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Gentrification Blues

Danny Hoch’s Taking Over exposes the fault lines in urban America’s economic and cultural flux

By David Freedlander

It’s “Community Day” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when Robert stumbles onto the stage clutching a bottle of Brooklyn Lager at the opening of Danny Hoch’s one-man show Taking Over.

“I wanna say Big-Ups to all my Boricua family,” Robert calls out, a little fuzzy around the edges. He goes on to give a welcoming shout to the various ethnic pockets that make up the neighborhood, placing each in their geographic corner—the Dominicans on Keap Street, the Hasids in the projects on the Southside, the Italians on Lorimer Street, “all my Polish peoples from the Northside eatin’ a motherfuckin’ Kielbasy and shit.”

Next, Robert, who is working on his teaching degree at City College, turns his sights on the “hipsters,” the young newcomers who have been arriving in the neighborhood over the past decade or so.

“What about Ohio? Ohio in the house. Michigan?...Pennsylvania. Arizona. The fuck outta here New Hampshire? I didn’t think anyone was actually from there.” Then Robert gets to the point. “Well, now that I have your attention, I just want to say that my name is Robert, and I really just want all you crackers to get the fuck out of our neighborhood…GET THE FUCK OUT! GO HOME MOTHERFUCKERS. Why are you HERE? You suck! Nobody WANTS you here!”

Robert, it turns out, grew up in Williamsburg, lived through the nadir of the neighborhood’s violence and drugs, and is now, along with the rest of his family, getting evicted in the real-estate boom that has swept the area and the other boroughs of New York City—and, in fact, core urban areas throughout most of the country.

Taking Over is a heartsick cry from the seldom-heard victims of this change in American demographics and mores, and its effect on audiences is bracing. The play cuts to the crux of an issue that is roiling communities and that has flummoxed otherwise well-meaning people who have chosen to live in cities, as opposed to their parents’ towns or suburbs—and who likely assumed that in doing so they were merely going on with their lives and settling where they chose to.

Robert has a message for them: “Did it EVER occur to any of you to ask who lives here? If we needed you here? If we wanted 37 new bars in our neighborhood in one year? Did you think to ASK? You didn’t ASK us.”

Taking Over, which debuted in early 2008 at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre under Tony Taccone’s direction, just finished a six-week run at the Public Theater in New York City after a series of free performances at community venues in the outer boroughs. (It is currently running at Los Angeles’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, under the auspices of Center Theatre Group, through Feb. 22.) It seeks to tell the story of Williamsburg through the eyes of nine people, some of whom are instrumental, by virtue of their jobs or their mere presence, in changing the character of the once predominantly blue-collar neighborhood, turning it into a place teeming with artists and actors and musicians seeking out cheap, large spaces—changes that have now put Williamsburg on the cusp of becoming a high-rise playground for the well-heeled. The play’s other characters are those, like Robert, being victimized by these changes.

Hoch’s virtuoso portrayal of the neighborhood denizens is spot-on. His Williamsburg is a place filled with rapacious developers, slimy condo salesmen, four-dollar almond croissants, frighteningly skinny rock-and-roll dudes and dudettes in too-tight blue jeans with inked illustrations on their skin. At closing time, the streets are filled with the loud and the drunk spilling out of pricey bars, and in the mornings they are lined with chicly outfitted couples waiting for a brunch table—a pageant watched from porches and storefronts by world-weary longtime residents who can afford neither bars nor brunch and understand their growing disenfranchisement all too well.

As playwright as well as performer, Hoch knows whereof he speaks. A pioneer in the performance genre known as hip-hop theatre, Hoch, 38, has won acclaim (including a pair of Obies) for his linguistically agile solo and multiple-character plays grounded in close observation and empathy with folks marginalized by class or economics or race. True to form, Taking Over captures the community ethos of Williamsburg with precision.

Williamsburg, in fact, lacks the architectural charm of other Brooklyn neighborhoods, having neither the classic brownstones of Brooklyn Heights nor the soaring views of Dumbo. Low-slung houses put up quickly and cheaply to shelter the immigrants that once flooded the area form the heart of it. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway slices through the middle of it, offering a steady train of trucks and cars spewing smoke. The main drag of the Southside is underneath rail tracks. A warren of warehouses lines the waterfront. To the north, in Greenpoint, lies the remnants of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history—17 million gallons of oil that slowly seeped through refineries that once worked the waterway.

