I don’t know my neighbors.
Well, I know Asia down in 3F, and one of my best friends lives around the corner, but I don’t know this place, or the people who call it home, at least not how I want to.
I moved to New York City from Cleveland 11 years ago for my undergraduate degree, and on some level, I’ve been desperately trying to make this place my home, too, ever since. My first year, I displaced the Ohio area code preceding my phone number with one from NYC and registered to vote here rather than the purple state in which I was born where my vote could arguably have more effect (discounting the importance of local politics or my more recent abolitionist perspective on voting). On paperwork, I listed wherever I was living even temporarily as my mailing address while I was in school, even though my parents’ house in Cleveland was the most consistent way to reach me.
Part of my yearning to belong in America’s most populous city stemmed from being a poor Black queer kid praying for a restart and leaving the traumas of my childhood behind. This is an emptiness that many Black people—and Black queer people in particular—spend far too much time moving from place to place to fill as if there isn’t a hole that needs plugging first on the other side of this chasm of childhood trauma, a phenomenon I explore in my upcoming memoir, Black Boy Out of Time.
More recently, however, I have been able to link these efforts to a deep desire not to be received as a gentrifier in any place I live; not to contribute to the abuses of people who have known this place their whole lives but who the law sees as less desirable because of their greater incompatibility with whiteness and/or new business interests.
According to Anisa Jackson, who studies Black geographies for their American Studies Ph.D. program at New York University, “Gentrification describes a process of neighborhood change where the poor are displaced to prioritize the accumulation of capital for landowners, businesses, and municipalities.” The question of whether Black people specifically can be gentrifiers has been in dispute for some time because, as Jackson noted in our conversation, “gentrification has to be understood not only as a recent urban phenomenon but within a longer history of racialized expropriation, including settler colonialism and slavery.”
I want to use the fuller historical context Jackson pinpoints to mean gentrification can’t be reduced to just the displacement of the original residents in a neighborhood (although that is a critical and justifiably condemned element). It should also be defined by specific benefits afforded to the displacer, such as being protected by police or catered to in shops and developments at the expense of native residents of color, who are contrastingly regarded as threats. This distinction may seem trivial, especially if you are the one on the receiving end of the violence of displacement, but I have seen how it can be helpful in ensuring we remain able to address other Black people who might be part of systems that are harmful to us with the care we all deserve as uncompensated victims of the global slave trade. In contrast, reducing gentrification to displacement alone has placed other Black people at the center of the target of our scopes, as was the result of the many anti-gentrification screeds offered by the fake native Afro-Latina New Yorker Jessica Krug.
But defining gentrification in a way that is most likely to apply to a white gentrifier rather than a Black non-native is also, obviously, self-serving. It is how I have protected myself from facing certain criticisms and accepting anger directed at gentrifiers, even as there are criticisms and anger I should rightfully hold.
I don’t know my neighbors, but I can use my status as a non-gentrifier to excuse this away not as the violence it entails for the neighborhood, but as a factor of having only been living in my current apartment at the border of Flatbush and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a year.
My partner and I live in a newly erected building with a gym that is undoubtedly a part of neighborhood changes displacing Black people, but I can use my status as a non-gentrifier to shift the focus toward the fact that we had to jump through many anti-Black hoops to be approved for it instead (our application for an apartment around the corner was rejected even though we submitted the first down payment and met all the requirements because a white couple who applied after us “made more money”).
My real estate broker proudly touted gentrification in selling us the place— “there are so many new developments coming up in this area!” “the police are right around the corner!” “this area is changing!”—and whether I am called a gentrifier or not, my silence was and is a form of complicity.
“I think it’s simple. If you can afford to live in the new ‘luxury’ apartment buildings going up all through the hood, you are financially able to support gentrification,” says native Brooklynite Kareem Youngblood, 35. “That goes for Black people who are moving into gentrified neighborhoods and those who grew up here but have the money to stay. However, I think it’s still more beneficial for the communities of color to live among other people of color with success instead of people who look nothing like us.”
What if, instead of hand wringing about whether I could be called a gentrifier, I did more to acknowledge the ways I could, in Youngblood’s words, financially support gentrification? What if I made a plan to better get to know my neighbors and address the reasons I haven’t been able to rather than guilt-tripping myself for it? Whether or not Black people can be gentrifiers, we can all contribute to the displacement or harm to native communities, and we can all do more to live amongst each other with better “success.” What if we started the conversation there, where it didn’t have to erase the very real anti-Blackness non-native Black people face as well?
“To have a productive and honest discussion about racial and economic injustice, we have to start from the beginnings,” Jackson wrote in a piece for the Stranger documenting their experience moving to the Central District of Seattle. “To acknowledge our histories is to understand the external circumstances that contextualize our persons, communities, and spaces.”
Perhaps the question of whether Black people can be gentrifiers, and more specifically, the act of ruminating on that question as a non-native living in a Black neighborhood, obscures this critical context rather than illuminates it. Maybe considering gentrification along a strict binary of Black and white obscures everyone’s indisputable responsibility to acknowledge and reject the violent and ongoing erasure of poor Black communities that both ultimately harms all Black people and uses some of us to further harm those who are marginalized in different ways than we are.
I can’t control whether I will be received as a gentrifier in any place I live, and I have contributed to some abuses in this neighborhood, so pretending otherwise isn’t helpful. And acknowledging my responsibility to undo systemic violence and always acting on that responsibility could very well be the hole that needs plugging on the other side of this chasm I have for so long been trying to fill.
“Home.” “Neighbor.” “Gentrifier.” It’s never just about the words we use. It’s also about whether we are able to hold nuance in their vibrations, hold Black people’s lasting place as both harm-doers and survivors of harm with care and consideration, and do everything we can to get better at holding everything in this way.
Hari Ziyad is a screenwriter, the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr, the bestselling author of Black Boy Out of Time (Little A), and a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow. You can find them on Twitter.