Bed-Stuy Is Burning
(Atria Books, 2017)
Brian Platzer’s debut novel Bed-Stuy is Burning is to Brooklyn gentrification and police brutality what The Day After Tomorrow is to climate change. In it, a housing project is literally set on fire during a mass protest. Tensions reach a climax when a group of predominantly African American protestors march to a brownstone recently purchased by white gentrifiers Aaron and Amelia. The couple is forced to confront the racial and socio-political tensions that have been brewing in their backyard as the rallying cry “three eighty three Stuyvesant, 422 Macon, 371a Mac-Dounaugh, Celestino and Saraghina restaurants, Café George Andre,” tears through the neighborhood. The chant is a list of real life homes and businesses that have been taken over by gentrifiers in recent years.
Brian and I both live within walking distance from Saraghina Restaurant, so that’s where he suggests we meet to discuss his book. I arrive early, and, as a waiter leads me to a table, I begin to understand why Brian chose this establishment as a symbol of gentrification: cloth napkins are folded atop tables made from reclaimed plywood. A personal pizza runs around $15 a pie. I take a seat and look around at faces that resemble my own. Diners are in their mid-20s to early 30s, and predominantly white. I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy for almost six months, and I know my place in the borough’s landscape. I’m a gentrifier. My presence here contributes to the displacement of my neighbors, and it’s my responsibility to think critically about it. That’s why I was drawn to Brian’s book. He takes an unflinching look at the dynamics within my own neighborhood while deftly resisting clichéd character tropes. By putting everyday people in a high stakes scenario, he explores the raw implications of gentrification and race relations today. Gentrification has become a buzzword, and several books about Brooklyn gentrification have come out
in the last two years alone. Michael Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy and D.W. Gibson’s award winning The Edge Becomes the Center, for example, offer firsthand reportage and historical perspectives on the phenomenon of rapid gentrification. Brian, however, delves into the personal psyches of Bed-Stuy residents in a wholly unique way. The strength of the novel comes from the unflinching and nuanced humanization of a systemic issue. Brian isn’t just writing about the big bad concept of gentrification, he’s telling his own lived experience, as well as the experiences of his neighbors. When Brian arrives we order coffee and dive into both Brian’s real and imagined version of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Liz von Klemperer (Rail): How did you start writing this book? What was the initial inspiration?
Brian Platzer: I moved into the neighborhood about seven years ago. I’d been living in Clinton Hill with my wife, and we knew we wanted to have kids and couldn’t afford to stay. We looked around a lot of neighborhoods and were drawn to the tree-lined neighborhoody architecture in central Brooklyn more than that in north Brooklyn, and we realized that if we rented out two of the three units, we could just barely afford an entire building. We bought our home when people—and I mean gentrifying people—were still more intimidated by this area, and for a 10th of a price as a comparable building in the West Village or in Park Slope, we could buy a brownstone. We collected all our savings and took out a loan and just managed to afford it. We live in a duplex in the middle and rent out the bottom floor and the top floor.
Rail: Wow, that’s uncannily similar to your protagonist’s scenario.
Platzer: It absolutely is. In terms of the structure of the book—in terms of where I put characters—it’s not only uncannily similar: it’s identical. I imagined a fictional world within the contours of my daily life, where tensions were ratcheted up a lot.
Rail: But you’re not a lapsed rabbi turned Wall Street banker, like your protagonist Aaron, right? [Laughs]
Platzer: Nope, I’m a schoolteacher [Laughs]. On the way to teach every morning, I’d say two of five days a week, I saw kids, not much older than my students, handcuffed and pressed against the metal fences going down to the subway station. This was before Commissioner Bratton came in with his broken windows theory of policing. Stop-and-frisk was still in place. Regardless of its effectiveness, living the day-to-day of it was clearly horrible for the kids being stopped, questioned, and frisked. I had the sense that the police didn’t like it much, either—that it was their job to perform this task and handcuff these kids and publically embarrass them. And to the commuters every morning, there was a different kind of impotence. We saw it all the time, hated it, and had no authority to stop it, although it was ostensibly being done for our benefit. I had the sense that everyone involved was deeply uncomfortable. It was hard not to imagine what would happen if tension rose a bit more, or if there was another police act of unwarranted violence. So I started reading into the history of riots, and I read about the Rodney King riots, the Watts riots, and Harlem riots in 1964 that spread into Bed-Stuy for a few days. At the time I didn’t realize it, but the history of riots in America is primarily the history of police brutality and reactions to it. I started reading about the policing of Stop-and-frisk, versus broken windows policing, versus community policing, and I read academic works and oral histories about gentrification in general and about Bed-Stuy specifically. I also read Commissioner Bratton’s autobiography because he’s so instrumental in broken windows policing. I didn’t want to come at it from the perspective of a naïve gentrifier, as I very much was.
Rail: In the introduction to the book, you voice your status as, to some degree, an outsider or witness in the context of racial police violence. You write, “I really didn’t want to mess this up.” I’m interested in how you navigated that feeling. I also think the ultimate product of this tension manifests in the care you took to encompass a variety of the perspectives. Your characters are nuanced, and none of them have a stereotypical bent.
