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The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

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MARCH 2021 Issue
Field Notes

My Beautiful City

In the spring of 2020, as the plague was sweeping the city, I found myself several times a day staring at an Instagram page dedicated to the furniture and household goods New Yorkers were tossing to the curb. Amongst the flotsam and jetsam were steamer trunks, benches of reclaimed lumber, numerous upright pianos, boxes upon boxes of books, a fainting couch with flower upholstery, glass vanities, bar stools, two Noguchi coffee tables, stand-up globes (I counted at least three) that hatched open at the meridian so you could store liquor inside, seemingly every fiddle leaf fig tree in the five boroughs, and other bric-a-brac and impedimenta and whatever else could be quickly discarded in a desperate effort to get out of New York as fast as possible. When I moved to the city in 1999, knowing no one, I would wander around like a character in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (1987) looking for items to salvage for my mostly empty apartment. It was a way of getting to know my new neighborhood and a way of filling the hours in my day when I wasn’t reading for graduate school. Had the city in the spring of 2020 not been the world epicenter of coronavirus, had 10,000 New Yorkers not already perished in the first six weeks, had I not had a wife eight-and-a-half months pregnant (both of us terrified of us and the baby becoming infected during delivery), had these things not been true, I would have taken the subway to Williamsburg to see if that mid-century sideboard or that replica Philippe Starck Ghost Chair was still waiting to be rescued from the piles of trash.

It was always Williamsburg. Or if it wasn’t, then it was Greenpoint, or Bushwick, or Bed-Stuy. In other words, it was always one of the recently upscaled neighborhoods in the city. That’s the pattern I discerned from the Instagram page. What I was witnessing was the discarded cargo of gentrification, the process that had defined life in New York for more than two decades seemingly rolled up like a carpet by the virus in a matter of weeks and heaved to the side. Economic processes are hard to see, but here was gentrification materialized. Here was its interior décor, the stuff that those who were last to arrive and first to leave couldn’t take with them or didn’t care to when they packed up their laptops and headed out of the city to work remotely. The ship was sinking; it was time to go and they went fast.

It’s always time to go in New York, something you realize when you stick around a little longer.


***


By the time I moved to the city, the party was already over. That’s what I heard so often my first year that I began to believe becoming a New Yorker required a sentimental education in belatedness. When had the party started and when had it ended—was it the late ’70s or was it the ’80s or maybe it was the early ’90s—depended entirely on whom you asked, when they had arrived, when they had decided to leave but didn’t or did and came back.

716 5th Ave., Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the author.
716 5th Ave., Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the author.

A house party in Williamsburg that first fall portended my future in New York. It was held in a raw industrial loft with a rolled-up metal shutter for a front door and electricity supplied by jerry-rigged extension cords snaking up the sides of the building. Williamsburg’s waterfront then was a desolate stretch of oil-soaked pylons poking out of the current like crooked teeth, yet you could see green shoots of new money sprouting along the bank. Within a few years, glass condos with indoor putting greens and pet-grooming stations would transform the neighborhood into a miniature Miami Beach on the East River. Newcomers like me were just discovering Williamsburg as the hotbed of a global brand of Brooklyn cool, but the artists and DIYers who had migrated to the neighborhood during the first-wave of gentrification were already heading for the exits. The great hipster diaspora was underway. The host of the party, who had spent a year converting the space with his own power tools, was getting evicted at the end of the month.

“We arrived two years too late,” a friend said.

The New York that greeted me when I arrived had a smattering of gritty patches, but you had to nose them out. People who’d been around for a decade or more, still called Alphabet City’s avenues A, B, C, and D “All But Certain Death,” yet by then only Avenue D was considered no-go unless you were out to score heroin or coke in the shadows of the Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald housing projects lining the 12-block strip. A handful of neon peep shows still operated on the edges of Times Square, but the countertops and shelves in their front rooms were a surreal fantasia of crossword-puzzle books, softcover copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and reams of printer paper mixed in with hardcore pornography as a workaround to a recent zoning law mandating how much floor space could be used to peddle smut. The days when the Meatpacking District was known for leather bars, prostitutes, and butchers in blood-stained aprons were mostly history. Though one night after a 3 a.m. dinner at Florent, a stainless steel French diner catering to twitchy club kids and drag queens, I was utterly gorgonized by bloody water trickling between cobblestones in front of a packing plant. From a slaughtered cow, no doubt, and not from the skinned knee of a gazelle-like ingénue in four-inch Louboutins. Once Diane von Fürstenberg and her wrap dresses arrived, one saw much more of the latter. Even as New York was fading, it was all still new to me.

