The first time I heard of gentrification was when I told a coworker that I was apartment hunting in Brooklyn’s Bushwick, shortly after I moved to New York. Bushwick is an affordable, working class neighborhood in northern Brooklyn. It’s an attractive destination for new transplants.
My coworker frowned when I told him I was aiming for Bushwick. He said that my money would drive locals farther east. Landlords would hike rent, trendy shops and restaurants and bars would pop up, and the neighborhood would become unaffordable for people who’d been living there for generations.
I told him I had no money and that’s why I was looking for apartments in Bushwick. But he maintained that white suburban kids like me were driving local people out of their neighborhoods. Gentrification was imperialism on the microcosm.
And, indeed, western tracts of Bushwick were getting trendier. Old warehouses converted into loft apartments. Vegan restaurants in garages. Coffee bars made out of old bodegas. West Bushwick was starting to look a lot like Williamsburg. In fact, people living in West Bushwick liked to call their neighborhood “East Williamsburg.”
We found an apartment in outer Bushwick, on Hancock Street off the Halsey Stop on the L train. Almost everyone on my block was from the Caribbean. From Haiti and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. People who hung out on their stoops together when the weather was tolerable. Kids and old people and blue-collars. Out of the ten units in our building, my roommate Ryan and I were the only white people.
Everybody knew each other. And they all knew me by sight. Knew my building and knew that I lived with Ryan. After a couple of weeks I would get three or four nods from strangers en route to the subway. Hancock Street made me realize how isolating the ‘burbs can be. People don’t talk to each other back home.
At first, our building was filled with immigrant families and one couple. Most of the people were quiet. But, our next door neighbor used to scream at his daughter all the time. JASMINE! EAT YOUR CEREAL, JASMINE! JAAAASMIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNEEEE!
He’d yell over and over and over again, until Jasmine cried. This little girl who didn’t like cereal was expected to eat it at all hours of the day and night. That’s all I learned about my neighbors.
Aesthetically, Bushwick felt like the frontier. There were no shops. No cafes. Only one little Associated grocery store about fifteen minutes away. One bar called Caribe. And two convenient bodegas on either end of Hancock Street.
Usually, I did my shopping at Discount Deli, which was on the way to the subway. I was only familiar with the sliver of Bushwick I encountered on my way to the train. I would turn left out of my building, stop at Discount Deli, and descended the stairs to the L.
But one night Discount Deli closed early and I was forced to turn right, away from the subway. This was a direction I avoided for no good reason. Just had a strange vibe about making a right on Hancock Street. Turning right on Hancock was like sailing to the part of the map populated by sea serpents.
I walked into Royal Deli and waited in line to purchase a bag of french onion SunChips and a caramel Drumstick. Royal Deli looked and smelled just like Discount Deli. Rows of junk food and beer. A resident fat cat. A pair of old men standing near the entrance, chattering in Spanish. Then there were gunshots outside. And screaming.
A middle-aged man limped inside, blood gushing out of an open wound in his temple. Asked to use the phone. A woman stumbled in a few moments later, screaming about her son being a maniac. Said he had a gun and was going to shoot up the whole block. The shots I’d heard were warnings he’d fired from the rooftop.
Meanwhile, I was still waiting to pay for my french onion SunChips and caramel Drumstick. I considered putting the chips and ice cream down. But I was a little high and very hungry and figured it would be safer inside, anyway. It was another thousand years before I paid the clerk.
Then I sprinted down Hancock Street like a frightened hare. Right past all the people hanging out on their stoops. Newcomer white guy zipping by with SunChips and ice cream. From that moment on I avoided making a right out of my building.
A month later I was invited to meet some friends in the Lower East Side. It was late at night but there was a pretty girl involved so I chose to join. Problem was I was going to have to take the J train, which involved making a right out of my building. I decided not to psyche myself out.
Threw on a coat. Popped in my headphones to listen to NPR. Stepped out of my building, made a right, and power-walked down Hancock Street.
It was a particularly cold night, which meant Bushwick was empty. Not a soul out. Just rats scampering between brownstones. Garbage tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. I was at once comforted and disturbed by how alone I was.
I saw a pair of guys on a stoop, lurking in the shadows. Decked out in black clothing. Smoking cigarettes or joints.
One of them turned to look at me. He was wearing a bandana and sunglasses and so I couldn’t make out his expression. He elbowed his friend, who was wearing a Knicks cap.
Then they were both staring. Went from a passing glance to hawk eyes. From rude to threatening in ten seconds. A long, unbroken stare from two dudes who had suddenly developed an acute interest in me.
As I passed the stoop one of them took a step closer to me. Time slowed down. He pointed at me. Then he yelled something to his friend, but I couldn’t hear it over All Things Considered.
My heart was about to burst. I was on the verge of pissing myself. I was so ready to run I knew I could fly.
It occurred to me that it was time to pause NPR.
Then I heard them. They were laughing hysterically. They were laughing at the Super Mario Brothers theme song.
My phone was ringing and the ringtone happened to be Super Mario Brothers. I’d been blasting the iconic melody the whole time they were staring. Some white guy showed up on their block at one in the morning, bee-bopping to the Mario theme.
The guy in the shades gave me a thumbs up. I returned the favor. His buddy said that I was so white for listening to Super Mario Brothers on blast on the streets at night. And Shades said, no dude, you fucking idiot, that’s his ringtone. He was wearing headphones and probably listening to some other white shit.
Two weeks later they put a Dunkin Donuts by the Halsey Stop. That was the first sign that my stretch of Bushwick was gentrifying. By the end of the year, seven out of the ten units in my building were occupied by white college kids.