"IT'S WRONG TO SAY that New York City is static," says a community organizer in DW Gibson's The Edge Becomes the Center. "New York City has always changed, but the question is who's going to be driving the train?"
That question is the focus of Gibson's new book, a polyphonic oral history documenting modern-day gentrification in New York. Gibson interviews a cross-section of New Yorkers ranging from bank presidents to community organizers to real-estate agents to punk squatters, and lets them speak for themselves on "steroidal global capitalism," international investment, and the other powerful forces of gentrification transforming NYC.
But just what is gentrification? The interviewees of The Edge Becomes the Center give a plurality of definitions, but as one says: "Gentrification isn't about color, it's about perceived class." That is, gentrification can occur when wealthier residents move in large numbers into a neighborhood, in the process driving rents up, transforming the face of the community, and displacing the original residents. One lifelong resident of the Bushwick area of Brooklyn speaks to this defamiliarization in her community: "Before they didn't care about cleaning up Brooklyn. Then they started to build things and it started becoming nicer. There's less drugs. There's still crime but not on this block. I feel safe walking around my neighborhood.
"And I thought finally they're fixing Brooklyn," she continues. "But I didn't know it was at the expense of the people who were already here. Before it was a lot of Hispanics and a lot of blacks. Now you don't see a lot of them. You see a lot of white people. It's not for us to live in. It's for other people."
The greatest achievement of the book is the way Gibson uses many voices to stitch together one narrative of oppressive urban change. The history of New York is, as one New York University professor says in the book, "shifting land uses, shifting populations"—but the voices of The Edge Becomes the Center illustrate how the city's current sea change is something altogether unique. Unscrupulous landlords plot evictions so they can sell the real estate, tenants with rent-stabilized apartments are strong-armed into buyouts, and the city's poorest are forced out into the outskirts and beyond. In effect, New York has become a city that's only affordable and truly livable for the upper economic strata of its population.
One wonders if there are lessons for our own city to be drawn here. A recent study by Governing magazine found that Portland has seen more gentrification than any other city in America this century. In many ways, Gibson's oral history is not specific to New York, but a warning of a possible future where displacement and institutionalized inequity have redrawn and resegregated the boundaries of our communities. As one interviewee puts it: "It's all money, money, money, money. We flee to New York because we know it's the place where there's freedom. But it's not going to be free for too much longer."