Everything Wrong With Gentrification In One New York Times Article

Oh. How ominous. c/o nytimes.com
Oh. How ominous.
c/o nytimes.com

It hasn’t really been all that long since we asked the question that was begging to be asked, “Where does the New York Times find these people?” And yet the paper of record continues to publish the kind of articles that leave us scratching our collective head, wondering if the editors at the Times genuinely think that this kind of writing has any inherent worth other than its ability to serve as an object of ridicule.

The article in question (which we first came across in Rusty Foster’s excellent, must-subscribe—no, but really, you must subscribe—newsletter “Today In Tabs“) is titled “On Being Both the Wolf and the Lamb,” and is a first-person account of one woman’s experience in her gentrifying neighborhood. Erika Anderson—a  freelance writer and instructor at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop—relates the complex feelings she has about Crown Heights, the area of Brooklyn she calls home. Anderson writes, “one of the first questions you confront in any five-borough conversation is, ‘Where do you live?’

“‘Crown Heights,’ I say. Inevitably the next question is: ‘How do you like it?’ You would think this would be straightforward, easy to answer, but it’s not. Not for me.”

The reason that there’s no clear answer for Anderson is because, while she enjoys parts of her neighborhood, like the “restaurants on Franklin Avenue” and “the literary scene,” Crown Heights also has an above-average crime rate relative to the rest of the city, and Anderson herself was sexually assaulted not far from her home. The crime happened on “the morning after President Barack Obama was re-elected” (which, strange detail, but ok), and took place on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Dean Street. Anderson was approached from behind by a strange man who then “slipped his hand between [her] legs and grabbed [her] crotch,” before running away. Anderson reported the attack to the police, who were, it sounds, helpful without offering any real promising of being able to, you know, help. The sad fact is that most crimes like this (misdemeanor sexual assaults) which are perpetrated by strangers go unpunished, and such was the case with Anderson’s assault.

There is little doubt that any victim of a random crime—be it a sexual assault like Anderson’s, or the mugging her roommate experienced later that same week—needs to process that crime in his or her own way, and I don’t find fault with Anderson feeling unsettled in the neighborhood that rapidly transformed from being simply the place that she lives into a crime scene. However (and this is a big however!) the way in which Anderson incorporates her traumatic experience into her larger opinion of Crown Heights and its residents is so emblematic of everything wrong with gentrifiers that it’s mind-boggling. Rather than recognizing that sexual assaults and street crime happens all over New York (Anderson claims that, “other than isolated splotches of Manhattan and the Bronx” her neighborhood is one of the least safe in the city, ignoring that the crime map she references demonstrates that Crown Heights has similar crime statistics as Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights), she condemns all of Crown Heights as being a place full of dangerous people (from the Caribbean!) who resent her presence because of her… what? Her whiteness? Yes! You see, what Anderson hadn’t realized when she moved to Crown Heights was that she was “riding the sea foam of the latest wave of gentrification on a blow-up dolphin from Disney World” and that  “contributing to the crime map was the first and only sign that [she] belonged.”

I’m sorry, but fuck that. Contributing to the crime map? Really? Her only possible contribution to the neighborhood is to be a victim of the local “thugs”? Fuck that! Anderson claims to have moved into a neighborhood where she “doesn’t necessarily belong” and so is now “facing the consequences.” What does that even mean? That as a white woman, the natural consequence of living in a predominantly black neighborhood is to be sexually assaulted? How did this get by an editor at the New York Times? Anderson’s whole point seems to be that, yes, she is still comfortable visiting all the places (the restaurants, the French bakery, the reading series) where she is surrounded by other people she knows, people who are gentrifiers like her, but the entire rest of the neighborhood gives her PTSD. So now, she never takes out her phone in public anymore and spends a small fortune on cabs at night (even though, you know, her assault took place in the morning). I can’t imagine living in a neighborhood where I felt so viscerally uncomfortable, and think that I would probably do anything I could in order to move, but Anderson—who says she can’t afford to move—ends her essay by writing, “I am a part of this neighborhood now, whether I like it or not.” So despite the fact that she sees herself as a walking victim and views her community as being full of countless criminals, Anderson is staying. Lucky Crown Heights, right?

This is one of the faces of gentrification, and it is terrifying. (And it’s no less terrifying that a writing instructor would use a metaphor about “a blow-up dolphin from Disney World,” but I guess that’s beside the point right now.) There are a variety of reasons that people move to different New York neighborhoods, and there’s no doubt that some people are forced to relocate to places that they might not otherwise have chosen due to reasons like rising rents. But, if you happen to be someone like Anderson and are truly uncomfortable in the place you live, then, guess what? Don’t live there! And don’t ascribe your feelings of fear and discomfort to a whole community of people. And also? Don’t write an article about it in the New York Times because it’s not the best career move to out yourself as not only obtuse and ignorant of certain basic realities of city life, but also as the kind of writer who sincerely references herself as a “wolf and a lamb.” The only other thing I’d ever be interested in reading from Anderson now is her “Goodbye to All That” essay. Who knows? It could come any day now.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen