People in my neighborhood

As a relatively new New Yorker and Brooklynite, I like to participate in the enjoyable pastime of deploring gentrification. I marvel at how quickly neighborhoods are changing, complain about the Starbucksization of uniquely New York or Brooklyn streets. Gentrification is a much-debated phenomenon in many cities all over the country, but New York has a particularly romantic attachment to its own past that gives extra energy to the lamentations.

My apartment building, a shabby 1899 brownstone, sits uneasily between two famously gentrified neighborhoods, Park Slope (home of Charles Schumer and Steve Buscemi) and Boerum Hill (the setting of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and home, at least until the recent split, of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams). But nearby public housing projects seem to have helped stem the gentrification tide on our block, keeping the rent relatively low. And the immediate neighborhood is still home to many low- and moderate-income residents, including large numbers of Latino and Arab immigrants.

One of the most recognizable neighborhood characters, second only to the transsexual drug addict who hangs out with the drunk Latino men in front of the liquor store, is a tiny old woman, light-skinned African American, her body bent by osteoporosis, her face wrinkled, her eyes alight with what seems to be a mild insanity. I used to see her most often begging at the subway entrance up the street, asking with a raspy but childlike voice for spare change. I then started noticing her shuffling around the neighborhood when she wasn’t on duty at the subway station; about a year ago, she was in line behind me at a takeout place, counting out quarters to exchange for a bit of food. I sometimes give her money but most often do not.

A few months ago I realized she had taken up residence in our building, or rather, just outside of it, in the outside stairwell that leads down to the basement level where the super lives. Our former super, an old guy called Stone, disappeared about a year ago; I heard he’d had a stroke, recovered somewhat, fallen into some kind of dementia, and wandered off. His brother filed a missing persons report several months later and one evening a couple of police detectives showed up and asked my roommate and me a bunch of questions about him. The new super is a very thin, middle-aged black woman who has apparently told the tiny homeless woman she can camp out in the stairwell. A few weeks ago I saw our landlady talking to the tiny woman when she came to pick up rent checks; I don’t know if she told her to leave or not, but our landlady tends not to follow up on anything other than picking up rent checks, so I doubt anything will change.

I’ve actually felt mostly fine about having the tiny woman sleeping in the stairwell. It doesn’t hurt me, I figure, and she clearly needs a place to sleep. My unconcern surprises me a bit; I think a few years ago I would have freaked out to have a homeless person, even a completely harmless one, sleeping near the entrance of my apartment building. I also figure, though, that she’ll move on sooner rather than later, and I don’t fool myself that I have some kind of great compassion for her or that I won’t be a little glad when she’s gone.

About a week ago I got home around midnight or so from an event in Manhattan. Walking down the street to my building, I saw the tiny woman talking to a couple of young black men on the sidewalk one house down from mine. “Do you take change?” she asked in her tiny voice. She was buying drugs, counting out her quarters for crack or heroin. They took her change. One of them left the vial or baggie or whatever in a spot across the street; she shuffled over to pick up her score. The dealers ignored me, having accurately decided that I was a harmless white boy. They went back to hawking the drugs, calling out to a young woman walking down the other side of the block: “Yellowcaps, three for twenty.”

I’d seen what looked like drug dealers on my block before, but farther down, near the projects. Having them at my end of the block has unnerved me a bit, although I haven’t seen them there in the week or so since. On the one hand, it looks like they’re fighting a losing battle against rising property values, falling crime rates, and the displacement of the street clientele by yuppies who get their drugs by prescription or a home-delivery service. On the other hand, there are limits to how much a city can transform itself when underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and inequality remain unaddressed, with kids growing up hopeless in public housing and a frail, elderly woman left to wander the streets, back bent and begging for spare change.

20 responses to “People in my neighborhood”

  1. Scotty says:

    My next to last residence in San Francisco was in one of the more notorious pimps and pushers areas of the city. It was amazing being a resident there because that automatically marked me as off limits by the criminals who were trying to make a living – the last thing they wanted we one of us calling the cops on them for hassling us.

    The greatest thing about this sort of diplomatic immunity was that I got to get really close to some amazing things like one night when a low-level pimp tried for about twenty minutes to convince a girl to leave here current man for his crew. The entire conversation took place at the bottom of my stoop as I was sitting three steps up from them.

    Anyway, I loved being so close, but immune, from so much crime. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and ride my bike all around the hood and get as close as I could to all sorts of things before the people would notice me. That was one of my favorite things – just like being a ghost.

    Dave, thanks for bringing up some of these great memories while I type away in my safe little suburban home.

  2. lane says:

    As we arrived home last night from the lovely Washington D.C. neigborhood of Kalorama I was, once agin, remined of how much I love Brooklyn and Park Slope. And I know this will come off as totally bougseious (sp?) and materialistic.

    Driving down 8th Avenue I thought “I’m so glad I live in “New” Brooklyn. Yes the prices are now unreachable, but I’m so glad I’m living here now as opposed to the “Squid and the Whale” Brooklyn of 20 years ago.

    None of this addresses your point, which is a good one, Dave. But that’s my two cents.

    4th Avenue ca. 1996? or 2007? –

    2007!

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Geez those drugs are expensive, my dealer sells Yellowcaps six for $20., or $3.50 each…

  4. Dave says:

    It’s the high cost of living in this town, Marleyfan.

