Everything Wrong With Gentrification In One New York Times Article

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

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  1. This article is offensive and ignorant. I would think most women might have a bit more sympathy for female victims of sexual abuse. If you have issues with Erika’s position you should argue those fairly, and not attack her personally or make snide remarks about her writing. This piece definitely wouldn’t get past a Time’s editor, and I’m thankful for that. What absolute garbage.

    • I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of sexual abuse, and note pretty clearly in my post that I understand that Anderson’s experience might prevent her from ever being able to feel fully relaxed in her neighborhood again. What I have no sympathy for is someone who takes her experience to indict an entire community, all the while betraying an overwhelming amount of ignorance about gentrification, the very issue she purports to be talking about. And it’s totally fair game to criticize a writer’s inane, inept metaphors. That’s not a personal attack on Anderson. That is a critique (that I’m sure is taken personally, but what are you going to do) of the writing which bears her name. The idea that she should get some sort of pass or pat on the back because she was assaulted is what’s offensive. There are some interesting ideas that Anderson touches on in her piece, but unfortunately, she didn’t explore them in anything other than a superficial, racially insensitive way. Maybe a better editor would have helped her. Maybe a friend reading it beforehand could have pointed out all the problems in the piece. Who knows? But I judged it based on what I read, and I found it to be emblematic of so much that’s so wrong with so many people living in Brooklyn today that I had to write about it. So I did. Thanks for reading.

      • Thank you Kristen for writing this! I am a Brooklyn native, born and raised, and I feel safe as hell walking around BK any time of day or night. These gentrifiers sre clueless per usual, and come into our neighborhoods with their noses in the air and have no respect or concern with the way the people who lived there first feel about the changes we have to endure. Typical while supremacy/racism at its finest. No! We don’t want you in our neighborhoods!

  2. Totally agree with Kim. This makes me naseaous. Sexual assault? How dare she feel unsafe as a result! Sounds like the author is another member of the Privilege Police. Gross.

    • There is so much that is cruel, troubled, and unjust about gentrification. A woman writing honestly and empathetically about a recent assault in a gentrifying neighborhood is not such a thing. If I were to criticize the NYT, it would not be over publishing this piece (for I’m glad they did), it would be over doing a poor job (and not caring much about) inviting more people of color and longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods to get the chance to tell their their stories and concerns in first person essays in the paper of record. They’d do well to invite a longtime resident of Crown Heights to speak about their changing neighborhood.

      A note about blaming yourself/feeling that you don’t belong in a neighborhood: I live in Harlem. I’m black, but like generations of blacks before, I moved here, was not born here. That didn’t stop a man from once yelling at me “go back downtown!”–a moment that was amusing only because of his heavy Jamaican accent, his evidence that he’d also once come from somewhere else (and the fact that I will surely never ever be able to afford to live downtown). There are white people on our street, and I’ve heard men on the corner grumbling about them. I also heard a neighbor begin to speak loudly about a “recent murder on the corner” when a white couple came by, looking at brownstones. Where I live, there is resistance and resentment to the neighborhood changing, and real, legitimate fear that people will be pushed out. Does that mean that this could ever express itself in an assault? I’m not saying that. But if a white person were assaulted in our neighborhood after hearing these kinds of things, no one could blame her troubled mind for trying to connect those dots.

      Here’s to more honest talk about our lives and experiences. But here’s to soliciting and really listening to the experiences of others affected by the same dynamics.

    • I agree with Kristin. I also think that while it is awful that the original writer was assaulted, it is equally awful for her to indict an entire community of long standing residents. How can it be equally awful might you ask? As a Black woman married to a Black man I am constantly in fear of his being viewed as a “suspect” and being mercilessly targeted as one. We moved here and purchased our home before it became the “hip” thing to do. There were no reading series. Our home was burglarized and when police came to the scene to speak to my husband and me, one of the officers put his hand on his gun and and began to question my husband as if he were the guilty party – and this with the officer in question being told by various sources on site, including other officers, that we were the home owners. It sucks that she got felt up but, ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!???? The original writer said that the man who attacked her was Latino, and yet somehow, the entirety of the West Indian community – who are not of Latin decent – is responsible. WTF???!!! Let’s get it straight, the rest of the Latino world isn’t responsible either. This was one douche who did a terrible thing. I take offense to the idea that it happened to her because it’s so bad here and she’s so white and so she’s being targeted. She was victimized by one jerk who was probably from the homeless shelter just as the police suggested. Just please don’t enforce the stereotype that people of color can’t control themselves due to some fictitious emotionally confusing and overpowering affect that White folks (White women particularly) living down the street have over us. It’s ignorant and more importantly, dangerous.

