How Gentrification Changed the Brooklyn Literary Scene

Brooklyn-based writers discuss what’s been lost to demographic and cultural change in this oral history

The Brooklyn Letters project is a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

This is the third installment of Brooklyn Letters. You can read earlier oral histories here.

“D o you remember when[insert demolished/renovated landmark] used to be here?” This type of conversation starter is applicable to many cities, not only New York. But it’s especially overwhelming here, thanks to an influx of affluent newcomers, and political and commercial changes intended to cater to them and their money. When it comes to NYC, terms like tumultuous, gritty, and urban are no longer applicable, replaced with up-and-coming, hipster, trendy. These changes extend to the demographics too: the Black population of Fort Greene declined by 30% since 2000, and household income has increased 53%. Gentrification isn’t simply a new form of branding; it’s erasure.

While NYC is known for the arts, being an artist in NYC is a very different story. The Brooklyn literary scene isn’t at a loss for artists: it’s estimated to have the highest population of all the five boroughs, with my hometown of Queens a close second. The numbers for new residents increases each year, as does the turnover of buildings and the cost of rent. This revolving door filters out those who can’t maintain a life here, be it artistic or domestic, thanks to rising costs. The result razes buildings and communities. Artist spaces that provided solace, refuge, and fellowship shift focus or fade away unable to sustain themselves even when they have a steady clientele. As priciest cities go, Brooklyn is right behind Manhattan — but the average weekly wage for Brooklyn inhabitants is actually lower than Manhattan and Queens. Gentrification isn’t solely race specific; it’s also about class.

Gentrification isn’t simply a new form of branding; it’s erasure.

Those of us born and bred in New York City, or who have lived here long enough, are witnesses to the changing landscape. From the erection of high-rise condos to the widespread farm-to-table eatery craze, Brooklyn, like many areas of NYC, is emblematic of change that can come at a cost. For this segment of Brooklyn Letters, I spoke with authors who have experienced (and written about) these ongoing shifts of gentrification in areas like Fort Greene, Williamsburg, and DUMBO. We talked about the spoken word movement, PoC-owned businesses, and lesbian archives: all inherent pieces of not only Brooklyn history but the larger literary canon. Perhaps you heard of these spaces, or maybe you lost out because you arrived too late. Consider this a necessary record.

Ibi Zoboi [author of American Street & Pride]: Local artists used to put their photographs, paintings, or collages on the walls [of the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, a soul food restaurant in Fort Greene that was a haven for spoken-word poets in the 1990s]. It was like a multimedia event. And it was a place to go to meet. You sign up for the Open Mic. There’d be a featured poet and it’d be packed. I was a brand new writer coming across these established writers like Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Sarah Jones who is now an actress was a poet. Liza Jessie Peterson. That strip in Fort Greene was just a hub. To me it was like an Afrocentric Black Arts Movement that I still feel hasn’t really been documented. And it was a second wave of poetry. I don’t know if anything was happening before that, before the ’90s. I think the Black Arts Movement was, what, late ‘60s/early ‘70s?

Hugh Ryan [author of When Brooklyn Was Queer]: A huge number of queer writers have lived/currently live in Brooklyn, and I think that’s part of what has given Brooklyn its cachet starting all the way back with Walt Whitman. Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Gypsy Rose Lee… Off the top of my head others that come to mind are Marianne Moore, Carson Mccullers, James Purdy, Maurice Kenny.

Zoboi: I know the late ’90s was just huge for spoken word, and I think the Moon, which was Brooklyn Moon Café, had a huge influence on that. After that I used to go to something called the Sunday Tea Party at the YWCA on Third and Atlantic. Like I think it would be every Sunday there was a DJ called Ian Friday who used to play House Music, and before the House Music set there’d be a spoken word open mic performance. This was where Erykah Badu when she was first on the scene would go to the Brooklyn Moon Café. Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli would frequent this area in Fort Greene. When I started writing it wasn’t books, it wasn’t authors that inspired me. It was the underground spoken word scene of the late ’90s, in this particular area of Brooklyn.

Naima Coster [author of Halsey Street]: Fort Greene continued to be a neighborhood that was home to a lot of prominent contemporary writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, and I think Jennifer Egan. I think Colson Whitehead wrote about being priced out of Fort Greene actually. Which is interesting because this was a few years ago.

