Writing about new urbanism these past few weeks, I've been taking some leisurely strolls down memory lane to the Brooklyn I know best.
It's not the trendy-hot Brooklyn most twentysomething hipsters know today, but a darker, more sinister Brooklyn. A Brooklyn where memories aren't exactly nostalgic, and you certainly didn't stroll! Once outside of your apartment, you constantly moved purposefully, quickly, and defensively. Even offensively, if you were trying to cross the street, or grab a safe seat on public transportation in the middle subway car, or near the bus driver. If you weren't keenly aware of your surroundings, or betrayed any lack of confidence in your ability to assert yourself if need be, you could end up as somebody else's prey.
It was a Brooklyn that, apparently, is all but gone these days, according to a revealing retrospective in the New York Times. It chronicles the old haunts of rap music's pioneering stars, many of whom documented in rap their upbringing in Brooklyn's malevolent 'hoods, and what those places have become today.
There's A Reason Rap Music Has Brooklyn Ties
Back when I knew Brooklyn, neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush were all but off-limits to Gentile whites. Hasidic Jews lived uncomfortably with blacks in Crown Heights, and ran most of the shops in all of the city's ghettos, but even that proved to be too much of a tinderbox. Riots erupted in 1991 when a Hasidic man ran over a black youth with his car in Crown Heights. Two white men ended up being murdered in "retaliation" by the mobs: one a Jew, the other suspected of being Jewish, since it was assumed no other whites would have any reason to be in Crown Heights. Tensions after the initial violence continued to simmer on a high boil, and I recall a couple of summers later being invited to a college graduation party being held in the backyard of a church friend's home in the neighborhood, only to have it cancelled at the last minute because the family, who are black, feared for the safety of their white guests.
Indeed, the anger, resentment, and frustration of those miserable days - which contributed to rap music's ethos - provide considerable proof for my continuing refusal to sanction the rap genre for Christian worship. I realize that "Christian rap," from DC Talk to Lecrae, has a popularity that itself attempts to prove its legitimacy, but in reality, it's virtually impossible to reconcile the hope and grace of the Gospel with rap's vulgar hedonism and morbidity. Not to mention its reliance upon crime and personal demeanor for one's identity.
I may not like rap, but I can't deny its portrayal of how certain people vie for credibility. It's a testament to how bad Brooklyn used to be that rap music was partially nurtured there during the borough's darkest days.
Nevertheless, just as Christians have tried to redeem rap, the borough of Brooklyn has found some measure of redemption in the stunning avalanche of new urbanism's unbridled adulation with all things Manhattan. Fortunately for the gentrification industry, Manhattan is relatively small, meaning it can hardly accommodate the throngs of hipsters who pine to thrive off of its vibe. Brooklyn, meanwhile, boasts among the closest subway stops to the Financial District, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side, making it the most logical locale for Manhattan's spill-over effect. It's better than New Jersey, 'cause it's in the same city as Manhattan. It's cooler than the more middle-class Queens, which never really got as bad as Brooklyn during the city's trial years. And yeah, that badness plays well into the edgy elitism of urbanism being superior to the suburbs where we grew up.
In fact, as far as new urbanism goes, Brooklyn may now hold a slight advantage over Manhattan, which is home to all of those greedy banks and inhumane corporations. Plus, mom and dad get a bit ancy when you talk about living in Brooklyn. It's fun to make them worry about you 'cause their generation only knows of Brooklyn as a place people used to flee.
Winning the Urban Battles But Losing Your Ability To Stay
Have I ever told you about the time we were celebrating somebody's birthday in the apartment my aunt and grandmother owned near Sunset Park, and suddenly, gunshots rang out down the street? As bullets flew through the air, we all hit the floor in their third-floor apartment, except my grandmother, who couldn't move fast enough. Instead, she sat in her chair, laughing, with one hand over her face, at the absurdity of it all: her family and invited guests on the floor, and guns cracking, and sirens wailing as a fleet of police cruisers charged down the block.
Good old days? Not so much. But we lived to tell about them, and they do make for more intriguing stories than what Brooklyn is turning into today.
Artisanal cheese and gourmet cupcakes? In Bed-Stuy? I guess that's somebody's idea of reality, but it sounds kinda boring.
Which, of course, is what gentrification is all about. For the sake of people who had to endure the worst parts of Brooklyn during the borough's worst years, I'm glad that the crime rates are way down, and that a relative calm has been achieved between the races. It's even a good thing that property values have risen, better stores have come into the neighborhoods, and other economic indicators have become relatively robust.
The problem with gentrification, however, is that it doesn't know when to stop. Some people say gentrification is simply the free market at work. But for whom is it working?
Gentrification, Free Markets, and Morality
The thing that bothers me about capitalism isn't its basis in freedom and equity, or its unbiased opportunities, or its checks and balances. Those things may not appear to exist in America's economic system, but there's a reason for that, and it's not necessarily capitalism's fault. You see, the thing that bothers me about capitalism revolves around the reasons why free markets assign certain values to things.
Back during white flight, middle-class Caucasians abandoned the inner city primarily because they feared their property values would only continue to deteriorate the more minorities moved into their neighborhood. To me, that's a cruel tactic that negatively influenced the free market. What's equally cruel now, however, is that the same neighborhoods whites abandoned are now experiencing unprecedented increases in property values because they're now hip places for new urbanists - most of whom are white - to live. Housing values are out-pricing the middle and lower classes not because aging apartments and row houses have suddenly been reborn with state-of-the-art structural elements; they've likely only been dolled-up with granite countertops and designer paint. Their value is all relative to trends that a more economically powerful class of people can wield against poorer folks. Yes, demand has increased for housing, but that demand is coming from people who wouldn't have wanted to live anywhere near these same neighborhoods while their current residents were struggling with calamitous civic challenges.
I wish free markets weren't manipulated by things like racism, classism, and even fickle trends. I wonder if a morally-aligned free market could even help alleviate some of the problems that have influenced not only the crime and degradation of Brooklyn's past but also the bizarre realignment of the borough's most marginal 'hoods that could end up pushing out the people who've struggled to make the best of what they could afford.
At least with free markets, we're free to pray that the Lord will help change the hearts and minds of people acting as agents of changes we see as being negative. Such prayers likely helped to stem the tide of violence that was consuming the many Crown Heights' across urban America. Maybe we should also be praying that the benefits of free markets don't now tip the scale too far in the opposite direction.
In terms of "redeeming the cities," God may be wanting less trendiness, and more bended knees.