White Flight, Round Two, or: How Gentrification Ends

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Read enough personal essays that fall within the genre most frequently described as “Goodbye to All That” and you start to notice similarities amidst the initially disparate-seeming stories of why people have decided to move out of New York City. First, there’s an inherent defensiveness—the writers didn’t want to leave! They had no choice! Life here was too expensive or cramped or noisy or competitive or whatever else life in this city is and so these brutal conditions forced the writers out of New York and into the cheaper, more spacious, quieter, laid-back climes of… Los Angeles, usually. Sometimes Portland. Or Westchester. Second, there’s a palpable glee as the writers smugly disclose all the benefits of leaving New York that those of us still living here couldn’t possibly have experienced, things like fewer people asking how much you pay in rent or whatever. And finally, there’s an uncomfortable level of desperation that becomes more and more apparent to readers as we recognize what the writers don’t, which is that even though they might not live in New York any longer, being a New Yorker—even an ex- one—is still the defining fact of their lives.

In fact, so rare is the essay that strays from these basic trends or reveals anything new about the fundamentally banal narrative of “man leaves town,” that, at this point, I tend to ignore them completely; they’re not usually worth getting that upset about, let alone reading. But then, as so often happens, something comes along that makes me pause, and reconsider my stance on saving all my opprobrium for particularly inane BuzzFeed lists.

Such was the case this weekend when the New York Times ran a piece titled “Escape from Brooklyn” in its Real Estate section (which, as Gawker’s Tom Scocca accurately identifies, is also “the realest section of the paper“). Written by David Zweig, a freelance writer and prior contributor to the Times, “Escape from Brooklyn” relates the experience of Zweig and his wife, Doreen Bucher, both of whom “work in creative fields” (though Bucher is described as being a “marketing executive at a fragrance company,” so lol), as they decided to leave Brooklyn for a more amenable location. Like many other ex-New Yorkers before him, Zweig feels less like his and his wife’s decision to leave was an autonomous one and more like it had been forced upon them. In this case, Zweig identifies the “trigger” to being “pushed out” as his contentious relationship with downstairs neighbors who played techno music at 7:30pm, which just so happened to be his young children’s bedtime. And while we recognize that this is annoying, we also don’t think 7:30 is very late and wonder if thick carpets would have helped the situation. However, it wasn’t the techno that forced Zweig’s hand, rather the final straw—the “slow burn”—was that he and his wife were anxious about sending their daughter to kindergarten in the neighborhood school, one which bears the ominous descriptor of “up-and-coming.”

Now, before skipping to the end of the Zweig family saga (although, spoiler: they’re very happily living in 90 percent white Hastings-on-Hudson in a more-than-million dollar home where they have nice river views, so don’t worry about them!), let’s stop for a minute and think about what it means to call a school “up-and-coming.”  Basically synonymous with the word “gentrification” in terms of real estate, “up-and-coming” carries a very specific connotation which, when referencing neighborhoods, includes things like safer streets, additional green spaces, an increase of local amenities, and, oh yeah, a recent influx of wealthy and usually white people. The fact that the Zweigs lived in Prospect Heights, a part of Brooklyn that was undoubtedly described to them as “up-and-coming” when they bought their two-bedroom apartment almost a decade ago, is a pretty good indicator that they hadn’t thought of “up-and-coming” as a particularly damning sentiment in the past. So why is it so troublesome when it comes to schools?

When a public school here is described as being “up-and-coming,” it doesn’t mean anything all that different from when a neighborhood is described that way; it usually implies that the school is getting safer, has improving test scores, an increase of educational programs, and, oh yeah, an influx of wealthy and white people. But in the same way that moving to an “up-and-coming” neighborhood is an investment, so is sending your kids to an “up-and-coming” school. Unlike in really established Brooklyn public schools (all in wealthy, fully gentrified areas like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights), sending your child to an “up-and-coming” public school usually means extra work on the part of the parents in order to contribute to—or even establish—a strong community at the school in order to demand the type of resources for the students that wealthier public schools have long since figured out how to obtain. This can take time, and while plenty of people are perfectly happy to sit in their apartments in neighborhoods that they might not love at first and accrue money passively on their investment, it can get more complicated when it comes to schools because there, what you’re hoping will suddenly appreciate dramatically is not your apartment’s worth, but the quality of your child’s education.

So what’s a wealthy, white family to do? In the case of the Zweigs, they decided to look around for a new place in Brooklyn in a select few districts with schools of which they approved and, after failing to find anything, move to a town in Westchester with a 90 percent white population and a median income of over $110,000/year (high even for Westchester), and defensively extoll its virtues in the Times, while simultaneously bashing Brooklyn for being too expensive and not friendly enough. But, of course, while I would never imply that Brooklyn is anything but insanely expensive, it is hard to believe that a family who sold their apartment for “several hundred thousand dollars” above the asking price of $949,000, couldn’t find anywhere to live here if they really wanted—they just… didn’t.

Instead, what the Zweigs wanted—and what it seems like many of their new Hastings-neighbors, also all “escapees” from Brooklyn wanted—was to live in a place where their wealth and whiteness protected and elevated them in the way that those qualities historically have, but don’t anymore in an expensive and gentrifying borough. Zweig claims to have loved Brooklyn and being identified with it (he only even just changed his Amazon author bio*, which identified him as living in Brooklyn, yesterday, despite having lived in Hastings for over a year), but it’s pretty clear that what he loved were the ways in which he felt protected by his privilege. Once that privilege disappeared, once he and his wife realized that despite the fact that New York City is home to the most segregated school system in the country but that it still wasn’t segregated enough, he moved on.

It’s hard to say at this point if Zweig’s experience is a canary in the coal mine, signaling an exodus of wealthy, white Brooklynites who are ok living in gentrifying areas until it comes time to send their precious children to school with kids of diverse social, racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, or if this is another made up trend like “hipsturbia.” It’s nice to think that White Flight, Round Two (as opposed to its original iteration, when middle-class white families fled cities in droves, crippling them economically), will comprise suburban transplants like the Zweigs who only ever thought about what it is that Brooklyn can do for them and not what they can do for Brooklyn, and thus will rid the borough of all the people who are here for its cultural caché, and couldn’t care less about contributing to its actual culture.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

*Initially, this mistakenly said Twitter bio, instead of Amazon author bio.