I had grown up in the ’80s in the scrubby beach town of Bonita Springs, Florida. Its inland stretch along Old 41 where I lived with my mother, who worked the counter of the local donut shop, was a backwater of creeks and irrigation canals filled with alligators and prehistoric-looking gar. I don’t recall the exact day that I decided I simply had to live in New York. But I do remember knowing as a kid that the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan was 1,000 dollars a month. Since I had never been to the city, and at that point didn’t even know anyone who had, I don’t know how I acquired this tidbit of information. The amount was such an outlandish sum (one year we scraped by on 3,000 dollars) that it made New York glow like a magic kingdom in my mind, as though it had to be worth it if it cost so much. When Americans turn wistful for their small towns, I find it hard to relate. I hated Bonita. Hated my neighborhood. Hated how the canal flooded in the summer and catfish would swim through crabgrass in our yard. Hated growing up dirt poor. My whole childhood I was desperate to get away and in my naïve eyes New York—that mythical city I dreamt about in novels that were my escape route until I could escape, a real place but mostly a glittering idea of a city of strivers and self-reinventors, timeworn notions to be sure but still fresh and newfound for me—was the place I, like so many before me, had to go and find myself.


***


Park Slope, Greenwood Heights, Kips Bay, Fort Greene, the East Village, Chinatown, Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus, Bed-Stuy, Park Slope (again), South Slope, Washington Heights. I keep a notebook tally of the neighborhoods where I’ve lived, otherwise I’ll lose track. 12 apartments in 11 neighborhoods across the gentrifying city. When I moved to New York, my plan was to stay for good. Little did I know I couldn’t afford to stay in one place. Next door a bar would open with Edison light bulbs and a DJ, or a gourmet doughnut shop would pop up around the corner, or the bodega across the street would stop selling loosies and start selling matcha lattes, and it meant the same thing: rent was going up. For the first 10 years, I couldn’t afford to resign a lease. After my seventh (or was it my eighth?) move, it finally dawned on me to save the cardboard boxes when I was done unpacking.

Behind the unending waves of gentrification were the cops. Cops doing their cop jobs, pacifying unruly people and protecting the flow of money into the city’s upscaling neighborhoods. They were the ones who made the five-dollar-and-fifty-cent rose water doughnuts possible, even if they couldn’t afford them. The head-cracking, broken-windows policing implemented under Giuliani was everywhere in New York by the time I arrived, but if you were white, it was usually invisible unless you accidentally stumbled into it. Its grim Hobbesian vision of the city, born out of the dark days of the 1970s, was that the smallest of infractions—drinking a beer in public or urinating in the park—could escalate into major crimes if the cops didn’t immediately dogpile on them and snuff them out.


***


The Red Hook Community Justice Center at 88 Visitation Place is a late-Giuliani-era experiment overseen by Judge Calabrese since the day it opened in 2000 in a former Catholic school that had lain fallow since the 1970s. It’s a thick-boned Tudor Gothic that, if it didn’t have bay windows, would look like a fortress. The Justice Center is the country’s first multijurisdictional court, which means that under one roof it tries to resolve almost everything—criminal cases, landlord disputes, family and juvenile issues—but on Tuesdays each week the whole place is dedicated to processing low-level offenses, those netted up by Giuliani’s, and later Bloomberg’s, broken-windows policing. Typically the line of people waiting to pass through the metal detectors threads down the block.

