On Being Rooted through Transition

Niara in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

<em>Niara has always had an interesting relationship to Place, having been raised in a military family and moving around a lot through her childhood. The past year, as well, has seen a lot of moving around, as she’s lived in five different apartments in five different neighborhoods.</em>

I’m in Crown Heights right now. At the border between Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. But there was a ton of subletting last year, so it was a very tumultuous kind of year. I was in a weird living situation. My roommate was like 48 years old, and she moved both her parents in without my permission basically. So it was me, her, and another girl who was about my age. But then this woman, who had been there the longest, was like my parents are going to stay with us, I don’t know for how long, definitely less than a year. And then moved them in rent-free.

The 48-year-old’s parents? So how old were they*?*

They were in their 70’s. They were there for like four months and then I left. They weren’t paying rent and she didn’t want to break up the utilities differently even though it was her parents, and also her sister for a while, and her sister’s husband, and their three kids came to stay for holidays. So it was a lot of people in a three-bedroom apartment.

Three bedrooms?

Yeah. So kind of like my breaking point was when I went home for the weekend and came back and didn’t have internet and I was like, okay I’m heading out. Then I left and was in Ocean Hill for one month. My friend was on tour so I was subletting from her for that month. Then I was in Brownsville for two months subletting from another friend. And then I was in Bushwick for like three months, and I had signed a lease but I hated the place. My work friends had found the place and I didn’t really love it, but they were like we all need a place, so I signed on to that but knew I was going to find a subletter. So I was there in Bushwick for three months and then I moved to Crown Heights - like almost in Bed-Stuy but mostly in Crown Heights - in September. I’ve been there like four months now which is basically a record for me at this point.

That’s - wow. Damn. So how do you feel being in a Place now, are you starting to feel somewhat more rooted in that?

I think so. I think I’m kind of getting to that point. I feel like I haven’t explored the neighborhood as much as I want to. I feel like I still sort of need to get rooted in it. Because when I moved in, the person before me was a summer subletter, and had a bed that was left there. So I still have a second bed frame that I haven’t gotten rid of. My therapist was like, once you get rid of the bed frame, you’re officially there. And I’m like, that’s such a weird metaphor. But it’s still in there, and once it’s gone I guess it’s actually my space. But I really like it. I feel like the neighborhood is just really homey. I don’t know, I guess in Bushwick I never really felt at home. It was very industrial, and I also think as a black woman, being in Bushwick where there’s a lot of younger mostly white professionals or older families living there, it felt really weird to be caught in the middle in a way. Whereas in Crown Heights you see a lot more young professionals of color and it feels like I see a lot of businesses owned by black people or other people of color and it feels really good to be giving my money to those businesses versus giving my money to trendy cafes that are mostly owned by white people living in the neighborhood. So I’ve been really appreciating walking around and seeing artists, and young professionals, and people of color building community in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. I’ve been really enjoying that.

That’s sweet. I don’t know much about Crown Heights so I guess I didn’t realize - I would have assumed that it was similar to Bushwick in having a lot of young white transplants, but it’s not as much?

In some places it is, and obviously all these neighborhoods are very gentrified, but I feel like from what I’ve seen in Bed-Stuy there’s a lot more people of color who are creating these businesses and as a result more invested in these communities. Like I was talking about a coffee shop and my friend was like, oh, my friend actually owns that and she was born and raised in Bed-Stuy and built this business and also has another place around the corner. And that’s kind of what you’re seeing: people who know the neighborhood and know the community really well who are bringing stuff to them, rather than people who show up because the rent is cheap in these buildings.

Yeah, I feel you. So what are some of the things that you - and I know you were just talking about this - but what are some of the places or things that you’ve enjoyed around Crown Heights / Bed-Stuy, particularly ones unique to you?

I don’t know, there’s a lot of small, hidden libraries around. So that’s been kind of fun, being able to go in and see what each one is offering and how they set up, and also a lot about the community. If there’s a ton of like autobiographies, that’s what people are asking for. Usually it kind of gives a lot of insight into what people want to read and are asking for. I also feel like I’ve seen a lot of coffee shops slash other things. Like slash art gallery, or slash thrift stores or things like that, which kind of also gives an idea of what the community is interested in or the vibe you’re getting.

Damn, I’ve gotta go. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Crown Heights before. You already talked a little about Bushwick vs. Crown Heights, but what did you notice about some of the other differences between those Places you lived? Did you get a unique feel in each of them?

