Thursday, October 25, 2007

won’t you be my neighbor

My wife told me today that there were three or four activists outside our subway stop when she came home earlier this evening. What were they protesting? Me! That is, white people moving into our historically (since WWII, anyway) black neighborhood. Apparently, one woman was standing in front of the grocery store handing out fliers yelling, “How many white people have to move onto your block before you say ENOUGH?! They’re pricing you out, and you’re not doing anything about it!”

[Image: from Do the Right Thing; source: Wikipedia]

I wonder what she wants to “do about it.” I was glad not to have been there, and not to have been there with my wife, who is black. That’s not a scenario I look forward to.

Last Sunday in the checkout line at the grocery store in Restoration Plaza, I heard a young woman talking on her cell phone speculating about how the neighborhood was going to turn out like Williamsburg, which she seemed to think was a good thing. She intended to hold on to her apartment to keep paying low rent as the neighborhood became safer and more prosperous.

A coworker told me the other day about how all her neighbors in Canarsie are picking up and going to the suburbs as even the outer portions of Brooklyn become too expensive for long-time residents. Of course, in New York, where neighborhoods seem to change with the weather, “long-time resident” might not be all that long. She said lots of houses are for sale in her neighborhood, and as commuting time and living expenses rise, she expects more people will leave New York City. Many neighborhoods are experiencing the pain of reverse white flight, as the grandchildren of whites who ran for the ‘burbs decide that suburbs suck and the city is the place to be. I have been a part of this gentrifying phenomenon, except that my family didn’t leave the city, but instead the desert farms and ranches of Utah.

Gentrification is a difficult issue to deal with, but as an advocate for immigrants, placing restrictions on where people can live based on race, income, or nationality is worrisome to me. Of course, in much of New York City now, there is a de facto income restriction in certain neighborhoods as housing becomes ever more expensive. This often breaks down along racial lines, but not always, for example in middle-class Fort Greene or Harlem or in the Caribbean-owned brownstones of Bed-Stuy. But freedom of movement is a universal human right—recognized most generally as freedom to stay or freedom to leave, if not yet absolute freedom to enter another country. (It helps to think of it in the sense of an East German in the GDR or a Cuban or North Korean imprisoned in her home country against her will.) Thinking in the context of international migration, surely freedom of movement ranks higher than maintaining the character of a neighborhood. Of course, I’m not the one getting priced out.

As one half of a mixed-race couple, I can’t see how racially segregating neighborhoods for any reason can be a good thing—at least not for us. According to the woman in front of the grocery store, my wife can stay but I have to leave? That doesn’t make sense. I think back to my high school in rural/suburban Utah. There was not a single black student in school of over a thousand. There were only a handful of students of color. That would be a difficult place for us to raise a family. Apparently others have come to the same conclusion and self-segregated themselves out of Utah.

There have also of late been some anti-immigrant scrawls in the stairwells at the subway stop in our neighborhood. This to me is utterly bewildering, since the neighborhood has a substantial settled population of first and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean. This nativist graffitist should voice his opinions at the annual West Indian Day Parade—he’d get a multinational boot to the ass. But even if the local solitary restrictionist and the anti-gentrication crusaders join to form some unholy coalition, I think they’ll mostly be ignored as the composition of the borough ebbs and flows, mirroring the changes in the lives of its constituent families.

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