Each October, the few female ginkgo trees in New York drop their horrid pods in a misguided attempt to breed. They emit a smell you might imagine coming from a warm brew of vomit and ejaculate. I have agreed to navigate through this miasma of autumnal stench onto the iffy F train to the dreadful G train for only one reason: real-estate broker Barbara Corcoran. Ms. Corcoran is appearing on a panel at the Pratt Institute, facilitated by public radio’s Kurt Andersen. The event launches a series of talks on the Brooklynness of Brooklyn-Pratt, it seems, has joined the rah-rah gang of mad Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Brooklyn Museum’s magnificent Arnold Lehman. (Picture a shit-grinning Mr. Markowitz and the newly slenderized Mr. Lehman in cheerleader outfits, shredded pom-poms in their fists.) This first panel is ostensibly about “Brooklyn’s creative economy,” and we all know what that means.
“Brooklyn’s creative economy” is similar to the process of making and marketing smelly French cheeses: bacteria-in this case, homosexuals and artists-are forcibly introduced into a poor, unproductive culture. That fey artsy bacteria consumes and excretes the natural resources of the neighborhood. The result? A delicious oozing mass, ripe for high-priced sale to the tame, comfortable classes who shop at the Dean and DeLuca of the soul after the grody work is done.
Ms. Corcoran, arguably the most important real-estate agent in the world, does not disappoint my cheesy theory of gentrification. Here’s Ms. C. on locating up-and-coming neighborhoods: “I always ask the young kid who’s waiting on a table … often from the gay community. They’ll tell you where they have to live.” Her barometer for the future of a neighborhood is simply to ask the people forced by circumstances to be in the know-“the opposite of affluent, whatever you call that,” she says. “Poor?” someone suggests.
Ms. Corcoran is dressed in a shocking salmon blazer. She looks relaxed and fit, and you can see why she sells; she seems more like a young grandmother with a terribly appetizing plate of floor-through, working-fireplace cookies than one of the most brilliantly carnivorous business people in New York.
Although she speaks knowledgeably of Brooklyn, she says she has the perspective of one who “grew up in the Manhattan market.” But, a caveat: “The zest,” she pronounces, “has left Manhattan.” There is a pause, and then moderator Kurt Andersen interjects: “You may applaud here if you like.” There is, in fact, some applause.
Later in the evening, panelist and economist Jonathan Bowles will try to rumble against the thrills of gentrification, presenting important but dull data on the disappearance of light manufacturing-and the solid working-class jobs that go with it-in New York. Forced to the edges of the city in three decades of conversion of industrial buildings into high-end residential units, the city’s remaining industrial parks are filled to near–100 percent capacity, he reports. When Mr. Andersen asks if Brooklyn’s Sunset Park industrial area should be converted into residential lofts with great views of Staten Island, Ms. Corcoran says, “I think it would be great!” That attitude is why Ms. Corcoran will survive a nuclear winter while the rest of us perish.
Ms. Corcoran is absolutely right in everything she says about the way the city changes. My beef is that I wish these things were not true, but I admire her forthrightness in the face of crude facts. Gentrification makes me squeamish, largely from my experience as one who gentrifies.
In 1993, I officially moved to New York, settling on East Eighth Street between Avenues B and C. One day my housemate came home and reported the following experience: Midday, he had walked by an apparently teenage girl of the sort that at the time was referred to as “a crusty,” a term for the roving bands of unbathed anarchist children who seasonally rode the trains from New York to San Francisco to New Orleans. This girl had stopped on the street to pull down her pants. She then squatted a bit, placed a tampon in her hand and, with a yell, inserted it-hopefully-into her vagina.
In Alphabet City, we were young and often from the gay community and the opposite of affluent , which is not at all the phrase that we used for that state. If Ms. Corcoran had spotted us on the street, she would have bought and sold the entire block by midnight.
As I grew up in the Manhattan market, one ginkgo-assaulted fall in the mid-90’s I worked for an artist named Glen Seator. At that time, he made work of architecture and detritus. He once showed sweepings from a factory building piled up sadly under their own dim light bulbs. He would remove parts of walls, slicing out Sheetrock like skin; he would lower ceilings as a work of art. Later on, he would begin to build tilted or false replicas of rooms and buildings inside and on top of other buildings and become mildly famous. His work was often about, in a sense, gentrification: missing façades, the obliteration of history, forced removal.
Glen lived in a cavey but comfy place on Duffield Street, rather under the Manhattan Bridge but segregated from what was beginning to be developed as DUMBO. I would subway over from the East Village in the late mornings, and he would make me tea. On his dinky little laptop, I would transcribe his address book into a computer file system I had cobbled together. His scrawl was hard for me to read, and the long names of titled Austrian patrons were difficult to make out, and there really wasn’t much work to do anyway, so mostly we’d chat. Eventually he’d make me some sort of vegetarian sandwich. I was young and rather malnourished, and he always wanted to feed me. Sometimes a friend of his would drop by, such as the writer Jonathan Ames. Glen gave me Jonathan’s first book, which I did not, I’m sorry to report, immediately read. At the end of these days, it would get dark and I’d go home; we had done little but sit in the quiet like two old ladies wrapped in blankets at the after-summer seaside. In retrospect, there may have been a subtext to our relationship that went unacknowledged.
Glen left town for an installation, leaving me his Guggenheim application to complete and mail. I fucked it up and it wasn’t properly filed. I felt horrible; it may have been my fault that he hadn’t gotten a big chunk of money at a time when he was quite the opposite of affluent . But I had taken another job by the time he came back to New York, and we never talked about it. Once I saw him across the room at a party thrown by a lesser Rockefeller. Another time, I called his answering machine and invited him to lunch, intending to make amends. A few times I saw his number on my caller ID, but he never left a message.
Last December, Glen was on his Brooklyn roof alone, fixing his ailing chimney. He fell, and he died. To the end, Glen was gentrifying Brooklyn.
While I, I had been busy gentrifying the East Village into its current zest-free state. Earlier this year, I was pawing through my books in search of something or another and from one fluttered my last paycheck from Glen. It’s dated Oct. 12, 1995, and my name, in his terrible handwriting, is misspelled. The check is made out for $150, and, out of guilt, I’d never cashed it, even though at the time I desperately could have used the money.