During the middle of the 19th century, the neighborhood of Williamsburg was a fancy resort where the likes of Commodore Vanderbilt, William C. Whitney and Jim Fisk vacationed. In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge opened, ending the era of affluence as Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants moved over from cramped Manhattan. Since at least the 1920s, city leaders have been trying to vacate Manhattan of factories and the people who work in them, a policy that soon made Williamsburg the most congested residential area in Brooklyn and its manufacturing core as well. Like many of America’s urban centers, it began to empty out in the post–World War II years, especially of middle-class residents, and by the 1970s had earned a well-deserved reputation for crime.

What followed has become a familiar story, one that has played itself out in cities across America: Artists and entrepreneurs begin to move into so-called neglected neighborhoods, where they attract attention and eventually are followed by layer upon layer of new residents, bringing ever-increasing wealth. To list the New York neighborhoods that witnessed this scenario reads like a map of the city and a tour through postwar art movements: There was Greenwich Village, then the East Village, then SoHo and Tribeca and Chelsea and the Lower East Side, then Williamsburg—and still in New York it goes on, reaching Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook and farther and farther afield, each “transformation” happening more quickly than the one before it and altering more and more of the traditional character of each neighborhood.

It is the New York story, this being a city that has had several ebbs and flows during its history, a city where the desire of some to move on and get out is only rivaled by the periodic desire of others to move up and get back in. Baudelaire said that a city changes faster than a human heart, and nowhere is this truer than in New York, where a beloved bakery turns into tomorrow’s cell phone store before you even have time to miss it, where history is all-too-willingly sacrificed on the mantle of progress. And because land is scarce here, New Yorkers’ attachment to their little piece of it runs deep. Indeed, in New York, where people live is a status and personality marker, far more significant than where they work or worship.

In New York magazine, which has made fingering the “next-est” next neighborhood every eight months or so its calling card, a perceptively titled 2006 article, “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Cool By Now,” put the problem thusly: “Even dug-in New Yorkers suffer from a kind of neighborhood A.D.D., perpetually suspecting that their dream of New York, whatever that might be, is happening elsewhere—not in another city, but in another borough, another neighborhood, another block…that anxious feeling you get when you’re attending a great party, but you can’t help hearing that there’s a louder, more raucous party going on down the hall.”

By the 1980s, the first artists had tentatively made their homes in Williamsburg, some illegally converting warehouses spaces after the businesses had shut down or moved away. In 1992, a cartoon in the now-defunct alternative arts newspaper Waterfront Week depicted a Noah’s Ark sailing over to the neighborhood, filled with hundreds of waving arms whose owners scream out, “Help us! We can’t afford our apartments!!” The ship is ultimately intercepted by locals who cry out, “Turn back—you are galleristic and wear black undergarments. You are economic refugees!”

That same year the neighborhood got its star turn in another New York article titled “The New Bohemia,” which painted Williamsburg as a neo-Beatnik playpen where cross-dressing performance artists mingle with artists in Road Warrior jackboots at epic all-night industrial-loft parties. “I’ve had visions of Ginsberg sitting around in black turtleneck and goatee,” one photographer is quoted as saying. What’s missing in this account, and in all New York stories of real estate and the arts, is what it felt like to not be young, to not be an artist, to not be on the lookout for the next happening spot but to be simply tidily living, perhaps in the same spot where your parents did, and their parents before them—to be part of a community of people who have lived and died in a particular neighborhood for generations, and who suddenly seem as irrelevant as the old buildings, and soon, one senses, will be swept away anyway.

Hoch’s take on the constant flux of population in and out of and around New York is uncomplicated. At one point in Taking Over he steps out of character to address the audience, assuming a persona we take to be “Danny Hoch, Brooklyn resident” [see sidebar below]. “So what’s the message here?” he asks, playing half dramaturg, half focus-group coach. “Is the message of the play go home? Yes, bingo! That’s the message.”

But is that message fair? Would Williamsburg or Brooklyn or other parts of urban America really be better if newcomers of limited vintage took Hoch’s advice, packed up their things and headed home? On this question, the simple answer proves more elusive.

