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.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Let me guess – you don’t have any children and your prospects on that front are rather bleak. Guess what – children are indeed “precious.” One day, if you clean up a bit, that realization will come to you. Peace.

      • Lol. One of the best comebacks I’ve ever seen by a writer to a comment.

        Also funny because the commenter could have read almost any other piece by you and figured out that you have kids. 🙂

        Also wondering if this ‘trend’ will mean the elimination of a generation of people who came to Brooklyn hoping to find more exclusivity, or if this means we’re just going to see a cycle of those same people coming in and out.

  2. I find it problematic that this article, and the article that prompted it, are so bitter. The US is one of the most mobile societies in history, and people moving from place to place, whatever the reasons, has always been common. The Zweig’s didn’t really leave because there is a problem with Brooklyn, or the people who are moving in/developing it.. they left because the lifestyle they wanted wasn’t available there, so they found a place where it is. Similarly, Ms. Iverson doesn’t need to knock their reasons for leaving, or try to find a hidden agenda in their decision. The original article serves it purpose: for families like Zweigs, Hastings-on-Hudson has advantages Prospect Heights doesn’t. If Ms. Iversen and those of her stripe don’t share that viewpoint, then she is clearly NOT the same demographic in some critical aspect.

    Sure, we moved to Brooklyn because it was cheaper than Manhattan, we liked the buildings, we liked the schools, the neighborhoods and the amenities. We also loved the diversity of the place. We live in Prospect Heights too, and for the last 12 years, it has been a fantastic place to bring up our kids. They have attended public schools, and had friends of all ethnicities and economic levels. As a freelancer, I was able to afford a mortgage and the other costs of living. Now, the costs of living have increased significantly and we are getting ready to make a move.. to Seattle in our case… but it’s not because there is anything wrong with Brooklyn, its because as parents of two teenagers and a toddler, as a freelancer in a much more competitive market, and on a block that is now considered ‘luxury’ we simply don’t lead the lifestyle that this neighborhood demands.. but there is no bitterness… we find somewhere better that fits us better, and we move on.

    • Most of what you said is true… But the writer of the Times article – like all the others – choose to write about it. If you write about something – expect critique. They write about it because they are trying to convince others of something.

  3. This piece is so good. When it comes to NYC politics, history and equality, you continuously keep it real. Thank you!
    I also completely agree with B below.

  4. Prospect Heights, huh? -slow clap- When I leave my current neighborhood, or New York city for that matter, it would be for entirely different reasons. Like hearing an earful that ended up with a threat to punch me in the face when I looked at someone the wrong way outside my apartment building. Something I’m guessing the Zweigs hadn’t had to deal with in already mostly gentrified PH. Or because despite my best efforts, I’m still unemployed 8 months after being laid off from my job in the financial sector. Not to mention the insane rental market here. I suppose despite living in a dwelling they were able to sell for 7 figures, they weren’t able (or willing) to afford any one of the private schools in their area? The Berkeley-Carroll school springs to mind as an example…

    • Yes, you are onto something — the cold feet of the urban bourgeoisie. I’ve observed it, and I can’t pretend I’ve never felt it myself, being a father of two and just on the cusp of maybe being able to afford Westchester in a few years if everything goes well. All our friends thought they’d stay in the city; once they had kids, some stayed, some left, some plan to leave, some even left and came back. Is it the end of gentrification? IDK, but it’s certainly the limit of some people’s commitment to the nu-urban lifestyle.

  5. Why can’t white people just leave Brooklyn QUIETLY? Why they gotta tell the whole world and they pretend like they still New Yorkers when they gone? DAMN.

    • Kingkongquisha, that cracked me up! 🙂
      Guess this is exactly what Entitlement looks like: the assumption that everything you do is expected to be of insatiable interest to others and therefore must to be widely broadcast.

  6. After reading your article, I can’t quite understand why you feel that being white had anything to do with the Zweig’s decision to leave Brooklyn. Are you somehow suggesting that a wealthy black or minority family would not come come to the same conclusion? If put in the same situation, are minorities less likely to make the decision to move out of Brooklyn for the suburbs because of some innate “Brooklyness”? That kind of thinking seems almost more racist and closed minded than what you’re accusing the Zweig’s of. Not to mention that sometimes people (and particularly people of means, regardless of race) just want to send their kids to a good school and know they’re going to get a good education without being expected to fight for equality with other schools in the school system. That doesn’t seem like something a prereq for sending your kids to school. No one should be berated for taking such a path of least resistance. Granted what you’re advocating for is indeed more honorable than taking the easy way out and just moving to an established school district, but again, no shame in not doing that.

    • Its not “being white” that is the crux of this well written article, its the inherent PRIVILEGE that WHITNESS (not being white), affords people who are white. Its complex and tiring and hard to understand the nuance, but its important. So important that almost all black people have to understand it (by about age 13) in order to navigate well…any portion of mainstream society…while a disproportionate amount of people enjoying white privilege never want to unpack it.

  7. I agree with your perspective, with one big exception. Do you actually know the day to day details of the marketing executive? True, it may not be as glamorous and “purely” creative as say, a journalist or writer, but to assume that a marketing executive is not in a creative position, without knowing exactly what he/she does is a huge overstatement.

  8. It’s not over.

    1. Where do your kids go to school? What is the ethnic/racial breakdown of these schools? Was your choice of neighborhood informed by the attendant school choices?

    2. With rote Brooklyn sass you lampoon Zeeog for considering his children to be “precious.” Do you not consider your own kids precious? If not, kindly provide an alternate characterization. Forgettable? Worthless? Unimportant?

    Looking forward to your response.

  9. After renting in Prospect Heights for 7yrs, following the birth of my son, my wife and I bought a home 2 yrs ago deeper in Crown Heights. We are both African American and it never crossed our minds that our son would be attending school Brooklyn. For 9yrs he has been “bussed” into manhattan for his education and since we both work in the city we told ourselves it was better since he’d be closer to us as we both work in FiDi. But it was really because we feared sending him to the schools in our previous or our new neighborhood. Your article made me reflect on that and the possible missed opportunities of at least entertaining the idea of the “up and coming” schools, as well as what we could’ve given to the schools, not just how does it work best for us. And although I don’t necessarily sympathize with the Zweigs, I do understand their plight and I don’t think that fear can be completely attributed to being white or black.

    also, we love your articles 🙂

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