‘There’s nothing hip or cool happening in Brooklyn. It’s a war.’

imani henry

Imani Henry’s not into the whole “up and coming” thing. Photo by Sabelo Narasimhan

The name “Brooklyn” has come to refer to a lot more than a borough. Brooklyn’s a lucrative brand, the backdrop of many a millennial crisis on Girls, and a place where it’s getting tough to survive if your income’s more like that of a Girls character than a cast member. It’s no secret Brooklyn’s the sleek poster child of gentrification, and there are a lot of people fighting to make sure that growing coolness doesn’t detract attention from the huge loss of affordable housing that’s accompanied it.

Community activist Imani Henry is one of those people. “There is nothing hip and cool happening in Brooklyn. It’s a war,” he told us. “If people can really think about it, there are people moving to the Poconos and Ithaca in their 70s. People with mental health conditions who have no place to go or live. Families are being pushed out of their apartments. There’s nothing sexy, hot, or cute about it.”

As a social worker who organizes with Equality for Flatbush, a grassroots group fighting gentrification and police repression, he spends a lot of time helping long-time Brooklyn residents remain Brooklyn residents. Henry has seen a very ugly side to the borough’s changing faces and facades, and talked with us about it, how to make a positive impact on the borough’s changes and gentrification’s “inevitability.”

You might know Henry and Equality for Flatbush from the Before It’s Gone//Take It Back selfie campaign, or from that time a restaurant made a bad stop-and-frisk joke. Before It’s Gone//Take It Back seeks to “physically show what’s at stake” in gentrification by asking people to send in photos of themselves holding signs with the campaign’s name and the photo’s location. They’ve collected photos from around the world, something Henry says highlights the fact that gentrification isn’t a Brooklyn-based crisis. Many of their photos come from the South, especially North Carolina, where plenty of families are being displaced. Beyond their work to save affordable housing, Equality for Flatbush provides legal support for dollar van drivers and works to bring justice for people affected by police violence, like the family of Kimani Gray.

Henry emphasizes that, for all its ostensible perks, gentrification doesn’t help newcomers. It’s hard not to like some of the stuff that’s come with gentrification, like flower shop bars and video store bars and skee ball bars. But it seems young people are particularly at risk of letting the neat stuff that’s popped up in Brooklyn over the last decade distract them from the ways Henry says they “are being taken advantage of and don’t know it.”

When discussing gentrification, Henry paints a different, if more nuanced, picture from the popular “who’s really a Brooklynite?” argument over authenticity. Henry himself says he never pretends to be a native Brooklynite, having come from Boston 20 years ago. Instead he focuses primarily on the need to save affordable housing and describes the issue as a battle between ruthless corporations, developers, and landlords, and the people being displaced in favor of eventual luxury housing.

IT’S NOT INEVITABLE AND IT’S NOT ALL GOOD

Brooklyn didn’t look too great 30 years ago, and a lot of people assume gentrification is the city moving beyond its crack years. There’s a restoration narrative that dominates many defenses of gentrification, that some sort of classic Brooklyn is reemerging, one flipped brownstone at a time. People like Henry tell a different story.

“There are people talking like gentrification is going to return Brooklyn to its former splendor. Well I want to be clear that even when they [residents] were white, they were still middle class and working class communities. What these people [developers] are talking about is making it for rich folk. And that’s different. And that’s why we have a stake in it. Again, even now, white people have lived here for a long time but the white people who stayed couldn’t afford to go,” he explained. “They’re one of us, we’re fighting for them too, and they’re fighting with us.”

imani henry

Henry and another activist invite drivers to “HONK if rent is too high. FIGHT GENTRIFICATION.” He says the Barclay’s Center has been a major threat to affordable housing and businesses in the area. Photo by Nevin Rao.

Despite what a lot of people claim, Henry argues gentrification isn’t inevitable, and by getting involved, you can slow it down. As a native New Yorker, hearing that is depressingly reassuring because watching what you love about your city–its stunning cultural diversity, its working and middle class families, even its grit–get gentrified away sucks. I grew up in East New York, Woodhaven (not Quooklyn) and Bushwick. After wondering when it would happen, I finally saw a listing for an apartment in East New York called “the next frontier.” It was surreal. These were rougher neighborhoods when I was a kid, and I obviously benefit from some of the neat stuff that’s popped up in Northwest Brooklyn over the last decade (hey there, Brokelyn), but I also don’t want a Starbucks and a Chase on every corner. I like pumpkin beer and kale smoothies, but when I think of what’s been lost these changes don’t feel natural and exciting. They feel like decay and defeat, one neighborhood of color at a time, and I can’t stand the irreverent applause that accompanies it.

