The Trouble with Columbus

Still playing catch-up, posting things I’ve written over the last few weeks but couldn’t post because of my internet-less home. I’m mobile hotspotting it tonight, so I’m taking advantage and trying to catch up with my essay count for the year. This essay is one I wrote after a trip back to Crown Heights near the end of January. I went to see my old landlords and collect the last of my things from the old apartment.


I know a fair amount of white people. And I like and even love a sizable subset of those people. They are coworkers, friends, made family. They are people I would trust — have trusted — with my health, my safety. They are people I’ve turned to for emotional and financial support. When I say, “some of my best friends are white,” it makes me laugh, but it’s also true.

But white people — the monolithic grindstone that is white people — break my heart daily, enrage me daily. white people force me, daily, to wonder how it is I am able to maintain relationships with any of their number.

I spent my Saturday in Crown Heights, my old neighborhood, the community I left a few weeks ago. The particular part of Crown Heights where I lived is one of the places in the city that has gentrified at breakneck speed. In the ten years I was there, the rapid-fire turnover of residents from mostly Black to more and more and more white was shocking and distressing to watch. When my landlords told me in the fall that I’d have to move, I knew that staying in the area would be a near impossibility.

Because, of course, with white people come higher and higher rents. And in my ten years of tenancy, rents had raced to dizzying highs well beyond what I was paying for my gorgeous, large, storage-rich apartment with washer and dryer and back garden.

And when I looked at apartments in the neighborhood in my price range they were a) half the size of my place (or smaller), b) badly kept up and clearly not as livable as my place, c) devoid of closets or cooking space or both, d) cut into strange shapes to carve as many apartments out of a formerly single-family home as possible, or e) all or a combination of the above. So it’s no surprise that my new apartment is not in Crown Heights.

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday, I passed the new Nagle’s Bagels on Nostrand and Dean, saw an even newer Tribeca Pediatrics office on Nostrand and Bergen. There’s a lot of new on and around Nostrand — cute bars, over-priced sandwich shops, gourmet markets.

There are still plenty of Black businesses in the neighborhood, still plenty of Black folks in the neighborhood, but for how long? How many of those businesses will be able to meet the rent demands of landlords who want to cash in on the neighborhood’s new, white popularity? How many of those Black residents, like me, will be pushed out when the need to move arises and the rents around them are so much higher than they’ve been paying that they can’t afford to stay?

There are a lot of reasons why neighborhoods gentrify. Crown Heights was surely an easy target because it has amazing housing stock and it’s beautiful: well-kept brownstones, ornate apartment buildings with courtyards and gardens, small pretty parks, close to major subway lines. And the bonuses: a good number of older homeowners looking to leave the city who don’t have family to come and take on a large home in Brooklyn, and a lot of lower-middle income and low-income renters who could be swapped out for folks able to pay more.

I’m not surprised that white people started moving to Crown Heights. I just question why white people have to live everywhere. Yes, a neighborhood may be nice. Does that mean it needs to be overtaken by white folks? There are plenty of nice neighborhoods that are already full of white folks. Yes, they’re more costly than the majority brown and Black communities, but that makes sense as Black and brown folks, on average, earn far less and therefore have less money than white folks.

Can we just live? Can we just have nice neighborhoods in which we can continue to live and thrive? Why do white people have to live every-damn-where? Why do brown and Black folks have to be pushed out of every place we’ve called home?

My old neighborhood is beautiful … because the Black folks who’ve lived there for decades made it beautiful, kept it beautiful, valued living in a beautiful community. No one was feeling house-proud with the hope that one day white people would move in and make the neighborhood “worth” something. The neighborhood was already worth something. It was home. And it was lovely.

Yes, I sound bitter. I am bitter. Gentrification has driven me out of nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to New York 30 years ago.

I am lucky. I know that. I am lucky because a) I make a decent salary and b) I have only myself to take care of. Yes, I have my mountain of baby-making debt, but even with that, I am able to have some options when it comes to choosing where I live. But even though I am lucky, my options were still too slim to enable me to stay in Crown Heights or any of the neighborhoods that came before Crown Heights: Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene. I am lucky, and still the white tide has once again swept me out of my home. How much worse is this situation for people with children, for people with lower salaries than mine?

I am still lucky. I was able to move into a majority-brown neighborhood. My rent is higher than what I was paying, but I will be able to make it work (please God!). I am further away from some of the comforts I’d grown accustomed to — a good grocery store, for one. But I have a beautiful apartment that already makes me happy and into which I am (slowly) unpacking and settling. I am lucky.

But for how long? Gentrification has already begun here — which is why my rent is so high. There are already plenty of white folks living here, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a Connecticut Muffin opens somewhere nearby, ringing the death knell for my tenure here.

And I just have to ask why, white people, why? Why can’t you leave some parts of the city alone, leave them for the folks you’ve already priced out of the rest of the city? Why do you have to live everywhere?

 

As I do for so many things, I blame Columbus, the first gentrifier, the man I hold responsible for planting the idea that white folks get to claim whatever land they see if they like it. Never mind that someone else is living there. Never mind that someone else has cultivated that land and made it a desirable spot. If white folks see something they covet, they simply claim it. And to hell with anyone else and their pre-existing claim.

The trouble with Columbus is that white folks have never stopped being Columbus. And the structures at the foundation of this society, the structures that continue to be strengthened every day, ensure that there will always be white folks with the means to Columbus whatever they covet, ensure that it will always be difficult if not impossible for someone like me to hold her ground. I have no ground, nothing to hold. I live wherever I live at the pleasure of white people. The moment they begin to covet what I have, I’ll have to be looking for the next place because I don’t have any ability to compete.

There was a moment in the late 90s when I was maybe in a position to buy an apartment. I didn’t know enough about money, credit, or real estate to recognize that moment, however, and it passed. Without my fertility debt, I’d be in a position to buy something now, but that’s not where I am, and this could be the last moment or one of the last. And realizing that makes me feel even more strongly the fetid, Columbusing breath of gentrification on the back of my neck. Makes Arrested Development’s lyrics play that much more loudly in the back of my head.

Got land to stand on, then you can stand up
stand up for your rights — as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand
ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

Got some land to stand on
no more achin’ for the acres
no beggin’ for leftovers
got some space of my own.
Got some grounds to raise on
no more achin’ for the acres
no givin’ to the takers
got some land to leave on.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Columbus

  1. Why oh why white people? I feel your cry and I echo it. Since I’ve only lived in rural areas even when I was in NY, I don’t have a close relationship with gentrification the way you do. What I do know is people’s adverse reactions to me when I do tell them where I live (where all the white people are) lol. Like you? Are you sure? I did that for the first 10 months when I moved back to Ohio last year. I lived in Upper Arlington. Old white money. People did double-takes each time I said that’s where I lived. Never mind that I lived in a dank dark basement apartment (I didn’t share that minor detail) I just watched their eyes cross and their look of confusion. In my own little way, I felt victory. I love your writing and of course you! Hugs. Maybe we should move to the continent and build our own commune. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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