I currently live right off the middle of Flatbush Avenue, on Avenue D and 23rd. It's a neighbourhood comprised mostly of Caribbeans.
As has been documented so much by so many street photographers, Flatbush is ripe for gentrification. It fits all the qualifications; indeed, my neighbourhood was profiled in the NY Times as the next big shift.
I have mixed feelings about this. The danger here can be palpable, especially during heated arguments on my block that I now casually wonder will escalate into gunfire. Someone got shot outside my front door this week, in fact. There have been at least two gang-related murders right off my subway stop.
Not to say that it's always terror and darkness around here. Far from it, in fact - and that's where my mixed feelings come in. I don't feel that uneasiness around, say, 5th Avenue in Park Slope, but there's a sinister quality about whitewashing a neighbourhood, for lack of a better phrase. Day to day, it's actually quite pleasant here. But then something will happen and it sets off everyone.
I hate that there can't seem to be a balance between race relations, class struggle and people's day to day lives. Sometimes I look at a pitiful pile of rags, items stuffed in granny carts and the screaming owner lunging at passersby, and I admittedly wish, even fleetingly for the safety of conformity, a Starbucks oasis with free wifi and indulgent caffeine buzz.
But ultimately, conformity is an illusion. I don't like the imbalance of class, and I especially don't like race being mixed into it. I realise that being a white woman in this neighbourhood is an unwelcome anomaly. I represent to my neighbours the change that's about to come, whether or not it's deserved. When they see me, they see a mass forced exodus followed by a sea of basic bitches, hipsters and overpriced vegan brunch joints. I want to tell them, "I'm very poor, I live in an 8x8 room I can barely afford, I qualify for food stamps and government help." But I know it would fall on deaf ears. My skin is automatically an undeserved status symbol. I'm just another white girl.
I don't want to be. I want to understand my community better. I wish I could get to know people better. I've met many nice, kindly people on my block. The family who own the bodega downstairs. The pot smokers in the first floor apartment who sit on the stoop. The sweet elderly woman across the hall. I say hi to people, hold open doors, try to be friendly without being a sitting duck. It's all I can really do. But by and large, there is an air of suspicion from passers-by. I don't belong here, and I know it.
I dislike being immersed in a culture of suspicion and fear, but that's the climate of this neck of the city; what "progress" and "gentrification" cause. Likewise, I can't stand it when white people in my situation see themselves as "brave" or "pioneers." Pioneers of what? Living in a shitty neighbourhood? I moved here because it was the only place I could afford, not because I wanted to be seen as some kind of courageous maverick for daring to live around black people. But it creeps up in conversation all the time. People will be too afraid to come to my neighbourhood (and let's face it, with all the damn guns, they're probably right). A black actor I worked with recently asked where I lived. When I told him Avenue D and 23rd, he shook his head in disbelief and said he thought for sure I'd say Albemarle or Rugby, simply because I was in an indie film and had on a nice (hand me down) dress. I was disgusted and embarrassed. But about what?
I don't pretend to understand the black experience. In this country, it's a very touchy and very upsetting subject. I have no idea what it's like to be a black woman, or a black man. But I do sympathise, and I do understand class struggle. The two are not mutually exclusive in New York City, and racism only fuels the fire.
White/affluent people think there's a problem to fix in the real estate market of Brooklyn - and that problem is called "How Can I Possibly Make More Money?" Instead of actually meeting others and coming to a sensible compromise about all this real estate, they barrel through, with complete disregard to anyone's history, life story, or situation. Families are displaced with tax hikes and rent increases, adding to the resentment between classes and race. I know what these neighbours of mine feel like. It's an unwanted invasion; it's a fear of change; it's both warranted and unwarranted.
I know that I don't want to live in Flatbush long term. It's a food desert. While the affluent people of Park Slope stand in line casually contemplating what kind of organic kale they want to massage for their salads, my neighbours fight over half-rotted potatoes at C-Town. In Park Slope you can't walk ten feet without nearly being run over by a Cadillac stroller pushed by a Lululemon-clad supermom; in my hood there's a store covered in WIC stickers that sells discount Similac and dusty-looking Gerber jars, clearly for all the "babymamas."
The disparity of class in this area would be shocking if I hadn't grown up in a very poor, "white trash" area of Central Pennsylvania. In the past couple of years a group of affluent outsiders bought up abandoned property and rebranded a crummy small town as a getaway destination. The fights between the locals and newcomers were dreadful. I could see both groups' points: yes, the place was a shithole, but people started moving in and discredited everything that had come before. There'd be snide comments about the hillbillies, snide comments about the hippies, you name it. I see the same thing, large scale and even more sinister, here. For the gentrification is not just well meaning dreamers, it's corporations. It's Just Another AT&T store next to a Planet Fitness next to a Starbucks. The erasure of humanity is even more brutal here.
Not to say I want a place to live in terror or in complacency. If you ask me, city life is not really something I'm into. But I understand this gentrification very well, and I see the wiping happening within my neighbourhood. I decided to start documenting not just the change in buildings, which most gentrification documentarians seem to focus on, but the people. I wanted to show what daily life in Flatbush is like, and what it's like to be an outsider witnessing it.
My flatmate and I went on a walk one Sunday morning and I simply photographed what/who I saw. I didn't want to paint anyone as sinister, or saintly, I just wanted to document what goes on day to day and the people who live here, so I shot these all on my phone while talking to my flatmate. These are those photographs.