The Ins and the Outs: The Gentrification of Franklin Avenue

Crown Heights, Brooklyn | Photo by Mo Scarpelli

When Ruth Glass, an urban sociologist at University College London in the 1950s and 1960s, first coined the term “gentrification” in 1964, she was investigating the links between housing and class struggle in post-war London. Her research, according to Tom Slater, focused in particular on “the accelerating rehabilitation of Victorian lodging houses, tenurial transformation from renting to owning, property price increases, and the displacement of working-class occupiers by middle-class incomers.” As a scholar, she immersed herself in the work of Marx and Engels and was far more concerned with how private property rights and a free market structurally prioritize “capital accumulation at the expense of the social needs of home, community, family” than she was with threats to vibrant neighborhood character. Yet, over the years, gentrification has come to signify a much wider set of changes that extend beyond housing, from the homogenization of retail to the “pioneering“ locational choices of artists to the increasing prevalence of white residents in what have traditionally been communities of color.

These days, anyone who cares about cities and neighborhoods has to contend with gentrification in some way or another — whether through the desire to live in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, through advocacy for historic preservation or tenant rights, or through the guilty indulgence in a latte or artisanal cocktail in a place where the availability of such luxuries was once unthinkable. But the uncritical application of the term to each and every instance of increased investment in neighborhoods risks distancing its meaning from what it was originally conceived to diagnose. Indeed, most of the vast coverage of gentrification tends to be either oversaturated with myopic nostalgia for a status quo that was never really static or tainted by hidden real estate interests under the guise of economic development. The article excerpted below — the full text of which appears on Narratively, a platform for long-form journalism dedicated to “sharing a city’s untold stories” — distinguishes itself from this trend of oversimplification. To report on this phenomenon, authors Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing look beneath the surface of cafés and bike shops to examine the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic currents underpinning the area’s transformation. By talking to long-term residents, recent arrivals, and local activists, the article exposes a spectrum of complicated attitudes to urban change, investigates predatory property development practices, and illuminates a deep affection for this particular neighborhood.

But the article gets at something more important than simply giving voice to a wide range of informants with distinct points-of-view. The authors unearth the active choices and strategies behind shifts in the demographic make-up, retail offerings, and real estate economics of Crown Heights. Gentrification, after all, is not a natural process. It might seem inevitable to contemporary eyes, beyond the control of any one actor or group, but it grows out of a specific set of institutional arrangements and deliberate actions. The excerpts below are from the introduction and conclusion of this analysis, posing questions about what a process of change might look like if it were slower, more managed, or initiated from within. Spoiler alert: there are no easy answers.

-C.S.

A hypothetical time-lapse video of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, starting in the year 2000: The block is lined with dollar stores, bodegas and barbershops, a few hair-braiding salons, some humble restaurants. Many storefronts are shuttered; those open are kept afloat by local patrons, predominately African-Americans and West Indians. Crime is common in the neighborhood, the sound of gunshots familiar.

Over time, the scenery begins to change. Tree saplings take root in once-neglected sidewalk beds; foreboding iron doors morph into friendlier gates. At an increasing rate, young white faces begin to dot the screen, darting off to work in the morning and dashing back again at night. Boarded-up storefronts transform into fashionable bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Groups of cops suddenly appear, standing guard on street corners; more new businesses, and more white faces follow, and follow.

This blurred process of change is known to urban dwellers across America, especially to those who move to Brooklyn, many of whom play a role in the process, tacitly or actively, including the authors of this story. In New York, few streets have changed quite so quickly or dramatically as Franklin Avenue has in recent years. When one speaks to those who do business and live, or have lived, in the neighborhood, a tapestry of stories emerges — some positive, others much less so — that is, at best, remarkably difficult to comprehend.

*       *      *

 

A sign on a vacant house in Crown Heights | Photo by Mo Scarpelli

What would it look like, then, what would it take, for a street like Franklin to transition from impoverished and crime-ridden to safe and enjoyable in a way that doesn’t wash out those in the lower economic brackets?

