Apparently it’s quite controversial to discuss the experience of living in Brooklyn when it comes to the topic of race. A few weeks back, I dared to talk about it and received a lot of flack. But in my hood, Prospect Heights, and anywhere really, race, class and gentrification are heavy topics, and I’m not going to shy away from them.
After graduating college, I spent close to two years working in central Brooklyn politics, commuting south every morning from my apartment in Greenpoint to a state senator’s office on Flatbush Avenue near Lincoln Place. I worked with families whose homes were in disrepair, mediating fights with landlords over HPD cases; and with community groups, landlords and community affairs police officers over drug-related crime. All the work merely put band-aids on a broken system. I often returned home in utter shock. Perhaps you’ve seen The Wire.
I was acquainted with Brooklyn long before moving there. Even though I grew up in Manhattan I had friends in the borough and would often cross the river for the sordid experiences Brooklyn once offered in the form of punk rock bars and art collectives.
When I started my job, just shy of my 23rd birthday, I was often mistaken for a gentrifier on my commute to and from the office – where I worked as a community liaison – easily spotted as an outsider by the patrons and workers in storefronts along Flatbush. I spent a lot of time being judged. I struggled to ignore those passing judgement and feel as though I could do something, anything, to make even one person’s life more comfortable, to provide them what they deserved or required, according to our country’s supposed democratic values. Before bestowing the job upon me, my boss looked at me incredulously and asked, “You WANT this job?” I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but I said yes.
Over the time I spent working in the district, which includes Flatbush, Park Slope, Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, I became uniquely acquainted with the areas and all of their strengths and faults. Some, like the Slope had fewer major concerns, while areas like Flatbush still reeled from the sort of abuse suffered by Abner Louima in the 70th precinct. I watched helplessly as men and women fought to get drugs off their streets, yet were unable to voice concerns in community meetings for fear of reprisal; while schools deteriorated and landlords let homes go into disrepair to force tenants into further squalor elsewhere in order to renovate and flip apartments in advance of the next gentrification wave; as convicted felons were dropped back into their home borough with nothing, to find nobody waiting for them. I watched while community members were riled up for elections and soon after ignored. I watched while homeless families struggled with the decision to enter shelters to speed up potential housing placements. All the while trying to figure out how to use this broken system to some menial advantage.
Then the first inklings of Bruce Ratner’s stadium came up. His representative paid a visit to my office. “What are you going to do for my support?” my boss asked. I sat there, my stomach in knots. I quit soon after.
These are the gritty truths about Brooklyn that often go overlooked by newspapers out to cover the latest violent offense or the newest artsy neighborhood. Luckily, Brooklyn is, outside of Manhattan, the most media savvy borough by far – with all the blogs and message boards dedicated to neighborhoods and niche topics. We’re a borough of idiosyncrasies and plenty of forums to discuss them, and it excites me that community discussion is open and free for all to share. What doesn’t excite me is the prospect that in these forums, by attacking ideas, we silence them.