The topic of gentrification is an important one in our neighborhood–and in neighborhoods across Brooklyn–that has a habit of eliciting lively, and often times divisive, discourse. People feel guilty about gentrifying and people feel violated when their areas are gentrified, and it seems as if many of our conversations about it only end with participants more confused and conflicted on the subject. Does the process hinge on race or class? On individuals or corporations? Are any of the answers mutually exclusive, and is there an effective way to combat change that displaces people from their homes?
To get a different perspective on the topic, we spoke with neighbor Imani Henry, founder of organizing campaign Equality for Flatbush. When they’re not working to pay the bills or dealing with their own housing concerns, Imani and a small but dedicated group of volunteers are passing out informational fliers across the borough and fielding calls from fellow Brooklynites about their gentrification-related issues–and until July 20, they’re working to raise funds for the incredibly important user-generated documentary project “Before It’s Gone, Take It Back.”
“We want to be as inclusive as possible,” says Imani, an activist with a background in organizing who has been living in New York for the past two decades, but who points out that not living in the city for 20 years shouldn’t give someone less of a right to find, and keep, adequate housing here.
“We all came from somewhere,” he says. “I’m a Caribbean person, and the vast majority of my family was born outside of the United States. How long someone has lived in a particular place factoring into whether they deserve to live there is tricky, especially in immigrant areas like this.
“We don’t want anyone to get displaced. You’re important to the campaign whether you’re a white middle-class person who’s lived in Flatbush forever, or if you moved in more recently. We talk a lot about the pushing out of existing communities, but what does it mean when new people come and then have a rent stabilized apartment that they’re being overcharged for? We’re trying to do something that includes lots of different kinds of people, because we feel like everyone has a stake in it.”
Equality for Flatbush defines “gentrification,” by the way, as involving a catering by larger forces–realtors, developers, corporations–to “desirable,” most generally affluent–and, as race and class often intersect, white–groups. Imani says it’s corporations like Starbucks and Trader Joes moving in and pushing mom and pop shops out.
He doesn’t think the painful effects of gentrification or fear of losing a home belongs only to one group of people, ethnically or racially speaking, nor does he think any particular person who might be part of a desirable group should take the idea of “gentrification” personally. It’s not just any one person, he says–it’s a larger effort by landlords and other people who will benefit from the shifting demographics.
Equality for Flatbush operates with the idea that everyone deserves respect, be it around quality of life issues, housing concerns, or relations with the police. And, as knowledge is power, the campaign aims to share with people facts about issues like rent stabilization.
“You should know what you’re entitled to and not entitled to,” Imani says. “If you’re only going to live in the apartment for a year, should you take a rent stabilized apartment? Folks don’t know that the landlord has the right, when you move out, to raise the rent–and maybe we’ll inform someone who then goes, ‘I don’t want to contribute to that!'”
“The way we look at it is not so much about the people who are moving here,” he says. “No one should take it as an individual thing. The truth of the matter is, people are being escorted in in these incredible numbers. Maybe they can’t afford to live in Manhattan or a different part of the city anymore, and the real estate developers and the landlords are saying, ‘Oh, do you know you can have some green space, and you can do this and that,’ so they move here.
“But the landlords aren’t gonna tell you who they pushed out before you. They won’t share with you that there are folks living right next to you without stoves.
“And the people being advertised to are being catered to in a certain way,” he says. “In Seattle, a black community fought to keep Trader Joe’s from opening because it was, for them, a sign of gentrification. It’s not that Trader Joe’s doesn’t take EBT or any of that. It’s the catering. It signals something to have corporate entities open in the neighborhood–and it’s happening on Flatbush and Cortelyou.”
To further complicate things, there’s the privilege of mobility–what allows people to relatively easily get together three months’ rent, take time to go see apartments, possibly pay a realtor, and handle moving costs and other considerations from, say, Manhattan to Flatbush.
“There’s a difference between people being pushed out of their apartments to make way for someone else and people voluntarily leaving,” Imani says. “There are black people who can no longer can afford to buy property here, but their families expand, so they go somewhere more affordable. They might go to the Poconos. And I think the same thing is happening with the influx of people moving here.”