  3. Overreact, much? Many good points here, and I like the L writer’s general viewpoint on gentrification, but agree with the faceless “Claire” and “Stacy”. Is someone having a bad day? Sure the original piece has sections that are painful to read, but there are more grievous sins that one could flay the NYT over. Another throwaway piece on Gentrification ain’t one of them.

    While it might seem gratifying for Cub social scientist Kristin to get these feelings off her chest, not sure this NYT pieces qualifies as the worst of the lot. Bit shallow and naive? Perhaps. But in general, it’s never a good idea to over-generalize by stating “Always, Never, or Everything” (unless always, never or everything really does apply).

    One member of the 4th Estate elite calling out another institution isn’t going to reverse the sad and inevitable tick-tock of gentrification, or do much to pick up the spirits of locals on the front line of these changes. And to paraphrase the reaction if this writer (at the risk of getting so meta that systems may soon shut down)…”if you happen to be someone like Iversen and are truly uncomfortable with the NYT article you had just read, then, guess what? Stop reading. Click Away. Move on”.

  4. I wanted to give you some support since I think your critique is very fair. As a woman who’s been living in NYC for over 20 years I’ve had similar experiences a number of times – including one on a subway platform which was nearly identical to Erika’s (man grabbed me with an arm around my neck, groped my crotch and then threw me to the ground when I kicked and screamed). In addition to that incident, I’ve had men expose themselves to me and try to grope me on the subway, and I’ve also had my wallet stolen twice.

    And you know what? NONE of those incidents made me think I was being targeted due to my race or the neighborhood I was in because, in fact, these things can and do happen anywhere (and also, I am not white). The subway platform I was standing on was the Christopher Street stop (the beginning of my daily commute at the time); one of the times my pocket was picked I was in a store near Lincoln Center; and the times when I was groped in the subway were typically at prime rush hour when the trains were most crowded. Furthermore, there’s no reason for her to link her experience to her race. Being targeted because she was a woman, sure – but does she really mean to imply that the white women in gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to be assaulted than the minority women living there? Because that does seem to be the subtext of her article, but one I doubt would be proven out.

    And finally, it’s interesting for me to see how times have changed, in both good and bad ways. When I was a young woman walking around the city 20 years ago, I didn’t consider what happened to me to be a sexual assault and honestly, after calling a few of my friends to tell them about it didn’t give it a second thought. The idea of having PTSD over an incident like this would have never occurred to me, although I did start wearing longer and heavier coats on evenings out, and learned to keep stomping backwards with my heels in the subway until probing hands disappeared. On the one hand, it’s great that these kinds of incidents are much more frowned upon today – but on the other hand, taking on the mantle of victimhood over incidents on this level may do a lot more harm than good.

  5. Re: your sentiment, “How did this get by an editor at the New York Times?”

    You weren’t being the slightest bit serious. Were you?

    If the NYT editor had tried to edit out the sentiments you criticize, he/she wouldn’t be fit to work at the paper. Or any paper.

    What would be the editor’s objection?

    “Extremely offensive and ridiculous overgeneralizing. We don’t allow opinions like this to run in first-person pieces in this paper. Cut.”

    Do you want an editor doing that?

    Whose moral sensibilities should be used to decide if an opinion that may be potentially offensive should be struck from first-person pieces? The editor’s? A committee’s? Yours? People just like you?

    Pitch the paper an outraged counter article. With your opinions. Which are heavily influenced by many biases and myopic assumptions you aren’t aware you possess.

    Enjoy hearing from enraged people who want to know how your opinions could possibly get by an editor.

  6. Side note: being a “writing instructor” at Sackett Street is not the same thing as being a writing instructor. SS is notorious for its commitment to radical mediocrity, particularly in re its teachers. The flabbiness of Anderson’s article, both in its style and thinking, is indicative of other Sackett contributions to the world of farts and letters.