One morning in early June of 2000, I stood at the back of the line in a suit and tie (I was temping for rent money at the law firm of Morrison & Foerster that summer to supplement my measly graduate-student stipend, hence the get-up). Through the ’80s and early ’90s Red Hook was known as the “crack capital of America,” but by 2000 it had shed that reputation. But it hadn’t yet fully adopted its new moniker as New York’s hipster frontier. The giant IKEA hadn’t opened yet; the Tesla showroom was still a few years off; much of the neighborhood was a no-man’s land of mysterious warehouses and empty lots wrapped with concertina wire snared with plastic bags flapping in the harbor wind. There was something unmistakably forlorn about it. I lived a mile and a half away but had never been to the neighborhood and had to look it up on a map to see how to get there. The closest subway station to the Justice Center was a good 25 minutes away and entailed Froggering across eight lanes of Hamilton Avenue. When I told a neighbor I had a court date, he warned me to keep my wits about me. “Why?” I asked. “Feral dogs,” he said.

What brought me to Red Hook wasn’t my work as a legal assistant, but a criminal court summons I had been handed. Two weeks before I had stumbled onto a sidewalk in Park Slope, Brooklyn, holding a cartoonishly large can of lukewarm Foster’s that I didn’t want to toss and didn’t want to drink either. It was like any summer night in the city where people spill from bars, except this crowd was subdued, the wind gut-punched out of them. The Knicks had lost the Conference Finals after a fourth-quarter meltdown that for a lot of long-suffering fans foreshadowed 20 years and counting of disappointment, futility, and dysfunction. As I wondered what to do next, three police officers patrolling Park Slope on foot rounded the corner, spotted me, and one instantly whipped the pad out of her holster. I was promptly cited for an open-container violation, by far the most common reason for the hundreds of thousands of C-summons issued each year. “The Knicks just lost,” I protested, as if that explained everything. Stupidly, I asked if I could pay the fine through the mail and be done with the matter. I had been in New York almost a year and still had no clue how things really worked.

It wasn’t long after I found out. I was sitting with my back against the wall on the hardwood floor of the Justice Center and thinking what a colossal waste of everyone’s time and money this was. Next to me were dozens of New York’s other petty offenders, a whole Whitmanesque menagerie of delinquents—the sidewalk drinkers, the open-air urinators, the stoplight squeegee cleaners, the turnstile jumpers, the litterers and public spitters, the unreasonable noise-makers, the panhandlers and corner loiterers, the jaywalkers, the subway dancers, the metaphorical window breakers—each of us waiting in the stultifying heat to be called to the front of the class and reprimanded. I don’t remember if I was the only white defendant in the room that day, but if I wasn’t, there were at most one or two others, along with the many Black and brown New Yorkers around me, who had been roped into the criminal justice system not for being violent, but for being a nuisance. In the eyes of the mayor and his NYPD commissioner, the people corralled in the waiting room were living signs of urban disorder, the human blight that could still be found in pockets of the city that hadn’t yet been cleaned out, the unwanted riffraff who ruined the neighborhood for others.

123 Chrystie St., Manhattan. Photo Courtesy the author.
123 Chrystie St., Manhattan. Photo Courtesy the author.

As I stood next to the court-appointed attorney, I straightened my tie and pleaded guilty as charged to my crime. What the judge said next gave away the game. He informed me that my summons would be cleared and the fine revoked if I would sit in one of the side rooms and watch a 90-minute PSA video to educate me about quality-of-life issues. I thought in that moment that’s what this whole Foucauldian apparatus—the cops, the court, the attorneys—in a fringy Brooklyn neighborhood had been set up to do. To reeducate me. After calculating the cost of additional lost hours at work, I paid for my indulgence and left. But as I passed the crowded waiting room I thought how others couldn’t afford to make the same choice. The Red Hook Community Justice Center turned out to be a school of sorts after all.


***


Despite having lived in several gentrifying neighborhoods in New York, where my rent at times was upwards of half my income, I never considered myself a gentrifier. Yet surely this is special pleading, for my mere presence on the street undoubtedly had an “observer effect,” even if I couldn’t observe it, making me complicit in a process that priced people out of the neighborhood, myself included. As a 20-something, later 30-something, working towards a PhD in American Literature I was a telltale sign of demographic succession, a sign of a neighborhood turning over, turning whiter.

