The recent election of Diana Richardson to the New York State Assembly as a representative of Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens can easily be read as an indication of the rising importance of gentrification as a public issue—particularly for local politicians. Richardson, who ran exclusively on the progressive Working Families Party ticket, won her district’s votes running on a platform that prioritized issues like gentrification and rapid development and said, after her victory, that her “win shows people power can still beat big money and developers don’t own New York. We the people do… This win is a mandate for protecting and building affordable housing and making sure working families can make ends meet.”
Of course, it shouldn’t come as news to anyone who live in Brooklyn that housing costs and the issues associated with gentrification are among the biggest concerns for middle- and low-income borough residents these days. Heated community board meetings and protest marches have become par for the course these days, as we now live in a borough increasingly defined by its rampant economic inequality—a place where homelessness is at an all-time high, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side has become an affordable alternative for Brooklyn-dwellers. And so it’s only fitting that Richardson’s election and the ongoing development of Crown Heights and surrounding areas garners attention from mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, which not infrequently covers the hardships of gentrification from the point of view of millionaire artists in SoHo.
And yet, an article written last Friday by Ginia Bellafante about Richardson’s election managed to do nothing so much as elucidate the problem of having wealthy Times writers covering the gentrification beat at the paper. In her opening paragraphs, Bellafante reveals a level of solipsism that would be expected in the Styles section or even the Real Estate section, but which feels egregiously out of place in an article about a serious political and social issue. So what’s the problem? Well, Bellafante—clearly trying to connect with what is in her mind a stereotypical Times reader—manages to insinuate that the only way people who read the Times would be familiar with Crown Heights would be via sending their babysitters home at night in a cab, and that the worst possible outcome of generations of gentrification will be if her children wind up having to live in Long Island. (The horror!)
Bellafante also identifies as living in one of Brooklyn’s “long-established breeding tracts,” a designation which is troubling on many levels, as it implies that there are only certain parts of the borough where families reside—or, at least, where the families worth knowing do anyway. In other words, places like Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights are where families live and neighborhoods like Crown Heights—where, Bellafante writes, she would be as likely to have lived in as a younger woman as she “would have in a Tasmanian circus”—are where the hired help reside.
This type of neighborhood shorthand—Park Slope as stroller city; Crown Heights as babysitter central—is easy, sure, but it’s also lazy and damaging. The problem with designating Crown Heights, for example, as being the kind of place where nobody would possibly live if it weren’t for getting priced out of other “better” neighborhoods, is that it ignores the local history, dismissing generations of people who have lived there (and, indeed, raised families there!) in favor of a narrative that smacks of elitism and blindness toward anyone who doesn’t share the experience of the privileged few. And, in turn, this leads to a lack of care with regards to firming up and improving the already existing infrastructure in favor of replacing it wholesale with new housing developments and businesses because of the mentality that there wasn’t really anything there to begin with anyway. That Richardson was elected on a platform upon which she promised to fight for the people whose homes and lives are being threatened by rampant development is an incredibly important thing, and might prove to be a pivotal moment in local politics—one that deserves to be written about by someone who doesn’t think Crown Heights is just a place where babysitters travel by cab at the end of a long night looking after Park Slope kids.
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