Zoboi: People were selling books before Greenlight [Bookstore] started there. People were selling their chapbooks and other poetry books along with the incense and shea butter. This was my entry into publishing. People were self-publishing. Jessica Care Moore had Moore Black Press. Jessica was a Detroiter who came to New York and I think performed at the Apollo. Established poets would publish their own books and start their own poets. Then up-and-coming poets would align themselves with the established poets who would help them publish their own books. Saul Williams is big time now. Carl Haycock Brooks. Asha Bandele. Suheir Hammad. I knew all these people because my last two years of college I went to Hunter College. Hunter College was a creative, political, activist hub. And we’d go from Hunter or City College or wherever other people were coming from and congregate in Brooklyn. And this is the area of Fort Greene, Brooklyn in particular.

Ryan: I would say that over the time I’ve been in Brooklyn I’ve definitely seen queer arts spaces come and go with somewhat depressing regularity. For instance, the first time I ever did anything queer/art related in Brooklyn, it was at this amazing cooperative space called DUMBA, which was in DUMBO. This would have been 1999? They were a collective, anti-capitalist, queer home that was hosting the second annual Queeruption, which was a queer anarchist/political/art convergence that had started in Europe. They threw amazing parties, concerts (L7 and Le Tigre performed there), they acted as a film space (John Cameron Mitchell filmed parts of Shortbus there). Rashaad Newsome lived there! And they had open studio days for the artists living there. And raised money for them. It was an awesome space. But as the years went on, the neighborhood gentrified. HARD.

Zoboi: [Now it’s] gentrified. Greenlight Bookstore is there. It wasn’t there before. The 4W Circle, there was a lot of Black-owned business that sold artwork, that sold handmade jewelry, that supported local artists. 4W Circle was like a Black woman owned shop and you could go there as an artist and sell your stuff, put yourself in the store and get a commission. Moshood is still there, he’s been there from the very beginning. And that was when people on Living Single were wearing Moshood. When Living Single was out it was based on that whole Fort Greene vibe. There was a literary community. Even though there weren’t any bookstores it was very literary. Because you had your poets, your writers. And a lot of the writers from Vibe magazine like Dream Hampton lived in the Fort Greene area and frequented these stores. Biggie Smalls was just down the block. So writers for Vibe, The Source were all living down there in Downtown Brooklyn, especially Fort Greene. And they would buy their clothes there. And to say that there was a café. It’s not like here, nobody was going to a café to focus on their laptops. The laptops weren’t a thing back then. You would go to a spoken word open mic event and lounge.

Nobody was going to a café to focus on their laptops. The laptops weren’t a thing back then. You would go to a spoken word open mic event and lounge.

Ryan: First, rents started going up. Then the [DUMBA] collective decided they wanted to be a specifically QPOC [queer people of color] space, which wasn’t anti-capitalist (they had a really smart critique of the way anti-capitalism was difficult for / made the lives of QPOC folks more difficult, because they often didn’t have the same set of resources to fall back on that white queer folks who were “anti-capitalist” had). I think this was in part (although I don’t know this for 100%, just a guess) an effort to be able to keep the space. Then they had a party to try and raise rent money, and someone was hurt, and the landlords were suddenly like, “What the fuck is going on here?” Then they kicked them all out and jacked up the rents by like a million. I think that was around 2006/beginning of 2007. They were there for about 10 years.

Coster: I think when I really, really noticed [gentrification] is when not so much the neighborhood itself or the face of the neighborhood itself changing. Although certainly the construction of all these high rise, luxury buildings was obvious. It was as I noticed the rhetoric and conversation around Fort Greene changing when I wasn’t there. It was more about how people were talking about it, how people responded to hearing I was from Fort Greene. It really shifted. And it became sort of like I lived in a valued and coveted place and that was never the response that I’d gotten to living in Fort Greene before. People having an awareness of the institutions saying “BAM! [the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a multi-arts institution in Fort Greene] BAM is really great!” And I’d say “Yes, BAM is really great.” It’s been there for a long time and these other ways the community is rich. But that sort of really brought to my awareness the reality of gentrification. It was the way people seemed to respond to me differently and respond to the story of where I was from differently.

