Gentrification

Soon rows of condos will spring up in my neighborhood, down by the river, displacing Polish and Latino families who’ve lived here for decades. I don’t like it, but I’m not sure I have standing to denounce the development.

If people like me hadn’t moved here in the first place, the Greenpoint waterfront wouldn’t be gearing up to become the future home of 10,000 Upper East Siders who need more room to push their strollers around and probably aren’t aware of Radiac.
 

At the taping of the Liberal Arts pilot the other night, Jonathan Lethem talked with Katherine Lanpher about his latest novel, the autobiographically-inspired The Fortress of Solitude (excerpted, with rearranging, here), which depicts the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn in the 1970’s, before its gentification. Sorry, I mean the Gowanus section. (“‘If someone asks you, say you live in Gowanus,'” the narrator’s mother coaches him. “‘Don’t be ashamed. Boerum Hill is pretentious bullshit.'”)

Lethem said that as a boy he harbored paralyzing guilt because his sympathies lay on both sides of the gentrification argument, with “the people who were being displaced,” and with “the people who thought the place could be made wonderful.” And then he read this passage:

It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life. Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. The song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere.

At the very least the song was the soundtrack to your destruction, the theme. Your days reduced to a montage cut to its cowbell beat, inexorable doubled bass line and raunch vocal, a sort of chanted sneer, surrounded by groans of pleasure. The stutter and blurt of what–a tuba? French horn? Rhythm guitar and trumpet, pitched to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How could it have been allowed to happen, how could it have been allowed on the radio? That song ought to be illegal. It wasn’t racist–you’ll never sort that one out, don’t even start–so much as anti-you.

Yes they were dancing, and singing / and movin’ to the groovin’ / and just when it hit me / somebody turned around and shouted–

Every time your sneakers met the street, the end of that summer, somebody was hurling it at your head, that song.

September 4, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade in the main building on Court Street and Butler, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” was the top song on the rhythm-and-blues charts. Fourteen days later it topped Billboard’s pop charts. Your misery’s anthem, No. 1 song in the nation.

Sing it through gritted teeth: WHITE BOY!

Lay down the boogie and play that funky music till you die.

Lethem’s new essay collection, The Disappointment Artist, serves as a sort of companion piece to the novel. He told Lanpher he’d always anticipated that he’d only write fiction, but “after delving into so much truth for Fortress,” and then fictionalizing it, he became unexpectedly interested in the actual truth.

(Despite a lukewarm reception in the New York Review of Books, I’ll pick up the essays, one of which was excerpted recently in the Denver Post. I’ve been a Lethem fan since Gun, With Occasional Music, and Motherless Brooklyn sent me off on a crime fiction jag. If you missed Lethem’s Fortress when it appeared in 2003, I like what Sasha Frere-Jones had to say on October 6 of that year, starting at the middle of this page.)
 

Although some of my New Yawker friends are convinced that gentrification only affects Northern urban centers, it turns out, astonishingly enough, that people move around south of the Mason-Dixon line too.

Tayari Jones‘ second novel, The Untelling, opens, after a staggering prologue, on the eve of the ever-imminent revival of Atlanta’s West End. “For the last twenty years,” Jones’ narrator, Aria, tells us:

people have predicted that this area was on the rise. They point to Grant Park, which has become a Victorian oasis, smack in the center of town. It’s only a matter of time, they say, urging yuppies and buppies alike, until gentrification elevates the West End, the historic West End, too. I hope they are right. I only rent my house, so I have no real stake in the prospect, but I like the idea of imminent transformation and appreciation.

The West End is a hard place to wrap your mind around. My house is off People Street, not too far from the Wren’s Nest–where, depending on your take on things, Joel Chandler Harris either wrote or plagiarized the Uncle Remus stories. Just over a mile away is Spelman College, my alma mater, built where there were once Civil War barracks. And across the street from Spelman are some of the meanest housing projects in the South. I guess the only really concistent variable in the West End is that nearly everyone within a five-mile radius is black….

Aria’s boyfriend calls the West End “the worst of both worlds, and accuses her of “liv[ing] in the ghetto with a bunch of bourgie Negroes.”

I started Jones’ novel after we read together last month — although I’ve reluctantly set it aside for the moment to write a couple of newspaper reviews and work on my manuscript — and I was particularly struck by this funny, candid passage:

Lately white folks are moving into our neighborhood, one by one. I’m not bent out of shape about it. A gay couple, Jewish, according to my roommate, Rochelle, bought the pale yellow bungalow across the road, which has recently been restored to its turn-of-the-century splendor–wraparound porch and stained-glass panels in the mahogany door. Rochelle and I considered taking them a gift to welcome them to the neighborhood. She suggested baking cookies, but then we worried that they might not trust us enough to eat what we had prepared. The very idea of this offended us as though we had actually offered them the cookies and they’d refused.

In a glowing review of The Untelling for the current Believer, Susan Straight says Jones’ Atlanta “is a fully-realized and vibrant character in the novel.”


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