  7. This article is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with hipster literati: obsessively, gratuitously judgmental of anyone who dares to voice an opinion that may be “impure” as measured by the hyper-political correctness of the intellectual elite. Ms. Iversen, please do not imagine for one minute that your perfunctory disclaimers (“I don’t find fault with Anderson feeling unsettled,” “there’s no doubt that some people are forced to relocate”) or your purported concern for the sensibilities of Crown Heights immigrants, have in any way concealed the true intent of this piece, which is to smear Ms. Anderson with insinuations of racism and ignorance. Your article is petty and snide from top to bottom, and your suggestion at the end that she put up and shut up or get out (“guess what? Don’t live there!”) is so obviously a clichéd, last-ditch attempt to justify your nastiness. Whatever criticism Anderson or her writing merits, yours is the real object of ridicule here.

  8. Two points have somewhat been tossed aside through all this flame tossing. First, the NYT article is a completely legitimate portrayal of one woman’s experience in Crown Heights, and I don’t think the article attempts to sell itself as something larger (the section is called “New York Story” after all). We can argue till last call about what would constitute a perfectly representative experience of a woman in Crown Heights, or even of a white woman specifically, but then we’d be operating in stereotypes again. We could attempt to find the most statistically representative woman (age, race, socioeconomic status, etc.), but there is no way to compile an accurate representation of residents’ attitudes sans a widespread sociological survey (which no one seems to be referencing or calling for).

    Second, because this is an honest representation of a sincere woman’s experience, we should react to it accordingly. Sexual assault is a terrifying, disruptive experience that can wage long-term havoc on the psychological well-being of the victim. Victims of crime are liable to connect dots and to make sense of a senseless violation of their most personal space. It doesn’t make them ignorant or hateful or malevolent in any way; it’s simply human nature to grasp at reasoning to explain (and by extension prevent) tragedy. And maybe they make understandable but incorrect conclusions, such as interpreting a crime map to uphold their belief that their neighborhood is in fact the most dangerous. And then they internalize that belief and continue acting upon it in future.

    To me, this doesn’t mean we should universally label victims of crime who attempt to reassert control over a time they felt helplessly violated as ignorant gentrifiers. How is this constructive? It helps neither victim nor community. I’ll bet you there are other women like Ms. Anderson who have made similar fear-based attributions after experiencing a life-altering crime in a gentrifying neighborhood. It’s logical for a victim to connect crime with time and place — more logical than avoiding men with green hoodies, say. It’s more productive to attempt to understand this fear — and to agree that even if you loathe Ms. Anderson’s article, the unaddressed reality remains that this is likely a perspective shared by many other gentrifiers. And that reality itself has widespread impact in terms of how gentrifiers engage, or more likely don’t engage, with their communities. I won’t attempt to unpack those, but I think there’s insight to be had there that hasn’t yet been discussed. (That isn’t to suggest that it is incumbent on the gentrifying community to address these concerns. It’s to say that if we wonder why we keep banging our heads against the same wall, maybe we should attempt to understand all perspectives at hand if we’re truly concerned about gentrification in all its facets.)

  9. In many aspects the article above is very true with the envoirment that is now NYC and the generation of privilege or if not spoiled newbies yes it could have been more sympathetic but it is generally true. Life is hard very hard if somethings like this would have been written years ago it would have been a joke as people were drying day to day by the Aids virus, heroin, gun violence , etc., and no they would have not gotten pass the editors of the Times in this respect a mere complaining is very offensive I am sorry. To be sexually abused is terrible yet if every female and male who have been threw actual rape and god knows how much worse got to express their opinion in writings etc..this does not happen so why should an insistent like this be. I have read so much juvenile writings in the Times that resembles high school and it is done by the privileged or wrong people meaning non New Yorkers is this right or fair.

  10. This is disturbing, my experiences as a BK resident were a wonderful kaleidoscope of culture. Maybe this young (quite possibly and most probably) privileged lady does not necessarily belong in the world’s melting pot. She needs to get back on the horse and immerse herself in the neighborhoods diverse cultures, while they’re still there. Soon (way too soon) Crown Heights too will fall victim to the seemingly endless wave of hipsters that is swallowing our beloved boroughs…..I wish I could afford Crown Heights.