What is meant by “gentrification,” a loaded term if ever there was one, is the displacement of poorer, usually non-white residents of urban neighborhoods, either slowly or quickly, by whiter, wealthier newcomers from other parts of the city or country. It is a phenomenon that has probably been happening ever since people have lived in cities. In Architecture and Suburbia, John Archer, a professor of cultural studies, noted the effects of gentrification in some London suburbs in the 18th century, but the process was first named and given serious import in the 1960s, when the sociologist Ruth Glass described a series of changes in London: “One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages…have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

That this is happening now in America represents for many an unacknowledged shift in the way that people live and work. Even 15 years ago, American cities were thought to be hopeless pits of despair, hardly even worth government investment since their future was so limited. But along the way, something changed: Children of the suburbs decided that outlying areas were dull and commuting a drag, so they moved into dense urban areas. They got married later, too, which means that they stayed in cities longer than their generational predecessors. Some even began to raise their children there, the desire for diversity and excitement outweighing the safety and lower taxes of the suburbs.

The nature of work also changed. Despite futurists’ predictions that location would cease to matter as the world grew more virtual, place actually began to matter more and more. People and businesses needed to be in close proximity in order to network, to collaborate and to compete. Since it was the artists who often first moved into older neighborhoods, frequently people who rely on them moved in next—gallery owners, graphic designers and others connected with their world, gradually bringing with them more and more people who also yearned to be connected. Hoch mocks people who say they feel “oppressed” by their suburban hometowns, but the fact of the matter is that many people do need to escape to cities in order to find sanctuary; in many ways, gentrification is the effect of neo-liberalization writ small, part of the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service and information one, a symptom of the growing gap between rich and poor and voracious capitalism run amok.

(It is worth noting here that immigration—though it lacks the cachet and sexiness of gentrification, with its intersection of race, class and real estate—has had a far more profound effect on cities than gentrification. A third of all residents of New York City, in point of fact, were born in a foreign country. You would never know it if you read the papers, but the city has far, far fewer hipsters than immigrants.)

As it is a sad fact of American political life that well-organized and monied interests are able to get attention from elected officials, so city neighborhoods gradually become safer and nicer as more people live in them, run-down buildings are renovated and streets are cleaned. Businesses eventually respond to these developments, and shops and restaurants that once catered to a poorer, immigrant clientele close.

In Williamsburg, this process has meant the displacement of families, some of whom have multiple generations spread throughout the neighborhood, when breadwinners can no longer afford ever-escalating rents—a true tragedy, especially given that these are the citizens who endured and persevered through the community’s dark days. History is most often written by the winners, so the story of living under this onslaught rarely gets told. If Taking Over has a single overriding merit, it is that the play does just that.

But back to Hoch’s message—go home. Is it really a useful one?

In years past, certainly no one would have guessed that the biggest problem facing cities in 2009 would be that too many people with cultural and actual capital want to live in them. That cities do have this problem doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be mitigated—with more affordable housing, inclusionary zoning and efforts to improve neighborhoods before they gentrify—but the attendant benefits of gentrification shouldn’t be lost, either. In fact, it is one of the more hopeful phenomena to have happened in the past 20 years. This reverse migration has had some real effects across the globe—cities, for one thing, with their density and ease of public transportation, are now vastly more sustainable than the suburbs that surround them.

A recurring joke in Taking Over refers to a new store on Bedford Avenue that sells $75 baby overalls—hipster anarchists protest in front of it because it symbolizes the ruination of their neighborhood, and old-timers look on with bemused contempt at both the protestors and the baby store. Such consumerism is easy to mock, and maybe it should be—but on the other hand, surely no one could have foreseen that a generation of young people would want to raise their children in cities. Because of this, urban schools may well improve without any help from policymakers. And, most important, the nation will inevitably grow more knitted together across class and racial lines, since virtually no one who lives in a city can regularly fear people who look different.

Hoch’s relationship to his neighborhood is as complicated as anyone’s. In an interview before he went on one night, Hoch admitted that he moved to Williamsburg in 1990 before it was a hipster haven, but not by much, after artist friends from North Carolina tipped him off to it. “I’m part of the problem,” he confessed.

The sharpest elbows in the gentrification wars are often thrown between the first-wave gentrifiers, who move in before a neighborhood is “on the map,” and second-wave gentrifiers, who come after. Since neighborhoods in New York change so quickly, one can find oneself on either side of this divide. In the 1992 New York article, a local painter who has moved to the neighborhood only a few years before marvels at the jump: “‘It’s like an army. They march off the train in their thrift-store clothing carrying their art-supply bags and stretchers on their way to the health food store.”’

This kind of bemusement permeates Taking Over. In one of the play’s most affecting bits, Marion, a matronly black woman who keeps a watchful eye on the neighborhood, scoffs at the baby-store protestors: “This one boy with all these metal hoops in his face was up there yellin’ in a megaphone, ‘This baby store and the new families moving in are ruining the raw aesthetic of our neighborhood!’ I said ‘OUR NEIGHBORHOOD? Who the hell are you?!”’ Similarly, Kiko, a recently released ex-con who moved back home after serving an extended Rockefeller drug sentence, says to a movie-crew worker setting up shop on his block, “It’s wild seeing people like you around here.”