Imani Henry doesn’t consider these changes natural either. “We define ​gentrification as a ‘​deliberate, organized, constructed situation.’ It is not an accident, it is not happenstance,” he told us. “They want to make a profit. City governments, corporations, and real estate developers are luring rich people back to the cities with the hope and promise that we, the existing communities, will be driven out.”

Henry vehemently rejects the idea that the loss of affordable housing is just a byproduct of the recession. In fact, he says it’s been orchestrated by the same banks and corporations responsible for the financial crisis, and he finds it patronizing when “economists and other mouth pieces for the powers that be” claim otherwise.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

We figured it wouldn’t hurt to get some advice from an expert on how to, you know, try not to be complicit in a lot of the shady stuff that’s been going on, so we asked Henry about what young newcomers to Brooklyn need to know about gentrification, and how they can be better members of their communities. You could sum it all up in his mantra for transplants: “If you’re going to live in Brooklyn, be a part of Brooklyn.”

His first piece of advice on how to be a part of Brooklyn is simple: learn its neighborhoods’ real names. New York City’s major name changes–Manna-hata, New Amsterdam, New York–have been symbols of conquest. Neighborhoods and their boundaries are dynamic, I get it, but the people changing their names are doing so to make real estate more alluring and lucrative. When I search “Crown Heights” on Google Images I see ugly photos from the 1991 riot. When I search “ProCro” there are no flipped cars, just swank living rooms from Curbed listings. Aside from how much “ProCro” sounds like a recalled cholesterol medication, the renaming obscures the neighborhood’s history.

Henry also advises asking your neighbors how your landlord treats them, and transforming guilt and defensiveness into productive anger and solidarity. “For younger folks who are moving in, we are in a battle zone. This is a fight to save affordable housing and they’re part of it,” he said. Many people don’t realize the high prices and rent increases they face aren’t just unfair, they’re illegal. The more conscious people are of the forces behind and against gentrification, the less vulnerable they’ll be to being cheated.

Learning about and getting involved with local tenant associations is one important way to support resistance. Henry pointed to Crown Heights Tenant Union, which is currently fighting for the same construction material to be used throughout entire buildings. This would make it harder for landlords to neglect individual apartments whose tenants are elderly, people of color or have a rent controlled lease in order to intimidate them into leaving. Similarly, Flatbush Tenants’ Coalition recently filed a lawsuit against a landlord who was using various tactics to expel black tenants so he could overcharge white ones.

Bridging rifts between new arrivals and older residents is an important way to curb these abusive tactics.

“If there’s a tenant association meeting, get up in there. Now we’re not asking anybody to lead anything, what we’re asking is to respect the leadership that’s already there, and [ask] ‘What can I do to help?’ Do you have more time in your day? Go around the building and do the flyers because grandma can’t do it. Or [ask], “Can I watch your kids so you can lead the meeting?” That could be a really helpful thing to do. Do you know how to type? Type her speeches up. Make a flyer because you have graphic design skills. Make those flyers. Get them up there.”

Another way to help out is to support existing grassroots projects fighting for affordable housing like, say, Equality for Flatbush. “We will never get corporate sponsorship and in fact they are spending billions to fight us and marginalize us,” Henry emphasized. “We can only rely on grassroots fundraising.” Equality for Flatbush is raising funds to cover the cost of building and maintaining a new website, in addition to hosting a GoFundMe campaign for Before It’s Gone//Take It Back. You can also get directly involved with Equality for Flatbush by joining as a collaborator, volunteer, or intern. Right now they’re seeking artists to help design banners for their various campaigns.

Despite how much the borough’s already changed, activists like Imani Henry don’t plan on quitting anytime soon. “It is inevitable that a capitalist will try to make a profit off the backs of everyday people. What is also inevitable is that we, the average person, working class, low income middle class folks will resist.”

