Who Gets to Be “Brooklyn Born”?


Arts & Culture


I am looking for a place to live. I’ll be moving this summer, and in my wildest fantasies, I’m headed somewhere I can afford both a mortgage and my steep student-loan payments. I know New York City isn’t that place, but I continue kicking around the idea of a return—Brooklyn, in particular, haunts me because it once felt like home and then didn’t anymore. Perhaps I wrote my first novel, Halsey Street, about gentrified Bed-Stuy, because I wanted to have a kind of ownership of Brooklyn on the page, if not in deed.

For the last few years, I’ve been in Durham, North Carolina. This city is undergoing its own gentrification. I’ve seen all the telltale signs: new breweries and hotel bars, the influx of money and affluent patrons. One café downtown even sells “Brooklyn drip,” four dollars for a large. In Durham, I’m aware of the renewal and displacement, but I spend far less time thinking of how I fit in. When I run into New Yorkers who fled the city for North Carolina, we wind up talking about Brooklyn or the Bronx, the difficulties of life there. Maybe it’s because for us, Durham is still affordable compared to New York, or else because it’s easiest to mourn the displacement that displaced you. It’s been unsettling to notice in myself the same kind of relative apathy and self-interest that, in my novel, I wrote into the characters who move from the West Village to Bed-Stuy.

In Brooklyn, gentrification felt personal. My awareness of it peaked, unsurprisingly, when I returned to Fort Greene from college. The timing wasn’t at all because of some objective fact about the face of gentrification in New York in 2008; rather, the timing was about me. I had finished my time at Yale, where microaggressions left me feeling a mixture of alienation, defiance, and a deep longing to prove my worth, if only to myself. Back in Brooklyn, I didn’t like to see the elite worlds of Yale and my private high school encroaching on the familiar streets of home. Young Yalies threw parties a few blocks away from my parents’ rent-stabilized apartment. Girls from high school moved into the borough. I was unnerved, indignant, unsure of where I fit in. And yet I know it doesn’t take this feeling of being stuck in between for gentrification to hurt.

The overt violence of gentrification is starkly embodied. It is eviction, displacement, and the criminalizing of residents who are marked as dangerous by newcomers to the neighborhood. Take for instance the death of Alex Nieto in 2014: a lifelong resident of Bernal Heights in San Francisco, Nieto was reported to the police as a suspicious figure by newer white residents. Nieto was eating a burrito in a park while wearing a Taser he used for his job as a bouncer. He was killed by police officers. But there is another kind of gentrifying violence: subtler, quieter, one that injures feeling, dignity, self-knowledge.

Last year, a former corporate-tax attorney from Toronto opened a restaurant named Summerhill in Crown Heights, with a menu boasting forty-ounce bottles of rosé and a press release highlighting a wall of bullet holes. (They were in fact dents left behind from construction.) There was community outrage over gentrification, appropriation, and white indifference to black pain. From afar, I watched the controversy unfold with anger and a sense of vindication. In graduate school, a few classmates had resisted my portrayal of white newcomers as unapologetic about gentrification. But again and again, the real world has corroborated my fiction. At a town hall about Summerhill, the owner Becca Brennan—tattooed, top-knotted, and bespectacled—offered lame apologies to community members. At one point, she said, “I’m sorry I have a sense of humor.” At another, “I’m sorry you were offended.”

In footage of the town hall, there is a moment when a community resident stands to say to Brennan, “You have to understand what our pain is.” It’s a moment that made me cry when I first watched. After my years in elite white spaces, I know how risky it can be to wait for external validation that may never come. And if it does, it might take away more than it gives.

Let’s be clear—gentrification is about displacement. But it is also a fight over dignity and identity. This is perhaps why we use the term gentrification to refer to more than migration and housing. On the Internet, I’ve seen an accusation that Food and Wine gentrified a recipe for Jamaican rice and peas, and that a community in the UK was gentrifying trees after spikes were installed on branches to prevent birds from roosting. When we talk about gentrification, we’re talking about seizure and theft, erasure, a set of losses both literal and imagined. And we’re talking about power.

On a wall inside the new City Point shopping center in Downtown Brooklyn, a slogan looms: “You don’t have to be born in Brooklyn to be Brooklyn born.” Surely, there is some truth to this idea—technically, I was born in a hospital in Queens—but the slogan reads like a defense of the whole shopping center, which is home to a dine-in movie theater, Target, Trader Joe’s, and the DeKalb Market Hall, which sells artisanal noodles, lobster rolls, and Katz’s pastrami sandwiches. The idea that Brooklyn is a lifestyle is nothing new. (“Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”) But this slogan figures Brooklyn as not only a cultural space but one that is up for purchase. At City Point, community membership is determined by what we wear, drink, eat, and buy. Some of us can afford to keep up; the rest of us are, perhaps, no longer “Brooklyn born.”

Two winters ago, my brother, husband, and I visited a friend who lives near City Point. We were in the elevator when a young white woman entered. We greeted her, but she averted her eyes and huddled in a corner. We tried small talk; she said nothing. It was more than an awkward elevator ride with a shy twentysomething; it was yet another time a white woman seemed frightened by my brother, yet another time a white stranger refused to recognize that I exist. I was in Brooklyn only as a visitor, but the nature of my fury was clear. I thought, How dare you. Not here. Not in my house.

When I was a girl in Fort Greene, there was an expression we used often: feeling yourself. She feeling herself, we’d say if a classmate was dancing around confidently, or, I’m feeling myself, if we looked particularly fresh. We would also say, She feeling him, or, I’m feeling you, but I remember most the reflexive form, how we used it to accuse someone of arrogance or to declare our own sweet self-content. Feeling yourself seems to me an especially important form of resistance in the face of gentrification, which values certain communities, classes, and lives over others. James Baldwin writes, “The interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect upon the world.” I want to believe that feeling Brooklyn, feeling ourselves is an act of validation more urgent than it is quaint. I want to believe it has generative power. After all, when you’re feeling yourself, you’re feeling things that can’t be bought, repossessed, or taken away—you either got it or you don’t.

A friend asked recently whether I could imagine a kind of portable Brooklyn I could hold close. She’d been asking herself the same question about Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria: Once a place is ravaged, how can you keep what you love?

My portable Brooklyn is something like swag and vigilance, open windows and loud music, hairspray on my baby hairs, double Dutch and kicking a ball in the hallway with my cousin, monkey bars, and sitting on the stoop, buying jun-jun from a cart on Knickerbocker Avenue, the long ride back from Coney Island, fast-walking home from the A train at four A.M. But I know this is Brooklyn only as I imagine and remember it. It isn’t a place. I can’t live there. And neither can anyone else.


Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street.