“I wanted to capture the most essential personal perspectives.” A conversation with DW Gibson
How do we define home? What comprises community? Following his 2012 book Not Working, DW Gibson turns his focus to the complexities of gentrification in The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (The Overlook Press). Through dozens of interviews with New Yorkers who speak thoughtfully and passionately about gentrification as it relates to their idea of home, community, work, and change, Gibson examines the intersections of class, space, money, and power in some of the fastest changing neighborhoods in New York City. From architectural firms to homeless shelters, from community gardens to political rallies to housing court, The Edge Becomes the Center gives voice to a diverse array of individuals whose daily lives are at the center of this debate.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: No one who lives in New York City can avoid being caught up in the cycle of gentrification. You interviewed more than thirty individuals from various neighborhoods and from all sides of the conversation: builders, tenants, landlords, developers, artists, activists and community organizers of all ages, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’d love to hear a little about your process of planning and collecting the interviews. What was your starting point in envisioning this project? Did you make a conscious decision at the outset to focus on Brooklyn and certain Manhattan neighborhoods, or had you considered including more boroughs?
DW GIBSON: Geography was never a primary concern or focus for the book. I knew I was going to keep it to New York because I wanted to stick to one city as a case study for gentrification, but I wasn’t preoccupied with covering all five boroughs equally; instead, I wanted to capture the most essential personal perspectives and human interactions concerning gentrification – wherever they could be found. So I began by making a list of every relevant perspective that I could think of: tenants and landlords, business owners and drug dealers, architects and construction workers – on and on. I worked on that list for quite a while, seeking counsel and input from several others, and eventually I settled on a list of about forty perspectives that I wanted to capture. Of course once I got started talking to people I quickly realized that hardly anyone fits so cleanly into just one of these forty spaces, many people represent several – sometimes contradictory – perspectives at once.
AR: Almost to a person, and in spite of this diversity of perspective, your subjects rejected the term “gentrification” as an essentially undefinable term, meaning different things, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on context. “Community” is similarly hard to pin down– (to paraphrase Paula Segal, is a community the physical space or the people who occupy it, before or after it is improved?) I loved the way your subjects engaged with the complexities of the topic. It makes sense that they would: the idea of “home” is far from an abstraction. It’s so tied to our concept of safety and stability and personal identity and success (or lack thereof). One thing that surprised me was the upbeat, in some cases optimistic, tone of many of the interviews: not just with people who are profiting from gentrification, but even those who’ve experienced displacement or hung onto their living spaces as familiar neighbors were replaced by newcomers. What encounters during the interview process challenged your own expectations of someone’s perspective on gentrification?
DWG: One of my first interviews was with mTkalla Keaton. mTkalla is a long time resident of Brooklyn – multiple generations – he’s a poet and a landlord and a real estate agent and a homeowner. He occupies so many places, so many perspectives at once. After talking to him I realized just how complicated one person’s take on gentrification could be. That discovery early on really guided me throughout the whole process of writing this book.
Also, I remember following Adam Sikorski around for a few days. Like mTkalla, Adam works as a real estate agent, and it was eye opening to watch the chance encounters he had with long time residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Adam would stop by a client’s renovation to see how things were going and sometimes neighbors would just walk right in to see the new work for themselves. Or they would stop by when Adam was outside the building and start asking him about the renovations. It was surprising that these encounters happened so frequently and it was surprising how friendly they were on the whole. It goes to show that much of the tension of change and displacement often is directed at the idea or concept of gentrification – the idea of “they” – but when two humans get into a room, the interpersonal interactions are often thoughtful and generous – something to be noted when trying to address the negative effects of gentrification. Get all the stakeholders in the same room and make them look into each other’s eyes. It changes everything for a lot of people.
AR: The flow of the book has a sort of organic feel of one conversation leading to the next. Many transitions felt seamless; in several interviews it seems that your subjects introduced you to the individuals whose interviews followed. I was curious how closely (if at all) the final sequence reflects the order in which the interviews were collected. And I was also interested in how the more optimistic, upbeat tone shifted toward the end of the book: in your interviews with landlords and more vulnerable tenants, and the trip to housing court where some of the most unscrupulous – though not uncommon – practices were discussed. In putting all these diverse voices together, what were your thoughts in terms of sequence, transitions and overall tone you wanted to achieve?
DWG: By and large, the order of the chapters does not represent the order in which I talked to people. That organizational work came when I started writing the book. There are so many different ways that the people in the book relate to each other, connect to each other and play off of what others say. So it was a real challenge deciding the order of things with a lot of switching chapters around over several months. I wrote each person’s name on an index card, laid them out on the floor, and rearranged them for days on end like puzzle pieces. In each case, I picked pivots and transitions that felt most relevant to the most central themes of the book. I envisioned the book to be something like one long panning shot in a film where one person leads us to the next and the reader always has a sense of marching forward.
