Gentrification As Oral History

Matt Wasserman Dec 16, 2015

The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century
DW Gibson
Overlook Press, 2015

It is a truth universally acknowledged among New York City tenants that the rent is too damn high. Nor will it come as news that whole swaths of the city have been undergoing a reverse White flight. In Brooklyn, where I live, largely Black and Latino neighborhoods have been invaded by hordes of White twenty-somethings. Strewn in their wake are purveyors of artisanal sandwiches and coffee shops offering pour-overs, usually unaffordable to the previous denizens of the neighborhood. Rent stabilization and rent control have likely lessened the impact of this transformation on longtime residents, but tenant harassment and buyouts remain rampant. 

In The Edge Becomes the Center, Flatbush resident DW Gibson takes readers on a tour of the dark underbelly of rapidly changing neighborhoods. In a wide-ranging series of interviews, Gibson stakes his claim as an heir to the legacy of oral historian Studs Terkel by channeling the voices of those caught up in the churn of gentrification. Intensely attuned to the complexities and contradictions of lived experiences, he brings alive what could be the subject of a dry sociology monograph. 

While Gibson shares the quintessentially New York fascination with real estate, his real passion seems to be for colorful characters. The Edge Becomes the Center features a veritable Greek chorus of them. His sympathies seem to largely lie with the low-income residents, housing court lawyers, Lower East Side squatters, left-wing professors and tenant union organizers fighting to keep New York affordable. But more interesting to me were his interviews with real estate brokers, contractors and others on the supply side of the equation. Gibson wisely refrains from commenting, allowing his subjects to hang themselves with their own words. The most damning interview is with a landlord who is largely unabashed about his racist practices, portraying his efforts to rid his buildings of residents of color as a response to the demands of an affluent clientele. You can imagine their list of requirements for an ideal place: hardwood floors, exposed brick, granite countertops and, oh yes, no Black tenants in the building. 

The strengths of Gibson’s approach are also its weaknesses. The Edge Becomes the Center offers little by the way of analysis. It is loosely structured at best. And Gibson’s politics are mushy: While his affinities seem to be with the left, the closest he comes to suggesting a solution for widespread displacement seems to amount to talking to your neighbors. Without some sort of larger organizing effort, this risks amounting to gentrification with a smile. But gentrification is about structural inequity, not individual malice; while the explicitly racist landlord makes for a good story, most landlords are motivated by green, not Black or White.

The Edge Becomes the Center is an engaging complement to the academic literature on the subject, but it mostly provides flavoring, not light. Readers interested in understanding gentrification would be better served checking out Neil Smith’s The New Urban Frontier, Saskia Sassen’s studies of the transformations in the urban landscape wrought by finance capital, such as The Global City, or Lance Freeman’s research on residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Harlem and Clinton Hill, There Goes the ‘Hood, to pick only some obvious examples. 

In New York, it sometimes seems impossible to step out into the same street twice. However, while change may be a constant, displacement and dispossession need not be. Each of us participates in the housing market as atomized individuals or families, pitted against one another and subject to the whims of the lords of the land. Nonetheless, we can change the choices available to us through collective action. A previous generation of New Yorkers did just that in constructing affordable housing and passing rent regulation laws. 

Many of us share some complicity, however unwilling, in the processes of gentrification. I certainly do. But, to paraphrase Joe Hill: don’t feel guilty, organize.

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