Zoboi: ’Cause a lot of these young 20-somethings — because I was that I was just a few years younger than that — coming from Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Hampton would come up here and start their literary careers. And it was a strong literary community. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates was here in Brooklyn from Harlem. Down the block was Nkiru Books on Flatbush right here across the street at St. Marks. Nkiru Books was owned by Talib Kweli’s mother Brenda M. Greene, who is the head of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers right now. And they hosted these Black authors.

Ryan: They were one of the last groups of artists that had moved to DUMBO for the cheap rents. I remember meeting a ton of filmmakers and other working artists who had huge spaces in that area, and they were all just kicked out one by one. It became a place where only the super wealthy could live. Which was sad because the old warehouse buildings were incredible for artists.

Zoboi: The thing is, the gentrifiers would come here and insert their organic vegan places. But we had them, and they were started by the Rasta community. Rastafarians were on this whole vegan/vegetarian thing. I’m bringing this up because all of this was tied to the literary community. The literary community were the poets who were health conscious, were the artists who were health conscious. Get your salads and your green juice there. And it was a Rastafarian man with these blue eyes and he was 80-something but looked young. It was a very Black bohemian hub. Before your hipsters you had your Black artists here. I miss it.

The gentrifiers would come here and insert their organic vegan places. But we had them, and they were started by the Rasta community.

Ryan: [Gentrification] echoes this really terrible moment in Brooklyn history actually. All of these amazing artists started a collective in Brooklyn Heights in 1940, only to see it destroyed by Robert Moses in 1945 to make way for the BQE.

And it’s funny because all of those spaces — LIC, DUMBO, Soho — they all have the same great warehouse spaces from just after the turn of the century. They all became filled with artists and public art. And then they all got bought up and turned into condos. I feel like they can’t last. Or maybe ‘can’t’ is the wrong word, but don’t. Even more informal ones. I’ve known a bunch of people who have at various times had big apartments in Brooklyn that they turn into community spaces, but they last for like ten years at most. Usually more like three.

Lisa Ko [author of The Leavers, who moved to Flatbush from the more-gentrified Williamsburg]: Flatbush is kind of a whole other place where I feel like my footprint as a gentrifier is a lot more obvious. Not obvious but more felt because the neighborhood is one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in all of New York City. Whereas I think [Williamsburg] has already been gentrified. Timing-wise it’s arriving at that point where stuff is going on and they are building. Even though I feel like in some ways we can blend in with people who live there (our building is a mix of Asians, Latinos, and Black people), it’s also like people are being pushed out after 20 years.

Zoboi: I go to Greenlight Bookstore and I come to cafes, but it’s very different from communing with other Black writers. Well-Read Black Girl reminds me so much of what a lot of these spaces were trying to do with the book clubs and everything. There’s the Free Black Women’s Library. They still have their people. Ola Ronke, she goes to different spots and I guess sets up this library basically, where you bring a book, take a book. And she was on several media outlets.

Ryan: For a while there was an organization known as QUORUM that was trying to routinize it a little bit — create events for all the informal queer communal spaces in Brooklyn, but they only lasted a few years as well. It’s always a question of money. Even when it isn’t directly. Some of my friends just stopped throwing events because it was too hard to do that and make the money to live their normal life. They were making decent money, but the hustle to do that burnt them out. [They did] general event planning, but all around building community — some around the arts, some around sex, some around skill sharing, etc.

Some of my friends just stopped throwing events because it was too hard to do that and make the money to live their normal life. They were making decent money, but the hustle to do that burnt them out.

Coster: You know part of the trouble and the violence of gentrification is this kind of erasure, right? Erasure visually, but then also in terms of the kinds of cultural memory. Which is why I think about films and books providing this important record of creative life. One of the ways people talk about gentrification is they say, “First, the artists move in.” The creative class moves in, which suggests that there weren’t people creating before. Which is simply untrue. That there were no artists or creative people living in the neighborhood. But, it’s usually folks associated with a particular kind of scene or movement, and financial class. I don’t know, except the way that people who understand Fort Greene now do or whether they see it as a sort of energized creative life with these waves of gentrification. Since I don’t live there now it’d be difficult for me to say. But I do feel folks who have lived in Fort Greene and have been connected to the creative life there are vocal about that. But I wonder how it’s understood now.

Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

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