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From Gentrifier to Gentrifiee

I moved to Park Slope in 1993, fresh from college, for two reasons: my brother told me to, and it was cheap. It was the neighborhood, he said, that most evoked the northeastern liberal college town where we’d grown up, where I’d spent my youth longing for better quarters (I’d yearned to reside in the fancy subdivision that the rich, popular kids called home) yet lamenting as the town got spiffed up all around me.

Out here in the then-frontier land of Brooklyn, rooms were easy to come by—the Village Voice classifieds were full of ads for the gay-friendly, vegetarian, communal-ish kinds of places I was used to, even if I wasn’t gay or vegetarian. I moved several times within the neighborhood (I was a notoriously bad roommate), each apartment a slightly better address, though the rent remained eminently affordable. Eventually, at the end of 1995, I found myself on 8th Avenue, near Prospect Park, in a limestone fourth-floor walk-up. The place was sprawling, if in dire need of a tune-up; it was $300 a room.

The area was clearly in some kind of transition. This little stretch had not blossomed into the $2,000 stroller madness for which the neighborhood is now famous, but there was a fine cheese shop (now a real estate broker’s office) on the corner. Near that were a longtime pizza shop, an Italian restaurant and a locally owned office supply place.

Longtime residents filled my block, too, but they were not pleased with my arrival. Lifers lived here: an old man—the ineffectual super of the building next door—walking a scrappy, old dog; a sad-faced single mother with a nest of frizzy hair and a pouting boy; a young couple perpetually smoking long cigarettes.

The young couple was the most visible: a skinny, freckled woman with feathered hair in her 20s and her boyfriend, Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome in his apricot-colored leather coat. Having lived on or near this block all their lives, they felt entitled to mark their dwindling territory on any stoop they chose, and often they chose mine. I would cleave a space between them and their wall of cigarette smoke when coming home from work at night; many times they refused to move.

Eventually, I confronted them, asking them to leave. “This your place?” the woman asked, tiny points of her teeth exposed.

“Yes,” I said, “And can you please go hang out on your own stoop?”

“You own this place?”

“No, I don’t own it, I rent an apartment here.”

“Then it’s not yours,” she said, smug, with her arms wrapped around herself. In her eyes, I was an interloper, a rich kid planning a coup.

I had seen gentrification wash away the lovely grime of my own hometown upstate, seen the rundown houses reborn in paint colors with fruity names, cranberry and olive and peach. And even though some part of me longed to live in one of them, somehow I thought my humble roots–our house was not among those that had been refurbished–made me immune to becoming the face of gentrification myself.

Not in the couple’s eyes. They didn’t realize my wallet wasn’t any fatter than theirs, that I shared the space with roommates, that our shower spit out less than 10 minutes of hot water most mornings and that our floors were so scratched and splintery as to make walking barefoot impossible. To them, I was the one ruining the neighborhood, wresting it from their clutches. I hated how much she hated me, and I hated her logic: the one who lived here longer was the one who got to call it home.

Fifteen years later, many of the buildings around me have gone co-op. The newsstand/egg sandwich joint across the street became an overpriced, over-hyped brunch spot. The couple lost their apartment years ago. College friends who moved here with me have been priced out, departed for the Park Slopes of tomorrow, like Kensington or Sunset Park, leaving me orphaned in fancy land. I am no longer the gentrifier, but a gentrifiee, of sorts, digesting the strange alchemy of jealousy and disdain that erupts when your neighborhood transforms around you.

These days, I am the freckle-faced lady, indignant at the onslaught of next generation gentrifiers. Now I know how she felt, how threatened, how out of place. It seems like gentrification happens so fast these days, and so fiercely; it took my town 20 years to get those peach-colored lintels, and now a Brooklyn neighborhood gets hip in two.

I know many will object—certainly parts of Park Slope have been shifting for 20 years, well before I arrived. Maybe each wave of gentrifier becomes the gentrifiee if they stay there long enough, each resident overwhelmed eventually by a sense of territorialism. Like others before me, I want to plant my flag and announce ownership of a place that can’t be claimed, like the Russians with their flag on the arctic floor. I wish I smoked cigarettes and was ballsy enough to roost on other people’s stoops.

What strikes me is that I am still not aligned with the lifers who remain, those who cursed me when I arrived fifteen years ago. The old super with his new dog (that much has changed), and the sad faced single mom—they have not formed an emotional bulwark against this next wave with me. Maybe that’s because class is so much more complicated than salary, or because geography trumps all else. Maybe it’s because I can never be a native, no matter how long I live here (how I wish my parents hadn’t worked so hard to get out of the city so I could wear the crown of lifelong New Yorker, the one with the most right to object). At least now I know how they feel: to be a minority, a dying breed, at whom new businesses and new buildings are not directed.

What’s hard, I think, is feeling disconnected from those who are drawn here now, and maybe a little embarrassed to be associated with it. I often mumble the name of my neighborhood when people ask where I live. I did not come for the famously child-friendly surroundings or the electric lure of PS321; I came for the beautiful buildings and the cheap rent, and that’s why I’m still here.

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