Meet Your New Neighbors: An Interview with DW Gibson


At Work


DW Gibson. Photo: Chiara Barzini

In cities, trends come, go, and come again; causes rise to prominence, fall by the wayside, and emerge repackaged; neighborhoods flourish or fall out of favor. Condos, cupcake shops, and bike lanes become signifiers; shady buyouts and racist landlords fuel arguments about whether communities are being renewed or decimated.

The word gentrification is in the subtitle of DW Gibson’s most recent oral history, but the author has trouble with it: it’s too broad, he writes, to adequately capture a wide variety of experiences, contexts, and meanings. Several interviewees in his book also seem at odds with the word. One says gentrification doesn’t describe anything in the real world. Another says he doesn’t need to be able to describe it because he knows what it feels like.

To mark the release of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, I spoke with Gibson, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, about bringing the human touch to the page, viewing a book as one long panning shot in a film, and the importance of using all the tools at one’s disposal, including cute daughters.

How do you make gentrification something people want to read about?

Most of the books out there are academic or have an academic feel to them. I think the way you get people to care about gentrification is to write about human beings. My goal was to show the human fabric of gentrification. People relate to people, to stories.

And that’s why you chose an oral history?

It was the best way to get to the humanity of it. I approached this book quite differently than my last, Not Working. With that book, I stayed out of the way. I allowed people to share painful experiences, and through that sharing there might have been a sense of community that developed around catharsis.

But this is different. This is a complex issue that causes a lot of people pain and makes a lot of people money. It’s complicated. So it wasn’t going to be about collective catharsis or me allowing people the space to share intimate hurt publicly. This is about a variety of perspectives, some of which I personally identify with, some I find offensive, some I find foreign. I needed to make a hybrid of oral history and reportage. Each chapter is anchored to the interview and the subject I spoke to. But I really tried to frame it and provide each chapter with a historical context, connecting dots between interviewees. I wanted oral history to be the backbone, because I wanted these people to speak for themselves.

Are you happiest writing oral histories?

It is my sweet spot. I’m happiest when I’m alone in my room. While we all deserve big moments of comfort in life, what makes me tick is to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Picking up the phone and arranging to meet people in person is a challenge, one that I welcome. At the end of the day, I feel educated and more alive.

Did you walk into random real-estate agencies and say, I’m writing a book about … ?

I found people all kinds of ways. For instance, I wanted to get perspective on how changes in New York City are affecting the homeless, and I was intrigued by the Salvation Army selling their building next to the Bowery Mission for thirty million dollars. I could see through all of the local media that they weren’t really talking to anyone. So I went to the Bowery Mission with my one-year-old daughter and allowed everyone to ooh and ahh at how cute she was. After half an hour of that, lo and behold, someone agreed to talk with me. You use all the tools at your disposal. And a child is a very disarming thing.

9781468308617Working on the book, was there something that stood out as having a big impact on you?

There’s a guy named Jerry the Peddler who’s been squatting on the Lower East Side since 1975. He was involved in the Tompkins Square Riots of 1988. He really got my wheels turning about the prevailing perspective that guides a lot of cities right now—that land is to be capitalized.

How else can it be viewed?

Land doesn’t have to be commodified. It can simply be a place where you lay your head, where you work, grow food, gather in a park. I realize that’s utopic. But it deserves to be part of the conversation. Our vision is narrowed by primarily thinking of land as property. Why can’t we think about it more as a community resource, something that can be handled through things like land trusts? There are different models in addition to simply buying and selling homes and shops.

Two people in your book wanted to remain anonymous. Why are people frightened to be on the record talking about these topics?

There’s a portion of the book excerpted in New York Magazine about a landlord, whom I name Ephraim. He does a lot of illegal activity. He’s open about his bigotry. When I asked about illegally buying deeds, he made it clear that if he was going to talk frankly, it was going to be without his name. I decided it was important to have that information as part of the conversation, so I agreed.

