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.”
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