It is a refrain now heard from New Yorkers of all different vintages. But it raises the question, People like what, exactly? Certainly changing neighborhoods bear witness to outlandish fashion styles, but this complaint from older generations to younger ones is heard all the time. Now, though, young people who move to a neighborhood like Williamsburg are spoken of as if they were akin to invading aliens, whose mores and attitudes are incompatible with those of the community and of whom one can be fairly certain that there is no beating heart in their bodies and no blood running in their veins.
This “otherization” is utilized to great effect by CNN’s Lou Dobbs when he talks about illegal immigrants, or by Sarah Palin, who so easily divides the country into its “real” parts and its other parts; but it is particularly distressing to hear otherwise enlightened people refer to themselves as “real” New Yorkers.

The power of a place like New York—and why it matters as much as idea as it does place—is that all New Yorkers are real. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “One becomes a New Yorker instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” That’s why people have flocked to the city for generations. Perhaps only half-seriously, Hoch wants an end to this manic need to move—he wants Americans to tie their wagons to the hitching post. What most people call “hipsters” (or, in an older vernacular, “yuppies,” meaning middle-class white people who move to urban areas) Hoch calls “Americans,” and he says, “The reason Americans are flocking here en masse is not because they have been displaced by Reaganomics—it’s because American culture discourages the idea of staying home and discourages the idea of what community actually means. We are trained from when we are in elementary school to make it big and get the fuck away from home. The problem is that to stay home is not pretty, and Americans wants to feel pretty and glamorous.”

This insight is reactionary and anti-modern. Nobody wants to live in a country where the circumstance of your birth determines more about what kind of life you will lead—indeed, it is chilling to consider what the American landscape would look like if young people hadn’t historically made the move to New York. It would mean (and this is just a random list) no abstract expressionism, no minimalism, no punk, no Harlem Renaissance, no New York school of poetry, no folk revival, no Warhol Factory.

In another bit, rendered with comic precision but perhaps the shallowest of the show, Kaitlin, a ditsy ex-NYU student selling homemade scarves and jewelry who moved to Williamsburg three years ago, is already lamenting the changes. To fit in, she gets a Dominican boyfriend, and, in her valley-girl accent, she too bemoans the baby store—“I liked it when it was a little grittier, you know?” She is meant to be mocked—her parents cut her allowance from $5,000 a month to $1,000 after she dropped out of NYU because her post-industrial design/semiotics-of-clothing major was too restrictive—but why should she be denied missing the neighborhood she knew once, too? Her nostalgia, like Robert’s, is real, and the world she knew is gone.

None of this is to diminish the real effects gentrifying changes have had on cities. Just as poverty threatened to lead urban centers to ruin a generation ago, now wealth does. As cities become buried under new money, they risk losing part of what makes them vibrant and important.

An important piece of the gentrification struggle missing from the show is its effect on electoral politics. If minority communities become dispersed throughout metropolitan areas, then their representation in Congress, legislatures and courts will be equally diminished. Already in New York we are witnessing the first incursions by white candidates in districts that not only have had black and brown representation for generations, but in some cases were “voting rights districts” created specifically for minority officeholders.

But Hoch is not a politician. He is a writer and an actor, and a fine one. Taking Over is important and necessary. But it looks at the symptoms of gentrification and not the causes—a perspective that is frequently shared by the powers that be. A few years ago an effort was initiated in Williamsburg to preserve homes for many artists. It was a worthy undertaking, but it failed for many reasons—including the failure on the part of artists to see that their fate in their neighborhood was intertwined with that of their non-artist neighbors.

In my interview with Hoch, he spoke of a group of housing activists, “none of whom are from New York City—and they have a little storefront, and if it weren’t for them and people like them, we wouldn’t need housing activists.” I subsequently talked to a group of housing activists who run a nonprofit space in Williamsburg called Not An Alternative—they have earned praise from many in the neighborhood for their work, especially around an epic fight over the re-zoning of much of Williamsburg in 2005 to permit more high-rise condos on the waterfront. The organizers took issue with Hoch’s characterization, particularly to his dividing the neighborhood into us and them.