New York is a poor city, a fact that isn’t acknowledged nearly enough. The poorest Congressional District in the country isn’t in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta. It’s in New York City (NY-16th). Since the 1980s, the city-wide poverty rate has been stubbornly stuck near 20 percent, higher than it is nationally, despite the city being flooded with apartments that regularly sell north of 20-million dollars at all-cash offers. In 2019, the hedge-fund kingpin Kenneth Griffin purchased a pied-à-terre at 220 Central Park South for a few thousand dollars shy of 240 million dollars. It stands on ground freed up by demolishing an unremarkable but perfectly fine 20-story, postwar building, an act which kicked 80 residents to the curb, 47 of whom were holding on in rent-stabilized apartments. “[M]ore rent-regulated tenants than any other demolition in recent memory,” Josh Barbanel noted in the New York Times. Two blocks away, a stretch of 57th Street has been rechristened Billionaires’ Row in honor of the part-time residents in the new super tall, super skinny condo buildings casting permanent Giacometti-like silhouettes over the public park. Meanwhile, the percentage of New Yorkers on the cliff-edge of “near-poverty” hovers in the low-to-mid 40s, one missed paycheck or two away from eviction, or one healthcare emergency away from bankruptcy.

When I was forced out of my first place in New York, I moved to Greenwood Heights, down the street from the 19th-century cemetery that lends the neighborhood its name. At the time, Greenwood was Puerto Rican with residual traces of a Polish community visible in a couple of shops displaying kielbasa in the windows, a working-class saloon on the corner patronized exclusively by old men in military-grade buzz cuts and undershirts, and a handful of other residents, like my landlord, from the old country. The railroad apartment I lived in for 800 dollars a month was a Depression-era walk up in a building with seven other units that had been remodeled on a dime. The industrial carpeting in my living room wasn’t tacked down. There was no sink in the bathroom, but for some reason an electrical outlet had been installed in the shower at eye-level. Showering was a nerve-wracking exercise in standing with my back to the outlet, lest it get splashed and I get electrocuted.

The time I spent there was a window into the harsh realities of urban poverty that many don’t see. My upstairs elderly neighbor, whom I passed only once on the narrow stairs, suffered from dementia, a condition I learned about after he starved to death in his apartment. The neighbor who shared the second floor with me died in her bed and laid there decomposing, her body emitting a sour and funky odor that for three days I attributed to the first-floor Puerto Rican family boiling black beans and rice. I found out because I was woken by the sound of her son pounding on her door and wailing in grief. He worked construction in Poland part of the year, sending back remittances to his mother. For months, I had a wall in common with her, our doors less than two feet apart, but I had never once laid eyes on her. When I came home late that night, a few hours before dawn, her mattress marbled with stains had been stripped bare of its sheets and left on the sidewalk to be picked up. That fall I sold a lava lamp that I lugged around since college to the neighbor directly below me, and learned he was dying of AIDS. The following week was September 11th and that morning, minutes after United Airlines Flight 175 careened into the South Tower, I raced to the waterfront. Burning paper was siphoning in an airstream across the harbor, whirling above me so elegantly in the golden sunshine that I first thought it was a flock of birds. And then I watched it all collapse.

On warm days, I’d read poetry in the cemetery only to return to my ever-more empty apartment building where I felt if I stayed long enough I’d be the only one left. For six months afterwards, the gravity-defying rents in Manhattan came down and I packed my bags for an apartment in the East 20s. Kips Bay, a neighborhood so completely nondescript most Manhattanites don’t know it exists. I could never have afforded it under normal circumstances, but with the smell of death and melted computer plastic hanging over the tip of the island, it was temporarily renting at a discount. A year later, the landlord raised the rent by 400 dollars a month, then another 400 dollars, and then I moved.


