April will be the four-month anniversary of officially living in Brooklyn on my own (I did spend 0-3 living here, but New Jersey has been my permanent address for much longer).
When I signed my lease, I didn’t realize that I was moving back to part of my history.
“How long have you lived in NYC?”
Answering that icebreaker question recently threw me off guard. Even though I’ve only had a New York address for a few months, it’s felt like I have lived here forever. How do you really explain in a sentence the not New Jersey, but also not New York life that I experienced for, about ALL my life?
Before my grandmother’s dementia got really bad and she had to leave her Brooklyn apartment, we would visit her in this abnormally HUGE apartment (3 apartments in one, really). To Symphony the child, Ma Ma lived in a grungy, sketch part of the borough that we always travelled to via car. Usually, my parents would drive my sister and I to her place after church activities on the weekend, and we’d cross one of the bridges leading into Brooklyn and take the BQE to her neighborhood. I also recognized we were in her neighborhood by the Orthodox Jewish men walking down the street and the numerous churches we passed. Her building was this terrifying mask of steel, black people, and broken glass, and my sister and I were never left alone when we walked from where the car was parked into the apartment building. One year, we happened to visit during Halloween, and there was vomit and raw egg debris and pee in the corner of what always seemed to be the oldest elevator in existence (it had two doors).
My parents know New York + the five boroughs by streets and avenues, and not neighborhood names. Telling them the name of the neighborhood I found an apartment in made zero sense, which was fine. I’m pretty sure Prospect Park-Lefferts Garden was made up by real estate people back whenever they were revitalizing the neighborhood anyways. If you’re old school, landmarks are more useful to remember how to get places and not Google Maps. When Dad helped move me into my apartment and we drove down Flatbush Avenue towards my neighborhood, he commented that I lived “pretty close” to where Ma Ma lived.
The feelings Inside my grandma’s apartment was warmth and grainy old Chinese dramas that were constantly playing and Chinese cooking and “vintage” furniture, and also this very old exercise bike that Harmony and I liked to play with. Ma ma was the only one I knew who had 5 bedrooms and two bathrooms (one that I was always afraid I’d clog).
Ma Ma’s apartment was a contrast to her surroundings: the suspicious looking neighbors (all, coincidentally black), the youth that always just hung around the lobby, the nasty odors assaulting the senses.
Living in Lefferts-Garden feels like a paradox.
Even during the Stressful Apartment Search of Fall 2015, I wrestled with the tension of being a gentrifier. I knew that no matter what neighborhood I would choose to live in, simply by my age + economic buying power, it would pretty much be a done deal, I was a hipster gentrifer. I was ranting about gentrification and the overabundance of hipsters in Chinatown ALL. THE. TIME. Who was I, to do the same to another neighborhood in NYC???
Real talk: the only Chinese people I really see around my neighborhood are the ones behind the counter at the Chinese-American fast food joints. Most of my Asian (East or South) sightings occur once in a blue moon. Or in the nearby coffee shop (disclaimer: coffee there is delicious…).
Walking down the street, whether it’s my overactive imagination or reality, whenever I see locals so much look at me, my thoughts jump to what runs in the their minds, “oh look at this bitch who doesn’t belong in this neighborhood and is causing my rents to go up.”
“Gentrification has a lot more to do with rent-stabilized buildings and racist landlords breaking the law than it has to do with building new buildings,” Thomas told Truthout.” – Truthout, 2014
I hate gentrification because it hurts people. It overlooks, oppresses, destroys, and pushes out.
Gentrification sees one skin color and labels them have nots, sees another color and labels them haves.
Gentrification is the opposite of listening and hearing humans’ stories.
Gentrification does not say I see you, I hear you, you are loved.
Gentrification is capital gain, profit earned on pushing people out of the homes they’ve lived in for 20 years, homelessness, and you don’t belong in this neighborhood because you don’t look like “success” and extra income.
My church has partner with the LoGOFF movement the past two years to learn about social justice in the everyday that Jesus exemplified. Their mission: transform consumers to stewards. There, the concepts I had been in tension with were synthesized into these four pillars:
Pray: bring people, places and powers that are vulnerable exploitation and could/do exploit others to the Jesus because He is able to set us free.
Partner: with places where vulnerable people we meet may receive the services they need.
Purchase from businesses, restaurants and services online and in-person where we are able to invest in freedom and not exploitation of people and the planet.
Policy is shaped based on the relationships and resources that God has gifted us with and we give back to Him in worship to reflect the Shalom He intended.
I was waiting for a 2 train one Friday night back to my apartment when my mom texted me with the news that Ma Ma had passed away. As I have been processing her death these past few months, I’ve pondered on the duality that in the same time frame where she has left earth, I have arrived in her old stomping grounds and rooted myself into my own apartment lease, independence from my parents, and have a wide door of opportunities available to me.
There is a full circle, and more. I don’t have to carry self-hatred because of my hate towards gentrification. I can be okay with being part of gentrification in Lefferts-Garden and Crown Heights because gentrifier doesn’t make up my whole identity. In the tension of being a gentrifier, I can choose to be more. I can be transformed from gentrifier to community member that takes part in community transformation through seeing, through “LoGGING off.”
When I walk down the street to my apartment, I see.
I see the Caribbean bakeries, the guys on the corner, the endless churches – all with different pastors, and Chinese take out. In the same moment, I see the new coffee shop, the low-slung beanies, and flannel. I see the moms and dads rushing their kids to school. I see ALL of the dogs. I see and wonder if my grandma had taken the same Q train I take to work to her stop in Flatbush.
I see and remember. I see and ponder. I see and dream.
I have yet so much to uncover. Arrival is only the beginning.
RIP. February 2016. This post is dedicated to Ma Ma, who was fierce + independent + fun + dear. Even though we aren’t related by blood, her spirit is with me as I roam the streets of Brooklyn.