AR: One interview that really stood out for me was with Barbara Williams, the president of her North Harlem Resident’s Association, and her husband Arty, who sort of hangs out in the background until he can’t stand not weighing in and joins the conversation to make his point. What I loved about the Barbara/Arty interview was that it really illustrated how these deep differences of opinion about class and change and neighborhood investment exist within families – in this case between two married individuals of the same race and age, living in the same building and neighborhood for over 25 years (and where his family preceded them in the apartment). Barbara believes in staying in the building and neighborhood, investing in improvements and community projects, and trying to show local youth a better path, while Arty sees their neighbors as a negative “them.” He’s protective of Barbara, exasperated by her optimism, and more than a bit distrustful of your presence there. Though you don’t pose a threat he feels responsible for your safety as a (white) visitor to what he sees as their neglected and unsafe neighborhood. The conversation that emerged from this tension and divide was a real standout for me. Which conversations particularly stuck with you, and why?
DWG: Barbara and Arty definitely stand out for me – and for many of the reasons you’ve mentioned here. I think Barbara’s point about the dangers of the word “they” is THE starting point for a conversation about gentrification. It is so easy to lose track of who we mean when we say “they” and, what’s worse, I don’t even think we’re any good at realizing when in the course of a conversation we’ve lost track of who, precisely, we mean by “they.” It might just be one of the most dangerous words in English, as it always leads down that path to the dim yet incendiary idea of “the other.”
I also keep going back to Jerry the Peddler. He’s been squatting on the Lower East Side since the 1970s and he – along with two or three others I interviewed for the book – really helped me come to understand that the conversation about gentrification is a conversation about land, the physical world, and the people who view land strictly as a property, as something to be capitalized, are controlling that conversation. We are losing our ability to think of land as anything other than an investment. And really land is much more than that. It is where our daily lives play out – the places where we work and grow food and share meals and lay our heads at night.
AR: One person who reverts to the impersonal “they” the most is “Ephraim,” a landlord and one of the few individuals you spoke with who who insists on using a pseudonym. His generalizations about poorer black people as undesirable tenants or easy marks for buyouts and his refusal to view “them” as individuals – coupled with his refusal to use his real name – made him (for me) one of the rare “villains” of the book. So many of your subjects were so open and thoughtful about these intimate issues of home and livelihood and commerce and community that the few (two?) who asked not to use their real names felt like a sort of “they” unto themselves. Almost all of your interview subjects were willing to use their real names. Did that take much convincing on your part?
DWG: In some cases – though certainly not all – it took a great deal of convincing to get people to speak on the record. And you are correct: there are only two pseudonyms in the book. Ephraim and Niko. And Niko was actually on the record with his real name until the last minute – right before the book went to print. He got nervous and asked me to take him out of the book altogether. He had already agreed to let me use the interview – and his real name – but I wanted to respect his wishes and so we compromised with the pseudonym. Ephraim was on the record with his real name for the first five minutes of our interview but the moment I asked him about the deed buying business he made it clear that conversation was not going to happen unless I withheld his name. Since he was willing to talk so frankly about illicit activities, and since I was able to confirm his identity and business dealings, I felt the trade off was worth it, particularly because his identity is substantiated by his connection to another person earlier in the book who circles back in Ephraim’s chapter. And even with the pseudonym, I was walking quite a tightrope throughout the interview with Ephraim as he would sometimes hesitate to keep talking. I had to carefully pick the points where I pushed back with confrontational follow up questions because there were many moments when he wanted to shut the conversations down. I’m glad he’s in the book for the sake of documentation. His chapter is riveting and brutal to read, and it confirms some very real, very harmful aspects of gentrification. I am really hesitant to call anyone in the book “a villain” for various reasons; that said, there is no excuse for Ephraim’s shockingly overt bigotry – nor can there be any acceptance of it – and I have included his illicit, unethical activity in the book so that this type of behavior can be highlighted and, ultimately, I hope, stopped.
AR: I was really moved by your interview with Noelia Calero, a Bushwick resident of 23 years whose landlords had destroyed her kitchen and bathroom with sledgehammers in an attempt to intimidate her into leaving her rent-controlled apartment. By the time you met Noelia in Housing Court, she and her family had been living without running water in their home for almost a year. (What’s hard for anyone who lives outside of NYC to wrap their brain around is how common these practices are, particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods where rental rates are skyrocketing.) So I was delighted to read the recent news of the arrest of Noelia’s landlords for using these abusive and illegal tactics in her building and several other properties. You open the narrative of this book in November 2013 with mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s election party and the prospect of moving away from the capitalistic focus of recent administrations. Given the conversations you had over the course of this project do you view these recent arrests as anomalies or part of a larger pattern of change? Is the tide shifting in terms of holding NYC landlords accountable for predatory practices?