What happens to people without that kind of mobility is part of the momentum behind the campaign–and Imani paints a picture of the systemic disadvantages keeping particular groups of people from obtaining that kind of mobility. For instance, Imani is also largely interested in the Flatbush Avenue dollar van industry–and its opponents.
“If you are a man of color and you have a passenger van, you’re being stopped, and you’ll get tickets written. It’s not about picking up at the bus stop or not anymore.
“The bottom line is this is all about economics. The van system was created because we fought for years to have adequate bus service by the MTA in this neighborhood and it hasn’t happened. People talk about the reckless driving, but these guys are fighting for $2 for each rider.
“Some of these drivers are former bus drivers or school bus drivers whose companies have closed down,” he says. “These are working class people who are trying to make a living. They’ve insured their vehicle for $20,000 a year, they have all of this licensing done, and they’re still getting $600 or 800 in tickets every month. There are people coming from Pennsylvania, Atlanta, wherever, they come and drive a van here. How desperate is that?
“This is someone’s livelihood,” he says. “How are they not righteous?”
Imani says it’s not just on the job, either, but that stigma lingers many places in fluctuating neighborhoods like ours. People are being made to feel uncomfortable even in or in front of their own homes, or traveling from Point A to Point B. It seems it’s hard to stay, or to go. One part of it comes from landlords, he says, or realtors hoping to buy current residents out.
“There are landlords who will stop cashing your checks, then take you to court and say you haven’t paid,” he says. “You have to go through a whole process. You have to take a day off and go to court when you did nothing wrong. What if you can’t? And who wants that on record, that you’re facing eviction?
“There are white people in buildings now, too,” he says, “who are sharing their appliances with their fellow tenants–and they’re getting slapped around by their landlords, because how dare you look across the hallway and take some interest in that building that you live in and your neighbors!”
And sometimes even other tenants are the problem.
“One of the women I’ve talked to lives in a one room studio apartment,” Imani says. “Her kids come to visit. Maybe she’s not ready to receive them because she’s changing her clothes. So her new neighbor next door calls the super because they’re in the hallway waiting. And then this woman gets a note about no loitering. Her flesh and blood can’t come visit her?
“And the new woman, who’s making the calls, will say in the elevator to this woman who’s been living in the building for years, ‘Hi, I haven’t met you before,'” says Imani. “And it’s not just ‘all black people look alike’ stuff that’s going on, it’s also that she’s actively, like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing there? You don’t belong here.’
“You can be totally passive aggressively friendly about it, like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ But the fact is, you don’t care enough to get to know me. You just want to question what am I doing here. If you did care, you would know that I’m your neighbor next door.
“You’ve met me like sixteen times this week. You don’t know my name, you’re not stretching out your hand to shake it, you’re just questioning me, and I’ve lived here longer than you have.”
Imani says those chosen to serve and protect New Yorkers often contribute to locals’ discomfort as well.
“Police checkpoints have been happening at Flatbush and Church Avenue,” he says. “There will be twenty cops in the intersection with wagons already set up. It’s particularly in one direction–going east to west. It’s not Memorial Day weekend, it’s not Labor Day weekend, this is not some campaign trying to see if there are drunk drivers.
“I once saw two white people at one of the checkpoints at Church and Flatbush,” Imani says. “The woman got out of the car and went into Dunkin Donuts.
“I know of people being harassed for standing outside of their own homes. They’re homeowners, but police want to see ID. And even when they show ID, the officer will say, ‘You can’t stand there.’ This is my house. Where else would I stand? So it was astonishing to me that she would think to do that in the middle of a checkpoint! Given my experience as a person of color and the experiences I know about, getting out of that car didn’t seem safe. A part of me was like, ‘What are you doing?!'”
The reaction that Imani says he now instinctively has to police presence is something he worries about, especially for the sake of younger locals; a recent study showed that the 70th Precinct had the highest number of stop and frisks without summonses or arrests in the entire city.