“There is a certain narrative that white hipsters are using to understanding themselves as ‘necessary’ gentrifiers,” said Beka Economopoulos, who founded the Not An Alternative space. “Danny is perpetuating that narrative, and the question is How do you shift it? If people see themselves in that narrative, they are walking into a black hole. The key in our work is to make someone like Danny realize that his self-interest is intertwined with that hipster who mourns the raw aesthetic of the neighborhood, and rather than mocking her or saying, ‘Go home,’ say, ‘All right, there are odd bedfellows in struggles sometimes.’”

David Freedlander is the managing editor of City Hall News and the Capitol. He lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

from Taking Over

The actor steps out of character to address the audience:

As you might have guessed, I was born and raised in New York City. So were my parents. So were my grandparents. And it’s still my home, meaning…I still live here. But all I know is this: I haven’t made a living in NY as an actor in over 10 years. Not because I’m not successful at what I do. But because I tell New York stories. I make my living touring, on the road, being an exotic New Yorker for people in Florida and Wisconsin…and Berkeley. And I like traveling, but not all the time and I don’t make any money here, which means I’m barely ever home. And I know a lot of you who are here from all over the U.S. were dying to come here and LEAVE home, but some of us are actually tryin to STAY home.
So…what’s the MESSAGE here? Is the message of the play “GO HOME”? Yes, bingo, that’s the message! No, I’m just kidding. Actually the message is Fuck You. —Fuck everybody. No, I’m kidding, really the message of the play is I love you! I love everybody. Everybody’s GREAT. Everyone is just so sweet, and so caring and wonderful and thoughtful. For Instance…

He proceeds to read some letters

“Dear Mr. Hoch, You claim to have all the answers, but your show is unfair and imbalanced. Why don’t you blame the politicians for what is happening?”

“Dear Danny, I am from Massachusetts and I live in Brooklyn. Your show is seriously divisive at a time where everyone needs to be coming together. There’s no positive message in your show. Where is the positive message?”

“Dear Mr. Hoch, I go to see theatre all the time and this is the first time I have ever felt alienated and excluded. Why can’t you be more like Anna Deavere Smith? She deals with difficult racial and social issues but we all feel great when we walk out of the theatre. Plus she has the ability to play different characters because of her mixed heritage. You, Mr. Hoch, are simply mixed up.”

“Dear Danny, I am white and from Arkansas yet I live in Harlem just to let you know how forward thinking I am…. So what are you saying? That crime is good and police are bad? That immigrants should all go home too? If that’s the case then you wouldn’t be here.”

“Dear Mr. Hoch, There are so many great things about gentrification that you auspiciously left out of your show. Like green spaces, and bike lanes, and quicker police and ambulance response time, not to mention a thriving gallery scene. I’ve attached some real estate prices along with crime rates, and documented improvements to the city. Maybe you’ll take the time to read it if you’re not too busy being nostalgic about the crack era.”

“Dear Mr. Hoch, I saw your show and I want you to know that although I’m white and from Wisconsin and live in Bed-Stuy, I’m voting for Barack Obama. …Also, my ancestors never owned slaves and we never benefitted from their work…”

“Dear Danny, What about the Indians in 1492? Did you conveniently forget about them? Frankly I’m a little tired of hearing how un-authentic all of US are, and how the ‘old New York’ was better. Many of us are not the assholes you make us out to be, and most assholes I met in this city are New Yorkers who are rude and angry for no apparent reason.”

“Dear Danny Hoch, I contribute to my neighborhood. I paint, and I make installations, and I teach kids art for free, and more importantly, I spend money here, okay? I contribute. So you cannot tell me that after 10 years of spending money here and struggling, that I’m NOT a New Yorker. My wife and I are having a baby and we can’t afford to buy a HOUSE here, and it’s all fundamentalists back home in North Carolina. There is no future there for us.”

“Dear Mr. Hoch, I think there are several characters missing from your show. Like, where’s the guy who’s just a good guy. From Missouri or wherever, who’s strugglin’ like everyone else, just tryin’ to live man, you know? Personally I think you need more white people in your play. Because all your white characters seem like, well, idiots. Maybe you could find ONE white person that is not completely annoying. I mean I don’t want it to sound like I’m trying to gentrify your show—it’s your show. But we don’t wanna hear that we’re the problem. I mean your show is angry man and I like that. But we wanna be angry WITH you. Because if you’re angry at us, then we feel bad and we’re like ‘hey, that guy Danny is a dick.’”

Well, there you have it. The message of the play is…I’m not really sure what the message is but I’m sure you’ll write me a letter.

copyright © 2008