***


One of the clichés of living in New York is within 15 minutes every conversation segues into a discussion about real estate and which neighborhood that has been around for 200 years is suddenly up and coming. In the months before the airborne virus spread over the city, the real-estate chatter was often about Washington Heights, widely considered the last affordable neighborhood in Manhattan. Affordable is a relative term, of course. A modest two-bedroom apartment in the area costs more than the nicest house in Bonita Springs when I was growing up. With a loan from First Republic, my wife and I bought an apartment in the neighborhood in 2019, nearly 20 years to the day that I landed in New York with a bulging suitcase that promptly burst open as I waited for a taxi.

Our 100-year-old building is on the border of a carved-out subsection of Washington Heights that stretches north from 180th Street to 190th and west from Broadway to the high bluffs of Manhattan schist overlooking the river. In the early 1990s, neighborhood advocates renamed this portion Hudson Heights, fencing it off from the rest of the neighborhood that had a reputation for gangs and drug violence. The off-ramps of the George Washington Bridge feed into the area, so for years suburbanites in northern New Jersey could pay the toll, score a fix, and loop back home without ever getting out of their cars. The cars I see lined up curbside in the early mornings these days, even during the pandemic, are minivans that shuttle low-wage workers from the outer-reaches of New Jersey and as far away as Bucks County, Pennsylvania into the city for 15 dollars a head, dropping them off bleary-eyed in the pre-dawn mournfulness in front of the subway station. Hudson Heights was home to a large German Jewish population in the postwar period; today it is nearly evenly split between Latinos and whites, a good number of them bottom-rung creative-class types who make enough to live in Manhattan, but just barely. Go much further north of here and you’ll fall off the island.

229 Prospect Ave., Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the author.
229 Prospect Ave., Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the author.

First Republic Bank has no branches in Washington Heights, but that’s not surprising. Headquartered in San Francisco, it is a private company catering almost exclusively to the wealthy. Upwards of 90 percent of the bank’s loan approvals are high-income individuals and in 2016, the median net worth of its loan clients was 3.3 million dollars. Meanwhile, the median household income in Washington Heights is a little short of 55,000 dollars, about 10,000 lower than the rest of the city. If I wanted to stop in at the closest branch and withdraw money, I’d have to take the train 100 blocks south to the Upper West Side. Until recently, their ATMs only spat out 100 dollar bills, which created the annoying problem of carrying legal tender that most small businesses won’t accept. When we were shopping for a mortgage, our broker suggested we contact the bank. As a solidly middle-class couple, we didn’t fit the profile, but to our surprise they offered us a rate suspiciously lower than other lenders and volunteered to throw in thousands of dollars in closing costs.

“Why us?” we wondered, but didn’t dare ask.

After we signed off on the paperwork, the keys to the kingdom, all 1,000 square feet of it, were handed across the conference table with a jingly flourish. The bank’s “Relationship Manager,” a young Chinese woman with an MBA from Yale and a British accent, stepped forward to gift us a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a basket of the bank’s famous freshly baked cookies. A few weeks later, she sent us a coffee-table book on interior design and a cashmere pashmina for no discernible reason.

Six months after we had settled into our apartment, we received an invitation to a party the bank was hosting at TAK Room, a clubby restaurant by Thomas Keller, famous for his Caligulian meals easily running over $1,000 and stretching for hours. His new venture is in Hudson Yards, the largest private-public urban redevelopment project in American history and a sign, like none other, of the excesses of neoliberal urbanism that are killing New York. The centerpiece of Hudson Yards is the Vessel, a 200-million dollar structure resembling a giant wastebasket. It’s made up of stairs that tellingly lead nowhere, but reach high enough that recently three people have leaped to their deaths from it. With its half-dozen, brand-spanking-new skyscrapers ensheathed in prophylactic glass, a high-end mall anchored by Neiman Marcus, and apartments that range from 3 million dollars to 32 million dollars, Hudson Yards is the perfect “neighborhood” for the bank. Which is why it was celebrating the branches it was opening there with champagne, a raw bar of oysters and uni, and an endless parade of caviar, truffles, risotto, and steak canapes from the kitchen. The bar was free and you could order whatever you wanted. As the night was winding down, I noticed a gentleman next to me drinking a scotch and I nodded to the bartender for the same, a Macallan 25. As I stood outside sipping my drink on a balcony overlooking the sparkling lights and thinking about how far away Bonita Springs was, I realized it was the best glass of scotch I’d ever had. It tasted like honey and guilt. Like more money than my mother earned some months when I was a kid.