“There’s a whole generation now of children of color that are gonna grow up utterly traumatized,” he says. “There are kids who can talk about how many times they’ve been stopped and frisked. The understanding of the violation to their bodies, to their psyche, that they are criminalized for sheerly being black and brown, or Asian. Just being people of color.
“My experience, if we speak up or say something, has been people go, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Like, ‘You’re working class people–why would you ever think that you should have a response?’
“Even how the media responded to Kimani Gray was sort of like, ‘You’re not supposed to get up and do anything.’ They kept talking about young people were rebelling and wiling out, but it’s like, ‘You shot my friend in his back while he was on the ground!’ What did you expect people to do? Those young people reacted, to me, rationally and sanely because they’re outraged that their friend was murdered.
“We don’t really have grassroots community organizing here,” Imani says. “There’s lot of social service organizations and church-based work and tenant organizing happening, but political community-based organizing, I don’t see it in the same way as in other neighborhoods.
“I don’t think, in a regular Community Board meeting, there’s a lot of respect given to issues that working class people of color are facing. The level of brutality that we experience, and what’s going on with landlords and tenants. The hellfire that is Brooklyn Housing Court, and how banks and developers and landlords are just going around saying, ‘Here, can I give you a check so you can move out?’
“There’s not really a community response in the same way here as in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. We have Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and they’re awesome and I love them–but what about things like what happened with Kyam Livingston? Do we have a Flatbush-based group at the forefront of that struggle?
“Nobody expects anything from us,” he says. “That’s basically why Equality for Flatbush was created–to have some way for our communities to respond.”
Assisted by his background in social work, Imani is clear he isn’t a services organization, but a conduit to whatever obscure resources underserved or un-catered-to communities might need.
“My whole piece of this is, how do we mobilize? How do we organize?” he says. “And so for right now, I just wanted to create something so people could call in and we could strategize together. We’re stronger that way.
“I can talk to someone and say, ‘You need legal services. Here’s a place that’s going to have an immigration lawyer until the end of the month.’ Folks at Medgar Evers have sent me information, so I have a little guide. There are all these free services for homeowners that are dealing with all this mortgage scam stuff. I say, go talk to this person, go to that community meeting. I connect them with Aga from the Flatbush Tenants Coalition, I talk about Jumaane Williams–I put people in touch, because I feel like they’re isolated. And it’s in the gentrifying forces’ interest to keep us that way. I just try to disseminate information, have a place for people. Whatever it is, I put it out on the internet, put it on Facebook, get it out to people.
“I’m English speaking, I am a man, I’m monolingual–this doesn’t always make me the best person to go out to every neighborhood and community,” Imani says. “So I started talking to social workers who speak different languages about doing door to door outreach. I don’t speak Creole or Spanish, but my fliers are in three languages, and I need more. But I have people I can ask to take the phone if that person calls in.”
While Imani makes it clear that class is at the center of the gentrification struggle, it’s hard to deny that people of color are disproportionately affected adversely by it. That’s why one of Equality for Flatbush’s objectives is educating people about how to live in anti-oppressive ways.
“You made a decision to live in a neighborhood that’s majority of people of color; learn a little bit about their history. Consider where in the bus you want to sit. It’s important to know about the boycotts, to know how people fought the Klan so black people could ride public transportation with dignity. I don’t think we can ever negate that. And we’re not handing out gold stars to anyone who’s living in a black neighborhood for learning about black history; it’s just the right thing to do.
“I’m not gonna try and pretend I have all the answers to any of this,” he says, “but what I would say more to the newcomers is, when someone’s handing you a flier and they’re talking about something political, don’t ignore it–take it. Talk to your neighbors. Get involved in community struggles. Ask about rent stabilization, learn about rent stabilization, pass it on to other people. People in this underground way are giving each other tips to do the right thing.”
Imani says that guilt and anger over gentrification can both be powerful forces if channeled in a constructive manner–now and then, he interjects to say how tired he is of being upset or in pain over it. What he and Equality for Flatbush are doing, however–and what he encourages others to do–is employ collaboration and consideration, and get organizing.
“If someone new to the community is down to fight, then I see no barriers,” Imani says. “Bring them in–hell yes! And we embrace them even more if they’re taking a stand when they could easily, based on privilege, do nothing.
