but often the subjects remain ciphers — or worse, are identified only as nebulously “dark-complected.”

And Mr. Gibson can’t decide if he wants to be a part of the proceedings. He hovers at the margins in some chapters, can’t resist interrupting in others. He’ll suddenly pan out and provide welcome historical context but generally doesn’t go into the larger forces that enable gentrification: the legacies of taxation, legislation and segregation that molded New York.

If we miss the bigger picture, Mr. Gibson lets the city speak for itself, and it speaks with charm, swagger and heartening resilience. Still, the conclusion carries notes of a requiem. “If the needs and desires of the people who fill the streets and work spaces and apartments do not remain a priority,” he writes, “then this giant tent of ideas and perspectives that is New York City will lose its central post and collapse.”

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