Follow Camille at @Claw_head

40 Comment

  • This entire campaign is primarily about two things: (1) race-baiting and (2) self-promotion
    Imani’s initial conception of the project is given as follows:
    “Currently Imani is working on the 2014 launch of his multi-media performance project, on the gentrification of Brooklyn, NY entitled Before It’s Gone: Take it B(l)ack.”
    Previous to his embarking upon this campaign, there was a series of racist anti-gentrification graffiti in the area. It seems likely that this was Imani Henry.
    Although he makes references to neighborhood activist groups such as CHTU, he never actually participates in their organizers. Furthermore, He refuses to work with community organizations based on their racial composition.

    Imani Henry’s campaign thus far has earned over 10,000 dollars in contributions. What have they done with the money? It seems they have spent it all on self-promotion. One sees their glossy and expensive stickers everywhere. They created a fancy website containing images of Imani’s friends holding up signs about how they oppose gentrification. Most of these friends are not from Brooklyn; they know Imani from his other activist work, primarily within the LGBT community.

    This campaign has absolutely no strategy about how to campaign gentrification. There are already plenty of neighborhood organizations doing the work to combat gentrification. Making websites of selfies and glossy stickers serves only to bolster Imani’s ego, not to make social change

    • the ‘fancy website’ you’re referring to, is this the Equality for Flatbush tumblr? you do know those are free, right? it also has less frills than my old myspace page.

      i suspect everything you’ve said is a lie.

    • “Previous to his embarking upon this campaign, there was a series of racist anti-gentrification graffiti in the area. It seems likely that this was Imani Henry.”

      It seems likely that this was Imani Henry? There are 3 million people living in Brooklyn, how does it seem likely that it was Imani given that there’s nothing connected between the work he does and the graffiti, other than the fact that they both deal with gentrification.

      Imani is a very active organizer in the community + has done a lot meanwhile you’re out here writing out essays about how much you dislike him + decrying his “fancy website” which is actually a very simple tumblr.

  • Great job Camille!

  • Yes, sorry if some people want to make Brooklyn a nicer and safer place.
    Also, Brooklyn belongs to the landlords and home-owners. If you don’t own the place you live at, who are you to complain and prevent landlords to make more money?
    You still have the Bronx, you can keep it.

    • Don’t worry there are plenty of community organizers to fight greedy landlords. People have a right to organize. Brooklyn belongs to all the people who live there.
      If you don’t like people organize against the greedy developers and landlords, just move.

      • No, Brooklyn belongs to the people that own the property. If you’re renting, you’ve entered into a time-limited contract with a property owner.

        Rent goes up to what the market will bare, and by market I mean people willing to pay the rent. If people won’t pay it, then it goes down to meet the market.

        One of our strengths as a human race, is our ability to adapt to a changing environment and survive. Protesting some obscure concept as “affordable rent” is ineffective and a waste of time that could be spent improving your life through self-enrichment so that you raise yourself to a higher living standard.

        But that’s hard, it’s much easier to just complain.

        • Seth, what’s your deal? What do you do that makes you this disconnected from the average person?

          • He is a male, he is white. He has only ever seen his own privilege. Can’t hold it against them, that’s just how they are. If they want to be a part of an organization to create equality, great. If not, they can go get rich somewhere, and stop interfering with people trying to organize to save their communities.

            • What a surprise. The black guy doesn’t want to pay his rent.

              Can’t hold it against him, that’s just how they are.

        • Ahh Seth.. so nieve.. its cute. You obviously aren’t from these parts.

        • How is “affordable rent” an obscure concept?
          And no, rental housing is not solely dominated by market forces, nor should it be. Rented or not, if you’ve lived in someplace for 15 years, it is your home, and there are laws in place that recognize this. And not everyone can “just move”. A lot of people are older, their businesses are in the area, or they lack the liquidity to pack up move, and resettle.

          That’s why we have laws detailing what is allowable in landlord-lessee contract, to protect against manipulation and abuse in a relationship that has a very steep power dynamic.
          So you can tell all these people, “tough luck”, but that doesn’t make you morally superior, it just makes you callous and on the wrong side of the priorities our society has already laid out. Luckily the people that framed the actual laws had more empathy.

  • this dreadlocked hipster transplant needs to hop on the bus back to boston where he’s from. embarrassing.

  • Wow, so he’s a racist, and pro-misery.

    Let’s turn Brooklyn into Detroit because prosperity, safety and happiness suck! Woo-hoo!

  • My grandparents left Bed Stuy years ago when the crime level was increasing. They were white. Who’s gentrifying who?

