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Gentrification and Its Discontents

By Dennis Holt

Senior Editor

I got to thinking about gentrification, of all things, because of an unusual story for these days that appeared in Friday’s New York Times.

It was about a fellow named Dennis Farr who was railing about the gentrification of his Williamsburg, where he has lived off and on since the 1980s. He was photographed on a large square rock, legs spread apart, with some Williamsburg buildings in the background. You could almost hear him say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

In the early days of gentrification in Brooklyn, these kinds of stories were pretty common, but not so much anymore. Reflecting on it, I began to realize that the process can come on you in two ways these days: private sector and public sector.

As oldtimers will remember, it was all started in Brooklyn by the private sector, and the public sector didn’t care for it all that much at first because it led to people yelling for public services like street cleaning and garbage pickup where there hadn’t been much yelling before.

I have told the story before in this space of a cop standing on a Boerum Hill street asking me, “What are people like you doing living in a place like this?”

This attitude continued throughout much of Brownstone Brooklyn for most of the end of the last century, and still exists here and there, but has largely been replaced by government-directed gentrification. The city is using its power of zoning to make far more sweeping changes at a faster pace than the private sector could. The two most startling examples are downtown Brooklyn and Dennis Farr’s Williamsburg.

Rather than a single house being renovated, the Brooklyner apartment building suddenly appears towering above Lawrence Street, and you have a large arena and the Atlantic Yards and there is Brooklyn Bridge Park. Cops aren’t asking dumb questions anymore.

The case can be made that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is an agent of gentrification: it saves good buildings and places, not areas of blight.

DUMBO is an example of public gentrification, as is development in Coney Island, and the same can be expected for both Gowanus and Red Hook.

But even today, Farr’s statement has a ring to it in the ears of many:

“The people promoting gentrification always tried to put a positive spin on it. But rich people come in and bring rich people things. Displacement was never part of the dialogue.”

April 11, 2012 - 11:39am


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