It was 440 dollars a glass.

As the attendees at the party climbed into their taxis and Ubers, my wife and I took the A train home. While the subway rattled north, some of the apartments I’d lived in flashed through my mind: the 200-square-foot studio (if that) in Chinatown with its ratty convertible couch; the limestone rowhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant where my upstairs neighbor was robbed at pistol-point early one evening by a 13 year old; the Fort Greene apartment in a house from 1851 that termites were gnawing into dust; that place in Gowanus so close to the expressway that if I cracked the windows an inch I couldn’t hear myself think. Living in so many places alters your sense of what it means to have a home. It has cultivated in me the feeling I’m always about to bid farewell. If coming to New York in 1999 was an experience in arriving too late, it was complicated by a lifelong notion that the minute I arrive somewhere I start thinking about when it’s time to leave. The Hudson Heights apartment is unlikely to be our “forever home,” a phrase conjuring up images of settling down and dying, but it’s where we are now. When we emerged from the subway that night sated and tipsy and overdressed, two cops glanced curiously at us from their squad car on the corner, flipped on their lights and disappeared, the haunting call of their siren fading into the distance.


***


It was over a year later, well into the first month of the pandemic, that I discovered the reason behind our mysterious mortgage. Our bank had received a rash of bad national press for its practice of lending to real-estate speculators and corporate developers who’d purchase entire rent-controlled buildings, kick out low-income residents and convert the properties to luxury condos. In this way, the bank of the one percent was fueling the gentrification, displacement, and homelessness crises in cities where rents are already through the roof. When word spread about its lending practices, protestors picketed its headquarters, and shame-faced, the bank eventually agreed to modify its guidelines and engage in more community lending. Purchasing our Washington Heights apartment made us real gentrifiers. And yet by lending to us, the bank in some small way thought it was making amends. In First Republic’s eyes, we—white, Asian American, and middle income—were the face of our poor Latino neighborhood.

The choice to stay or not to stay in this new apartment is a luxury I am not used to, a luxury that many in the city don’t have. As I write this in January 2021, there is a moratorium on evictions for 60 days, but when it expires an estimated 1.2 million households will be immediately at risk. The furniture and boxes of dishes and garbage bags spilling over with clothes that will inevitably pile up on sidewalks will be of a different cast and character. It won’t be from people fleeing the city, but from those searching for a way to stay home.

Living in New York in the early 2000s, I had come to believe that gentrification was an unstoppable and irreversible process. Now I’m not so sure, but this doesn’t make me more sanguine. TAK Room, like many restaurants, has permanently shuttered, its life sucked out by the virus. As the city retreated inward and emptied out, shootings have almost doubled and murders have spiked nearly 40 percent, the largest year-to-year increases in two decades. It’s possible money will rush back in once the all-clear signal has sounded and we can remove our masks, but it’s possible, too, the city will be a smaller place for a while.

One year a while back when I was away from New York for a stretch of time, and going through a difficult period, and missing the city terribly, I found a live webcam trained on a crosswalk in Times Square, which as a New Yorker I loathed but which suddenly filled me with an indescribable mix of joy and loneliness. While I scribbled out poems that winter, I would allow it to stream in the corner of my laptop and thought if I watched long enough someone I knew would appear momentarily in the crowd and smile. The other day, after I settled my baby daughter on my lap, I found the webcam again and sat watching it. There were only a few solitary walkers at dusk, figures in a de Chirico painting trailing long shadows behind them. But the buildings, as ever, were ablaze in oranges and yellows from the billboards, and then as it started to rain, the scene was lost in little pointillist raindrops of light.

Contributor

Thomas Heise

is a writer and educator. His current book The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel is under contract with Columbia University Press. He’s also the author of the novel Moth (Sarabande 2013), Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande 2006), and Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Rutgers 2011). A faculty member at Pennsylvania State University (Abington), he lives in Washington Heights.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

All Issues