Platzer: Yes, there were two categories I didn’t want to mess up. First, I didn’t want to tell a story that was blind to half of the experience—which I feared would be the natural story for someone like me to tell. Much of the fiction I’ve written before this has been in the first person, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t tell any type of real account from any one person’s story, whether it be the gentrifier, which would be the most natural perspective for me, or any other single individual. The other mistake I didn’t want to make was to fall into cliché. To say, here’s the ignorant gentrifier, and here’s the oppressed minority—because I wanted conflict to arise from interactions between humans as opposed to between types.
Rail: Towards the end of the book you explore the desire on the part of your white, “liberal” characters to interact with their community and to be supportive, but also their lack of desire to engage in a way that would compromise them. For example, Amelia wants to form a relationship with Sarah, a young high school drop-out, but it’s in a convoluted way. Her own self-interest is the primary concern.
Platzer: I think that’s how I kept myself honest. I wanted to keep in forefront in my own imagination everyone’s self-interest.
Rail: Yeah, I think that’s how you avoid the classic white savior trope that’s so unfortunate and cringe-worthy.
Platzer: I also tried to be aware of not wanting to commit a crime that’s almost as bad as a cliché, which is the reverse-cliché. You see this when writers don’t want their minority character to be an uneducated, simple character, so they make him or her incredibly sophisticated and manipulative. To get out of that mindset, I tried to present people who are out for themselves as much as possible, as I think all human beings are. My personal interests are, first, the well-being of myself and my wife and my sons, and, after that, that of my friends and my community, and only then am I interested in the greater well-being of the universe. This was the first check on keeping my characters real. I wanted to make sure they cared about the things they’d actually care about, even if this made some of them less likable than others. The second check was my neighbors. What enabled me to write the novel with some degree of confidence was the sincere friendships and relationships that I have formed on my block over the last six or seven years.
Rail: Right, you also said in your introduction that you conducted research and talked to people. What was that process like?
Platzer: It was for the most part casual. My research was months of reading and getting into the history, politics, and literature. The next step was the years of natural conversation with everyone on my block. These interactions came from Fourth of July barbeques, gatherings like my kids’ birthday parties, and mostly just hanging out on our stoops. My family was jokingly referred to as the diversity on the block for the first couple years, and then once we had kids, we were folded into the fabric of the families who have been here for sixty, seventy years. We became participants in the natural conversations about how our neighborhood was changing, and how we’re supposed to raise our kids in terms of their relationship with the police. How do the changes in the neighborhood benefit us, and what does “us” mean? Who benefits from the new coffee shops, and how do these amenities potentially become detrimental to the renters on the block, whose rents are increasing dramatically? How do rising rents create tension with the owners on the block, whose real estate value is increasing as fast as the rents are rising? Being a part of that conversation both lets me organically participate in what matters to my friends’ and neighbors’ lives, and it has taught me so much about the way people across race, class, and religion live their lives. For example, we had real conversations about how people felt when Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island. I also hung out near the Boys and Girls School and asked questions. I’ve been a high school, middle school, and college teacher for more than a decade now, so I’m comfortable going up to kids and asking what they think. The book came together naturally. It wasn’t as though I arrived into the neighborhood as an anthropologist. I moved in, made friends, was attracted and confused by certain aspects of my new home, so I started writing characters, the characters started playing off each other, and soon enough I had the beginnings of a novel.
Rail: Most of the characters are fictional, but you also blatantly have some real people like Bill Bratton and Ta-Nehisi Coates. You combine fiction and reality in a way I don’t normally see, which is very compelling.
Platzer: I appreciate your saying that. The reason it felt natural to me is because the geography of the novel is so real. I discuss real restaurants, real streets, and real subway stations, and in some ways public figures are a part of that geography. Initially I only had Bratton incidentally in the novel, on the radio, I think, and then being mentioned by the police as a kind of puppet-master figure. But I became increasingly fascinated by the human being who was manipulating the neighborhood from on high. Bratton specifically interests me because he talks about policing in a computerized, fairly distant way. But he’s just a guy! He’s been divorced a bunch of times, he travels around the world, and like everyone else, he has a complex inner life. He was there during the Crown Heights riots, and he would be there during the fictional riot in my book. He is as important to the fabric of this moment as the teenager who is caught in the middle of it. For me to tell this story as completely as I wanted to, I had to include the people with the least amount of power, as well as the manipulating agent on top. But I also didn’t want to make him a faceless monster. I wanted to humanize him as much as I could. I had a real neighborhood and a real city and a real police force, so it seemed more compelling to me to create a real Bratton than to write a thinly veiled version of the man.
Rail: As someone who lives in Bed-Stuy and can definitely relate to and identify these characters, it was interesting reading it in my apartment and then looking up and feeling that I was living in the setting of the book. It informed my perspective of where we physically are right now. Beyond my reaction, what do you hope people in a wider context will take away from this novel? What do you hope people in a wider context will take away from this novel?
Platzer: I hope it extends to people dealing with comparable issues in cities around the country. I hope people get a sense of the tensions among real people who are forced to interact with one another, and who choose to interact with one another, and try to find love and meaning and money and sex and kids and happiness along the way. Gentrification isn’t only when people with a little more money move into a neighborhood and displace others who have lived there for years. That’s certainly an important aspect of it, but there’s also an entire web of nuanced interactions that an op-ed, for example, can’t fully capture. There’s a whole world that too many people aren’t aware of.