“I think it would take an enormous amount of work and action at many different levels,” says [Nick] Juravich, [a 28-year-old] urban history doctoral candidate. “It would take concerted legal action. It would take political action. It would take public consciousness. It would take outreach.”

“But it happens every now and then,” he says. “Or it could happen.”

Michael DeZayas, who’s working to ensure the neighborhood doesn’t “turn into Park Slope,” agrees that it’s possible. Others are less sanguine.

“Everything is going to become another Park Slope because that’s the way that this works,” said one neighborhood observer.

Another, a thirty-year-old white woman named Mindy who moved to the neighborhood in 2006, recalled an incident last summer when she was approached in front of her apartment by a white guy in his thirties. “His whole presence screamed yuppie,” Mindy remembers, “and he said, ‘Excuse me, Miss, did you hear the loud music playing last night?’

“I said, ‘Of course. Is this your first summer here? It happens every Saturday night. It’s no big deal once you get used to it. Just part of the neighborhood flavor.’

“And then he was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a young baby. I can’t be having her kept awake all night. It’s unacceptable and the police need to shut it down.’

“I just wished him luck,” Mindy said, dismissively.

A view of Franklin Avenue from above | Photo by Mo Scarpelli

The neighbor may not need it. In April, a group of investors led by Jonathan Butler, founder of the popular real estate blog Brownstoner as well as the artisanal Brooklyn Flea market, and including the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, purchased the former Studebaker service station at 1000 Dean Street, just off of Franklin Avenue, for $11 million. They plan on turning the building into a mix of commercial and creative spaces that should be completed in the summer of 2013, and will likely receive another $20 million in investment–a level never before seen in Crown Heights.

“Until now, we’ve seen maybe local and borough-wide entrepreneurs,” said Juravich. “But when you have Goldman investing, those kinds of folks have different imperatives, they have different kinds of connections.”

Around the time of the 1000 Dean purchase, a Long Island group bought an empty lot at the corner of Franklin and Eastern Parkway for over eight million dollars. Sixty-three luxury condos and more then eight thousand square feet of street-level retail are in the works.

“These are not differences in degree,” Juravich said. “These are differences in kind.”

With luxury development of that scale already rising, even the most die-hard community activists admit this stretch of Crown Heights may not have a place for low-income residents much longer.

“It took a bit of wind out of my sails, watching what happened in this neighborhood, watching how it happened,” said [local resident Michael] Kunitzky. “I don’t know how to beat this. I don’t know how anyone can beat this machine.”

“I can see the flip side of it,” he went on. “Everyone likes to say, ‘But the neighborhood is so much safer now. And it’s so much nicer for everyone. And there’s such a better quality of life here now.’ And that’s undeniable.

“But I still think there’s a better and more ethical way to get from a broken down, crime-ridden, drug-ridden neighborhood to a place that is safe and enjoyable for everyone while still maintaining a sense of community ownership.”

Others accept what has happened to Franklin Avenue as just another cold reality, one that plays out through each borough of this city, and others, time and time again.

“Given how wealth and income and education are currently distributed, very few neighborhoods stay diverse for very long,” said [Mike] Fagan, [a social service worker who has lived in the neighborhood since 2003]. “So the edge of gentrification will be mixed, but as time goes on, it won’t be.”

“It’s a blurry line,” Fagan concluded. “And we lived in the blur.”

Street scenes on a recent afternoon along Franklin Avenue | Photos by Mo Scarpelli

 

Read the complete article on Narratively.

 

Vinnie Rotondaro is a contributing editor at Narratively. He lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Maura Ewing is a Brooklyn-based writer, and a student at The New School for Social Research where she is pursuing an MA in Liberal Studies. You can read more of her work here.

Mo Scarpelli is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and multimedia journalist. She likes hanging out with people until they forget she’s there, and filming or photographing the whole damn thing. Her work has appeared on the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Africa Review and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @moscarpelli.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



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