And there’s a real-estate lawyer with the pseudonym Niko. Months after he gave me permission to record our conversation and include him in the oral history, he got cold feet. Strictly speaking, it was in my rights to use his real name. That said, I’m a human being talking to another human being, looking to make this a positive experience. He wanted to be taken out of the book altogether. He said, All of my work as a lawyer is in the real-estate business. I’ll lose clients—developers, landlords—if they hear me talking about gentrification. That spoke to me about just how toxic the word gentrification can be to some people.

He said probably one of the most important things in the book, about the slow siphoning off of the existing stock of rent-stabilized apartments. He made that amazing analogy of putting a frog in water and then setting it to boil, which is an eerie analogy but an apt one, because we concentrate so much on building new affordable housing we often don’t notice we’re losing a lot of existing affordable housing. And Niko really speaks to that well, so I was happy to keep him in the book with a pseudonym.

Your book’s more than three hundred pages. How many pages did you amass writing it?

It’s safe to say there are thousands of pages of interview transcripts. It’s an inordinate amount of material to bring together into a cohesive, meaningful final draft. I basically spent my book advance paying transcribers to work with me on it.

I worked primarily with three transcribers—Willis Arnold, Claire Donato, and Ottessa Moshfegh. I’m not looking for some robot that sits in a dark corner and types up interviews. I’m looking for smart, engaged people who can also provide feedback on what stands out to them. Willis, Claire, and Ottessa were instrumental in the early days—finding what things were popping, the parts of the conversation that were most meaningful. They become important collaborators.

Most oral histories have their chapters divided by themes—yours is structured in a completely different way.

I thought about organizing it along themes. I could have a chapter with thirty people saying a few paragraphs on displacement or another topic. But so much of the academic writing on gentrification is organized along those lines. Those books dive into issues like how successful the theory of broken windows is or how the rent gap affects a city.

A mission of this book is to make gentrification approachable. I wanted to strip away anything that might even feel academic. Therefore, I didn’t do a traditional introduction, you know, Here’s the topic of gentrification. I didn’t even want to create sections that you’ll often see in those books.

I wanted to give the reader a sense of reading a novel, of one arching story. I set along this notion of approaching the book as if it were one long panning shot for a film. I wanted to seamlessly take the reader from one person—one character, as it were—to the next, by creating pivots and transitions, whether they’re based on themes, geography, key words. Give the reader that sense of motion.

Also, if I arranged it around topics, it would have felt more like discourse and less like human fabric, human connectivity. I like letting each chapter build around a person. It brings the human experience of gentrification to the page. So if someone goes on for eight pages, and it includes biographical information as well as information about their landlord harassing them, it’s important. We need to decide to trust them or not trust them, as the case may be. Each reader will make his or her own determination. I wanted to give readers the opportunity to get to know these people, to feel like they’re coming to life. Then we can really engage them about being a landlord, a shopkeeper, a politician, a squatter.

And yet there are recurring themes in your book.

It’s rather covert—I didn’t spell it out. There are some chapters that look at the cultural analysis of gentrification, how it affects art, and they’re grouped together. We drift from Raul, who grew up on the Lower East Side and hung out with Basquiat and Warhol, talking about the death of subway art. And we move to Michael De Feo, a street artist who has really learned to commodify what he does. And then we move to Quang Bao managing a hundred-million-dollar art collection. That’s sort of a section, but I don’t spell it out.

Why leave New York City out of the title and subtitle?

I was looking at this as a case study. Gentrification—whatever that might mean to an individual—changes from building to building, block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood. The dynamics are different because there are personal relationships and histories involved. It’s an error to look for perfect analogies between New York and East Austin, or New York and downtown Los Angeles. Each city and neighborhood has its own dynamic.

That said, there are forces affecting urban areas in a general sense. The best and most lucid example of this is that all of the contemporaneous gentrification is driven by global capital, by investment coming from London, Dubai, Shanghai. It leads to this predicament where we segregate the people who spend the most time in a neighborhood from the people who spend the most money in a neighborhood. Landowners are increasingly not the people who live in the place where they own land. And they might not even be people. They might be entities like hedge funds, investment groups.

Lee Bob Black is a writer and editor.