    Scotty, you’re totally right about the diplomatic immunity. People engaged in real criminal enterprises don’t want to cause trouble that would attract attention. I don’t use my immunity as much as you did, though.

    And Lane, yeah, I like where I live and I like it right now, with a few good bars and such nearby. I wish someone could figure out how to make run-down neighborhoods nicer places to live while keeping enough affordable housing that old-time residents can stay put. Also, it seems like New York used to be a city you moved to and expected to be changed by, but a lot of the yuppies who move here now expect to change the city to conform to their suburban expectations of comfort and convenience — hence all the Red Sox fans in Park Slope and all the horrific upscale chain stores and generic bars and restaurants.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Dave, I really like how you delineate your tangle of sympathies here. You want the drug dealers and homeless crack addicts nearby to keep the yuppies at bay, but when they get too close it can be “unnerving”. The woman herself is harmless, but when she draws the drug dealers down the block and nearer to your building, violent crime may follow.

    We’ve got our very own Cracky McCracken who hangs out on our block, dealers trawl through every now and then, too, and our building has been tagged by a well-known gang, all of which doesn’t really make me happy. The other day, though, it occurred to me that our landlord’s recent attentions to the building (paint, stucco, etc.) might be related to ideas about cashing in and selling it. Maybe I’ll take to giving the crackhead $5 to hang out on our stoop if and when potential buyers come around.

  6. LT says:

    It’s funny, too, that Tim and Jen don’t live in what we might consider that bad of a neighborhood (but it’s not far from the “St.Andrews” that Jane’s Addiction referenced fondly (heroin-ly) back in the 90s). Los Angeles has such a strange “feel” to it in terms of the good vs. bad neighborhoods. Here, one is clearly aware that there are Cracky McCrackens wearing Dolce and Gabanna shades.

    We live in a great place up on a hill, but less than a half-mile from a horrifically gang-run neighborhood, where the most innocent kids get shot (after being asked “Where you from?”) by other soon-to-be-less innocent kids in initiation activities.

    I’ve worked on a local strategy committee for this area, Northeast Los Angeles, for over two years where we plan events for the community to discuss the issues that arrise from both gentrification and crazy gang warfare. both issues displace hard-working parents, kids who want to get a decent education. On the surface, gentrification appears to be less dangerous locally, but don’t both, working together, force an even more violent class stratification than already exists?

  7. Kate the Great says:

    It’s always a battle here between the white students from middle-cass families and the Hispanics who just generally want a peaceful life (with some illegal immigrants mixed in). Our particular complex is interesting because, from what the tiny-yet-spunky white, 80-year-old Southern woman who lives here tells me, there are several prostitutes who live upstairs in their own, seperate apartments. They haven’t bothered us at all because they’re just living, working, and renting from the cheapest apartment complex around like all the rest of us are. The apartment complex is also home to a bunch of smokers and people are often evicted, but it doesn’t bother me as nearly much as it would, say, my parents.

    Utahans are interesting to listen to. They resent that the city I live in is slowly being taken over by Hispanics, and yet the Hispanics have to have somewhere to expand as well. All the rest of Utah is booming with a bunch of white people, why can’t they have their fair share?

  8. lane says:

    Hey Kate,

    It’s good someone is taking Ogden over.

    God knows the white people havn’t done such a great job with it for the last 50 years!

  9. Dave says:

    I know, right? The big secret about immigrants that Lou Dobbs doesn’t want you to know is that they usually improve the places they move to.

  10. Marleyfan says:

    My wife is Latina, and each time we go somewhere where there is a larger grouping of Latinos, she turns to me and whispers “we’re takin’ over”…

  11. Kate the Great says:

    I heartily agree.

  12. wait, kate — you agree they’re taking over? (are you being tongue in cheek like mf’s wife is?) or you agree with dave that immigration is generally a good thing for communities that receive new energies?

  13. Kate the Great says:

    Well, both, dear Bryan. They are taking over, but it is a good thing.

  14. Bryan says:

    wouldn’t “taking over” imply a degree of political power they probably don’t enjoy?

  15. Kate the Great says:

    No. Just think, Bryan. If you could take over a doughnut shop for a day, free of charge, and could eat as many doughnuts as you wanted, wouldn’t you love the sugar high because all the doughnuts are your favorites?

    Okay, stupid example. My answer is, “Uh, no. Not necessarily.”

  16. Kate the Great says:

    Does anyone else have an opinion to counter Bryan’s?

    (Back me up! hint, hint, nudge, nudge)

  17. Bryan says:

    If you could take over a doughnut shop for a day, free of charge, and could eat as many doughnuts as you wanted, wouldn’t you love the sugar high because all the doughnuts are your favorites?

    Are you using this as an analogy for immigration, illegal or otherwise? If so, I think you’ve been living in Utah too long. If not, sorry I’ve misunderstood you. But there’s nothing about the experience of being an immigrant, illegal or otherwise, that would parallel free doughnuts. Sorry.

  18. Kate the Great says:

    I told you it was a dumb analogy.

  19. Kate the Great says:

    And I don’t disagree with you about the place I’m living. I want to get out of here, too.

  20. seymore says:

    Dave, I can’t help but think your uncle Streets would be in seventh heaven living with you in the Big Apple. God Bless an old friend from the Flint area.