A little bit. My first apartment was in Bed-Stuy, so it was maybe like a thirty minute walk from my current place. So they aren’t horribly far from each other, it’s just like slightly different. Which is good cause I actually like the neighborhood a lot. But where I was first was Bed-Stuy but also really close to Clinton Hill, so it was still a little bougey and had kind of been through all the gentrification it was gonna go through. And it was kind of indistinguishable between there and Ocean Hill starting to see that gentrifying and everything, which was interested. I also then after that moved to right down the street, at the very top of Brownsville, probably the Broadway Junction stop by Wycoff. But it was very weird because I lived with my friends from college who like are mostly white kids who went to a private university and come from a certain level of privilege. So it was very odd because it kind of feels like I was watching ground floor gentriciation of that neighborhood. And even when they were moving in people were like, oh this is the beginning and it was kind of weird to see. I Know that a lot of people from that house are trying to move this spring, because they’re like, we feel like we’re a part of something that we don’t want to be a part of, and feel like they’re taking up space than they should be ---. But I think that kind of similarly, I’ve watched people being displaced, and it’s hard to watch.

For sure. Yeah, I’m really curious to ask you about - just cause you’ve brought up gentrification a couple of times. And so I’m really curious to ask your perspective -

Yeah, it’s weird.

- given that you’re a woman of color but also -

I have privilege, yeah. That’s the thing, I’m a transplant who went to a private university as well. It’s that kind of weird thing where I don’t look like the typical gentrifier, but I feel like in a lot of ways I have privilege and wealth. I also think it’s tough because it gets back to the point of, what makes someone a gentrifier? Or what are we trying to prevent from happening with gentrification? Because I think it’s also somewhat about how the community is treated, and that’s what I think I try to be really aware of. Because a lot of people I see just like move in and don’t really know the history of the place or don’t really know the culture if it’s different communities like settling so you see a lot more of the cultural intersections in different parts of the neighborhood. So I think it’s tough because I’m just like, okay on one hand I am a woman of color so I am coming from the perspective of like, I’m a person of color, I’ve been racially profiled on the street, things like that that I’m used to. But it’s also kind of like, okay, I have a decent-paying job, and I went to college, and I have parents who are willing to help me out if I needed to ask them for help. And I also think it’s hard because this is what I can afford right now, and that’s a whole other kind of issue with it, is it’s like not everyone moved there to be like, I’m just gonna be trendy in this little neighborhood. A lot of people are like oh, I’m making x amount of money, this is what I can afford right now, and it just happens to be a part of gentrification. Which is really tough.

Yeah. That’s actually one of the huge reasons behind doing this, thinking about how we can be intentional with the situation that we and all of these people, including gentrifiers and displaced people, have been given. And thinking about exactly what you said, about how can we get deeper into the history of the place, how can we be aware of our economic impacts, things like that are definitely stuff I’m really interested in.

I think for me, a big part is trying to figure out what places I’m supporting and where my money is going. Because it’s like, if I’m in a place where I have some disposable income, I should be putting it into local businesses and places in the neighborhood that are owned by people who are invested in the neighborhood. So that’s like one way that I want to at least try to be aware of how I’m using my privilege like with money. I also think just like trying to get involved. I think almost all my roommates volunteer at the co-op in my neighborhood, so then they actually get to know their neighbors, and they actually get to know people and build those connections so It’s not just like showing up and being like, well I’m gonna go work in midtown and then I’m gonna come home and that’s it, and it’s kind of like investing, and not just your money but also your time. I remember when I moved into my apartment, there was a family upstairs and the kids were running back and forth and back and forth. And my friend was like, “Do you think we could ask them to get a rug?” And it was like, no! We can’t show up, be here for one day, and be like, you need to change things you’ve been doing. That’s just so not appropriate, and especially when it’s not actually affecting us that much, it’s just a kid being a kid and having a little too much energy. It’s not really worth it.

As we think about Place and the processes of Placemaking, it also becomes necessary to think about the intersectional political negotiations that go into taking up space. In this context, the taking up can be physical, as in occupying a chair in a bar or on a bus. Or as I often see discussed in contexts such as that surrounding the term ‘man-splaining’, taking up space can also be an intellectual or cultural endeavour. In either case, those from privileged backgrounds usually feel comfortable taking up more of it, at the expense of those of marginalized identities.

One manifestation appears to be gentrification. This invokes the physical, as apartments and storefronts change hands in a process of urban displacement. But as Niara points out, it also affects the other form of taking up space, or “how the community is treated” - as in the situation she describes where the roommates considers asking the upstairs family to get a rug.

Surely, a lot of work has to be done on a lot of fronts in terms of taking up space - more protections against racial profiling and sexual harrassment, for instance. But in our re-imagining of public Places too, there is room to think about how physical infrastructure can be better organized to either facilitate or discourage the taking up of space. I turn that line of thought to you:

What has your experience of taking up public space been? What have you observed? How can Places be re-imagined, bearing in mind those experiences?

As always, feel free to send me an email with your thoughts: placeloveproject@gmail.com.