    • wrong. Just pro affordable housing. Improved quality of life doesn’t mean its only an exclusive quality.

      • This is how you effectively introduce affordable housing… you buy (or convince someone to buy) a property, and then you rent it out at the rent you think is idealistically affordable.

        You can’t expect people who bought an investment to think about keeping it affordable to the financially lowest tier, it doesn’t make any business sense.

        And yes, renting out a property is an investment, there’s no other way to look at it.

        • Afraid that the city will stop you from being greedy landlord. Don’t worry the city and the people will be around to stop you and your ilk.

          • Rich, as a multifamily property owner in Bushwick I do not consider myself a “greedy” landlord. I come from a single parent household with five kids, when I graduated I worked full time, went without luxuries & saved for 3 years for a downpayment to buy a house in Bushwick. And now I’m greedy if I expect renters to pay market rent for the house I put my blood sweat and tears into? I’m supposed to subsidize people who never made the same sacrifices I did because… because why?

  • @Abigail R.
    You must be a troll for the real estate developers and land lords. It isn’t race baiting to fight for affordable housing or to organize tennants in the face of overwhelming money which buys influence.

  • There is a distinct difference in the “war” here.

    There is Gentrification – the fight against major land developers in order to keep housing affordable and low for the entire community. Then there is Gentrification – the fight against whites moving into the neighborhood and turning rundowns areas into (hopefully) thriving centers of business…

    I’m all for affordable housing and making sure families who GREW UP in Brooklyn can STAY IN Brooklyn, but Imani and even the likes of Spike Lee turn Gentrification into a race-baiting issue when it doesn’t have to be. First of all, there is no FOR SURE possibility that the cost of living will skyrocket if someone puts a cafe or coffee shop on a corner…and second, MORE BUSINESS is actually GOOD for the community.

    Just a strange battle to me with too many individuals with shady motives. No one knows who’s actually fighting the good fight anymore.

    • It’s not directly a race issue. It’s a low-income issue. But that doesn’t garner attention or fire up emotions like making it a race issue.

      It’s much easier to complain about your bills than to focus on your education and skill enhancements to raise your own standard of living by your bootstraps.

  • How does one keep a neighborhood affordable? There are a few ways to do this: a.) keep it poor and dangerous with no amenities; b.) heavily increase the amount of “affordable” (subsidized) housing; c.) increase housing supply there and in other places to let the market function.

    The anti-gentrification (whatever that is) crowd hopes to use either of the first two methods. In regard to a.), they try to keep nice things out, like coffee shops, good bars, and cleanliness. The lack of amenities scares away rich people (read: white people). This is a generally effective strategy, but unfortunately, a neighborhood stay poor and dangerous and that doesn’t benefit the people living except to let them continue living there for whatever reason. In regard to b.), this requires government cooperation. Unfortunately, in NYC, demand for subsidized housing is infinite (well not really, but for all intents and purposes). Within the current zoning system and within the constraints of funding only a fraction of people who want new, rent-stabilized apartments will be able to get them, as each building receives thousands of applicants.

    Of course, nobody proposes c.), because this would let the rich, white people move into those apartments and they are likely more expensive than the current residents are willing to pay. Therefore, this option is uniformly opposed, even though that the opposition makes these new apartments a more scarce commodity that therefore drives up prices further.

    There is no cabal of real estate developers trying to drive up prices (sure, some are unscrupulous and others are legitimately bad people), but they are essentially responding to market forces. It is hard to build a lot of apartments in NY, in part because of neighborhood opposition to new apartments in New York. Therefore, they build as many apartments as they can and charge as much as they can.

    Further, when a neighborhood becomes “gentrified” the new (and old) residents oppose future development (see Stephanie Eisnberg and the Domino Project).

    The best way to keep prices affordable would probably be a combination of b.) and c.), but neighborhoods who want to maintain the status quo do everything they can to prevent new construction for fear that new undesirables will enter their mist and displace them, when it is more likely that “displacement” will occur when there is a stagnant housing supply and greater incentive for landlords to (often illegally) eliminate affordability restrictions.

    • “let the market function”. really it can only go up. But if the city or government helps by building additional housing units you landlords and developers will be mad by all the additional housing stock that will depress your values.