DWG: I, too, was thrilled to hear of the arrest of Noelia’s landlord. I’m still wondering how that took years to happen but at least it finally happened. And I think it’s a bit too early to tell if it’s an anomaly or an indication of a very real change. My fear is that this arrest will be cited for years to come whenever anyone complains about landlord harassment and that there won’t be a fundamental shift toward going after more landlords who behave this way. The fact that the city has made an example of Noelia’s landlord should not be an excuse for giving impunity to all others who engaged in similar tactics. The other thing is that in Noelia’s case, the evidence was so obvious – they bashed in her apartment with a sledgehammer! So many other forms of harassment or more subtle and, in some cases, downright bureaucratic so it’s hard to get people fired up about those cases. And that’s what worries me most.
AR: I was struck by the range of, for lack of better term, your subjects’ “tenure” or rootedness in New York – their personal and familial connections to the city, and in some cases to particular neighborhoods, buildings and apartments. You spoke with native NYC residents, people whose family had lived there for generations (both property owners and long-term renters), as well as first-generation immigrants, and young professionals who’ve moved to New York from other parts of the country. The natives and old-timers give a great sense of how the neighborhoods and the city at large has changed over the decades, with shifts in political power and the economy, while the relative newcomers, even those who feel some guilt about their role as unintentional gentrifiers, bring a lot of energy and desire to engage with their adoptive hometown. Many of those you interviewed, including more recent transplants, identify as New Yorkers (in spite of Raul’s skepticism of newcomers who make this claim). What brought you to the city, and how did these stories resonate with your own experience of change, improvement, and displacement over time?
DWG: I moved to New York in 1995 when I was 17-years-old. I lived in a Single Room Occupancy building at a 103 & Broadway. Time Square was under scaffolding at the time: the XXX shops were on the way out and Disney’s renovation of the New Amsterdam theater was underway. So my own time in the city spans much of the change discussed in the book and I relate to many of the observations and feelings espoused by the people I spoke with: the homogenization of the commercial spaces (more big box stores, fewer small businesses with stronger ties to the neighborhood) and less of a creative spirit because the people who are committed to making art can’t afford to live here anymore. New York feel less like a place where people come to make art and more like a place where people come to buy it. I also relate to the feeling that modern technology has eaten away at the social fabric of the city. For better and for worse, we aren’t in each others faces as much anymore – we don’t interact as much on the subway and on the street because we are more engaged with the music coming through our oversized head phones or the person we are instant messaging on the other side of the world.
All of these are, sadly, negative changes that make the city less inspiring. I’m an optimist and I think we can make personal and policy changes to right the ship but safe to say we are not heading in a good direction. And New York is not alone in this, as the complications of gentrification need to be considered in the context of global capital, hedge funds investing not only in the big apple but also in London and Sao Paulo and Shanghai. So moving forward, it’s an issue for the global economy and the urban experience in the 21st Century.
AR: The scope of this project, when you think about the intricacies of NYC housing and development policies, constant and overlapping sociopolitical and cultural shifts, and the sheer population density and diversity of the city, must have felt overwhelming at times. Each interview gives us a face and a name, and every individual brings up more questions, more facets of the issue. Were there any key players in this cycle that you’d wanted to include who declined to be interviewed? Or interviews you’d planned to feature that couldn’t be included due to time or space constraints?
DWG: I could have interviewed people for 10 years and still felt like there were more conversations to be had. So I had to create a cut off in order to rein the book in and I reached as many people as I could in the two-plus years I was conducting interviews. I did get turned down (or no response) from some high-level city government officials – and that was to be expected. The word “gentrification” is toxic to many of them. I met Bill de Blasio just about two weeks too late – right as he was becoming the front runner for mayor – and so a full interview became impossible. It would have been nice to capture him early on in the campaign as one of a dozen candidates in the field.
I was really hoping to get a fantastic interview with a long-serving civil servant – more specifically, a police officer or firefighter. I did connect with a few and those interviews served the book better for background. I wish I had been able to reach more police officers and firefighters in order to find one very illuminating point of view. These are pretty tight-lipped fraternities, particularly cops, and I think that’s lamentable in the context of the mistrust that runs throughout so many communities between citizens and the police who serve them. I think it would be so helpful for our society to hear more from police officers about the experience of being a cop. Hearing about the challenges and fears and joys of being a police officer can only help us all understand that experience more. And I think that would inch us closer to better relations between the citizenry and law enforcement. I’ll keep working on it. Perhaps an upcoming magazine feature….
AR: Can you tell us about any future projects you have in the works?
DWG: I’ll be catching my breath from this book for a little while yet. But I’ve got a couple of ideas bouncing around, so we’ll see what develops in the next few months. My last book inspired this one, and I have no doubt that the next project will be inspired by this book. No matter where my work takes me, I think it will always be obsessed with getting at the nitty-gritty of how humans treat each other and the things we cope with in our daily lives.
Purchase a copy of The Edge Becomes the Center here: http://latenightlibrary.org/the-edge-becomes-the-center.
DW Gibson (photo by Chiara Barzini) is the author of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (The Overlook Press) and Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harpers, Salon, The Washington Post, Daily Beast, and The Village Voice, among others. Gibson serves as director of Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, which is part of the Omi International Arts Center. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.