“You’re welcome, I’m glad that you’re here, as long as you know how to work together. Let’s do this in a way that’s respectful. Nobody should be going, ‘I have more education than you, I know more than you do, I know this…'”
As for “Before It’s Gone,” Take It Back, Imani says the purpose of the project is to expose the stories of people who aren’t often discussed in trend pieces or depicted in renderings of gleaming new buildings going up around the park. He says more than anything, he expects the project will serve as a historical record or how Brooklyn once was–the importance of which he relates in the form of a recent experience at AfroPunk, a now-misappropriated event which begun in the interest of both people of color and those involved in anti-establishment movements.
“I can’t go to AfroPunk anymore,” Imani says. “I was a sort of punky kid growing up–I had a mohawk and a rattail, and I have worn combat boots most of my life–and I still think of myself as involved in the punk movement, or the DIY movement.
“I went there recently– to this thing that was created for blacks, and came out of oppression–and I tried handing out fliers about Trayvon Martin, and I had people put their hands in my face in the middle of Bed Stuy. But at this point, it’s a music festival with black artists, and the majority of the people at the event are white, and it’s like we’re just entertainment. It’s just reductive now, without consciousness of punk coming from a political place. I’m talking to people about police brutality, and they’re putting their hands in my face!
“So here is something that was created as a way to talk about inequalities, but has been co-opted in a corporate manner, and it’s gone. The bigger it gets and the more it’s publicized as a festival and not about the roots of where the punk movement came from or where AfroPunk came from… it’s not about these artists–it’s about the people who went to punk shows and fought skinheads!
“It’s painful to lose those things, or watch those things go away,” Imani says. “When I talk to people, of any color, of a certain generation about what’s going on in Brooklyn, they are in pain. We’re going backward in our history across the board. Even things like the women’s movement, rights or equalities that people have fought for are being eroded right now–and we contribute to them when we don’t remember, or don’t learn, or don’t talk about, or don’t know, the history.
“Twenty years from now, people should know what the neighborhood looked like before it became all Trader Joes and Starbucks.” he says, “One of the roles I hope Equality for Flatbush can play is just a place to tell people… a place to just listen to people.”
The $15,000 Imani is hoping to raise for “Before It’s Gone, Take It Back” will go to setting up a website on which the public can add and stream photos and videos, as well as to compensating the tireless volunteers who have been helping Imani all along.
“We are not nonprofit-esque, but we are nothing yet, in that sense,” Imani says. “We have a financial manager who, out of the goodness of her heart, has helped to get us incorporated and is working on that–but right now, we have no money, we have no grants, none of that kind of stuff.
“We are so grassroots and so small, people always ask, ‘Where’s your office?’ I’m like, ‘What?!’ I am just trying to raise money so I can do 20 hours a week of this! I want to be able to pay people for their time! I have all these professional, wonderful human beings around me who are doing this out of their own political beliefs and love and friendship and sense of community around gentrification, and that’s why we’re doing it.
“I feel so blessed, but I also feel like I’ve exploited the labor of so many people already who, out of the kindness of their hearts, have helped. I am fighting just to have the money so I can tell someone who’s helping, ‘You can focus on this.’
“They’re doing this, but they’re trying to pay bills, too. I feel blessed that someone who was evicted from their own apartment was helping us hand out fliers–they now have a job and they’re fine, but I found out that they were going through hell–and out of their own conviction, they were out fliering with me.
“And what’s happening already, too, what’s been beautiful, is I’m getting responses from people in Oakland, people in Harlem–places that have also been experiencing gentrification–saying, ‘We should do something like this,’ which is awesome to think about.”
“So we’re just trying to fundraise to have the most basic things and even say, ‘You can take time off from work, and you give 10 me hours and I will give you a little stipend so you can put the website together.”
And there’s a pretty self-explanatory reason “Before It’s Gone, Take It Back”–and Equality for Flatbush–can’t wait.
“We’re planning to launch in August,” Imani says. “Maybe it would make sense to do it next year, but we feel urgency because so much is changing. At the rate of how things are changing…”