  • It’s all those college educated hipster white people who move into dangerous black hoods and ghettos to prove they aren’t racist, that they’re hip and cool, simultaneously jacking up rents for poor black people, while pointing fingers at other white people who slip up and refer to their new neighborhood as “dangerous”. So why do they think they’re “helping” blacks by doing this? We know the pattern, time and time again, wealthier whites move into bed-stuy, harlem or similar neighborhoods and it gentrifies. Why play dumb or act like it’s those OTHER gentrifiers? That being said, Blacks pushed whites out of many neighborhoods in the 60’s and still today, plenty of white hoods going black across America, so it works both ways. I just don’t like the hypocrisy of such liberal white hipsters.

    I bet most of the people applauding this man and Spike Lee’s anti-gentrification rant were gentrifiers themselves.

  • The problem is the elimination of rent regulation. Now everyone has to move two subway stops out whenever their rent goes up.

    • Its a little more than JUST rent regulation, but yes, the elimination of rent stabilization has removed the counter balance to limits on new construction. The state has tied the city’s hands, and New York City cannot unilaterally institute rent stabilization without facing a legal challenge or finding a creative statutory way to bring it back (to this end, personally, if it was me, I would create a voluntary rent stabilization program landlords could enter into, and those who don’t join voluntarily would find themselves facing extreme scrutiny from the health department, fire department, buildings department and whatever other city agency could impose fines).

      • I would love to know when blacks pushed whites out of their neighborhoods by driving the price of living up so extremely that only upper-class black people could afford to live there. Because as far as I know it never happened. What did happen was that racist people didn’t wanna live around immigrants and black people coming from the south so they all either migrated to the suburbs or started to push all the other races into segregated districts while taking the choice parts of the city for themselves. Now they wanna buy back into the city and so their kids are pushing out poor people the city long left behind. That’s what’s actually happening. The city has a long history of racist policies and policies designed to screw the poor and the people in the middle who act like they’re immune from issue are just fooling themselves.

  • Brooklyn is expensive because Manhattan–especially between Canal and 14th–has severe restrictions on new construction and higher density residential development. This low density zoning was then exported to parts of Brooklyn which has further fueled an outward growth of gentrification. This is not a new phenomenon, but ongoing for thirty years. Its accelerated under Bloomberg, and de Blasio’s plan seems to be to approve affordable housing in name only.

  • He is so right! Gentrification is a plan, and I’ve lived through it in one neighborhood after another. I moved into Alphabet City in the late ’60’s, when nobody wanted to live there. It was 1967, and my first rent was $67 a month. My first job, living away from home, paid $75 a week. The subway was 15 cents, as was a slice of pizza. I only wish I could have bought a building down there at the time. You could get one from the city for $1, if you paid the back taxes. The neighborhood was being prepared for gentrification. It was the real estate interests’ plan. First, move as many “undesirables” into a neighborhood. This got older residents out, vacating rent controlled apartments. Whole buildings emptied out. Some were burned out too. This created a great opportunity for developers to move in, snap up properties for nothing, and gentrify. Just have a look at today’s listings in what is now the East Village: http://newyork.craigslist.org/search/mnh/hhh?nh=129

  • So this guy has raised $1,200 already? Wow.
    How about this… maybe it’s time the hipsters got jobs. You own nothing. Working America laughs at you. The verdict is in… the bums lost.

  • It is inevitable, two major factors are at play
    Cities, have always been the “playgrounds of the rich,’ the poor have always been pushed to the outer ridge. The only time in human history this was reversed was in the USA during the years 1950’s to 1980’s. So when the federal subsides went away, the natural systems took over again. The Brooklyn of the 1970’s & 1980’s was an aberration.
    “Rich People” moved to Brooklyn because they either couldn’t get housing in Manhattan. If you want to “save Brooklyn” the obvious solution is to build more market based housing in Manhattan.

    Finally while we like to blame the landlords, we have to ask ourselves, how much money do we expect them to leave on the table? If a rent controlled apartment is going for $1,000 a moth, but the market rate for that apartment is $3,000 a month. Who exactly would be happy with leaving $24,000 a year in lost revenue? Or in other words, how would you react if you found out your employer was paying your co-worker, a guy who was doing the exact same job as you 3x’s your wage? Exactly.

  • People moving to the Poconos and Ithaca….wow, those poor devils. How awful it must be to retire to such beautiful areas and how they must miss the filth, congestion and inconvenience of the city.