Danny Hoch knows where the money is.
"It’s funny," Mr. Hoch said via phone from his home in Williamsburg. "There’s a guy about a block away from me – an old school Puerto Rican cat – and there’s a new ATM machine on Grand Street, so he’s like, ‘Yo man, I be seeing these kids, man, they go to the ATM machine and they forget and they just leave their receipts in there, and I go and I get them because I want to see how much money they got in their bank account.’
"He’s like, ‘Yo, these kids be lookin’ bummy, I mean the bummiest, motherfucking, cheap looking kids and they got like $150,000 in their savings account, $280,000 in their savings account. This one motherfucker never takes a bath and he got like $400,000. He just leaves his receipts there in the machine.’"
Chatting with Mr. Hoch, 37, a 20-year Williamsburg resident originally from Queens, is to peer into the souls of every character that’s made an impression on his life. It’s those characters, composites of which he breathes life into on stage, that are the focus of his new one-man show Taking Over, which begins a run at the Public Theatre on Nov. 7.
Taking Over tells the story of Williamsburg’s gentrification through the voices of eight residents, whom Mr. Hoch transforms into effortlessly.
There’s Robert, the intoxicated host of a Brooklyn block party; Marion, an older black woman lamenting the high cost of almond croissants; Kaitlan, a white newcomer selling t-shirts on Bedford Avenue; Francque, a French realtor selling luxury condos; Launch Missiles Critical, a rapper threatening to move to Canada; Stuart, a Jewish developer; El Dispatcher, a Hispanic dispatcher for a car service; and Kiko, a Puerto Rican-Polish man recently released inmate who tries to work on a neighborhood movie set.
"New Yorkers are being erased from the city, particularly our stories," explained Mr. Hoch. "There’s a lot of justification of the good things that gentrification brought, so it’s sort of a given – celebrating the good things about gentrification and not even discussing that the good things about it are not for New Yorkers."
THE HIP HOP THEATER Festival has staged free previews around the city, and I caught the last performance at the Grand Street Auditorium in East Williamsburg. Finally, to Mr. Hoch’s relief, he got to perform to a hometown crowd.
"When I do this show in Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. – you know the Robert character, at the beginning and the end? – people were scared of him when he came back at the end after the show, they were like, ‘Oh no, not him again.’ They really cringed but here he’s a hero, and I had gotten so used to doing this show outside of New York City.”
Robert, angry about the litany of changes in his neighborhood, announces that he’ll be around until October, when he’ll be forced to move away from the only neighborhood he’s known. "Because he’s drunk, he says all this shit that people are afraid to say."
Luckily for his audiences, Mr. Hoch is not afraid to play devil’s advocate in often awkward conversations about class, race and the economic factors involved in Williamsburg’s gentrification, which he refers to as "a vacuum community" full of "resident tourists."
"The new luxury condos and organic muffin cafes were not put here for people that lived and worked and struggled through the blight of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that seems to be O.K. with folks who love the green spaces and love not getting robbed," he said with a hearty laugh. "Everybody justifies their own role in gentrification–we all have a role in it."
It might seem like Mr. Hoch’s resentment toward the “resident tourists” that now surround him might overwhelm his inherent love for New York City, but he recognizes that Brooklyn’s complex issues over shifting demographics don’t have a singular cause or solution; nor are they as detrimental as the demographic upheaval seen throughout New York’s history. His aim is to help people recognize themselves in the process, and be aware of how they’ve impacted their community.
Citing Adrian Piper, a conceptual artist and philosopher who studied under John Rawls at Harvard, Mr. Hoch pointed to the concept of “white people fatigue.”
"What she’s talking about is that there’s a whole lot of white folks on the left – liberals, Democrats if you will – that have this fatigue about not wanting to do the work necessary to figure out their own place, and their own role in the scheme of things,” Mr. Hoch said. “These folks don’t want to do the work, they just want it to be fixed.”
Struggling, authenticity and the “real” world are themes that appear in every scene in Taking Over, which seamlessly weaves together an almost invisible pattern of human and economic impact.
The mostly native crowd at the Grand Street Auditorium was enamored with Mr. Hoch, cheering him on with shouts of “go home” to Kaitlan, the entitled newcomer, who was forced to sell t-shirts when her allowance was reduced from $5,000 to $1,000 per month. She preferred Williamsburg when it was "grittier."
"I think Americans come to New York to simulate struggle, but they don’t actually struggle, because you’re not getting exploited at your job working $4 an hour like an immigrant is,” Mr. Hoch said. "The struggle is: ‘Oh, my God, it was so hard I had to deal with this realtor who tried to screw me, and she wanted to take a $4,000 commission, can you believe that?’"
IT’S EASY FOR NATIVES to tell newcomers to go back to where they came from, when those who were bred here are often haunted by the ghosts of a now nonexistent city; and it’s clear that Mr. Hoch derives at least a little bit of pleasure from that. But the playwright really wants his audience to come away with a new understanding of how their own economic impact has shaped Brooklyn’s demographics.
Cue Mr. Hoch’s story of a non-native friend who until recently lived in a $2,500 per month Dumbo loft, prior to the building’s condo conversion.
"If you weren’t paying that money to begin with, and making that economic footprint, they wouldn’t be kicking you out," Mr. Hoch told him. The friend later moved to the South Bronx because it "feels like a real neighborhood." Mr. Hoch responded, "It’s not your real neighborhood, it’s someone else’s real neighborhood."
Although many of New York’s boroughs have seen similar patterns to what Mr. Hoch portrays in Taking Over – though perhaps not to the same extent as Williamsburg thanks to it’s proximity to Manhattan – he doesn’t see an end to Williamsburg’s opulent era, even in light of the recent financial crisis.
"I think maybe some of the really risky construction projects that were part of the gold rush, if you will, may be put on hold for a few years," he said. "But I think the money is still going to come into the city because the people that are coming, are coming with cash, they’re not coming with stocks. They’re not coming as retirees either, these are kids; some of them are trust fund kids, and maybe those trust funds are about half of what they used to be, but they got cash in the bank, that hasn’t changed."