Gentrified Fiction

In L. J. Davis’s excellent A Meaningful Life, published a year after Desperate Characters, Lowell Lake, married managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly,” impulsively purchases a brownstone in Fort Greene. Once home to an industrial baron, it is now a half-decayed rooming house. The novel is dense with details of Lowell’s labor: by its final third, neither he nor the narrative leaves the house.

Brooklyn’s recent crop of nostalgic novelists

Brooklyn gentrification novelists have always alleged that aesthetics, not class, unite and divide their borough. Not so, Amy Sohn tells us  in her new novel Prospect Park West. What matters is money, and in Park Slope white people have it. Sohn’s privileged characters do not pretend otherwise, nor do they deny their status as gentrifiers. At the end of the novel, a successful actress decamps from Brooklyn’s Gold Coast to Manhattan; another woman receives her comeuppance when, after putting a down payment on a long-coveted apartment, she discovers that the school district has been rezoned. Her son must attend PS 282, two-thirds black, one-third Hispanic, and “the worst kind of school there was: too bad to be good but too good to be bad.”

Sohn, the least self-avowedly serious of Brooklyn writers, is the only one who can afford to be so honest. In a genre that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, when droves of middle-class men and women moved to the borough to restore its Italianate brownstones and Victorian row houses, her more literary peers remain unable to take their eyes off the window-dressing. As Brooklyn has changed, so has the gentrification novel, and today’s writers are more likely to romanticize grimy dive bars than cornice moldings. Still, taste continues to be presented as the force that defines city life. In the gentrification novel, questions of wealth and race are rephrased as inquiries into authenticity and what it means to be a true New Yorker.

The sociologist Ruth Glass invented the term “gentrification” in 1964 to describe the “invasion” of working-class London neighborhoods by the wealthy. Development, once it begins, is rapid and difficult to reverse. New, usually middle-class owners convert shabby mews into tidy single-family homes, adorned with flower boxes and brass knockers. The refurbished houses attract even wealthier buyers, and soon the original residents, unable to afford the increasingly high rents and property taxes, are displaced. For Glass, the transformation was necessarily negative, a judgment you hear in the word itself: gentrification connotes mock-aristocratic elitism, and thus we cannot think about the process in neutral terms. To speak about gentrification is always to condemn it.

Like London, Brooklyn was gentrifying in the 1960s. Middle-class men and women moved to Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and other South Brooklyn neighborhoods, drawn from Manhattan by the combination of affordability and exquisite architecture. They remodeled worn-out brownstones and row houses, tearing down walls that once divided one boarder from another and restoring the buildings’ original features: brass knobs, brass taps, marble floors. Preservationist groups thrived in “The Brownstone Crescent” and in 1969 portions of Cobble Hill were designated a historic district.

Immediately, novelists set about documenting these changes, and early Brooklyn gentrification novels highlighted the phenomenon’s material reality. Paula Fox’s classic Desperate Characters (1970) begins with a description of the interior of the Brentwoods’ Cobble Hill brownstone, its amenities itemized in the fetishistic vocabulary of a real estate agent: stainless-steel sink, cedar floor, and Victorian secretary, its wood lustrous in the light of a Tiffany lamp. On weekends, homeowners on the block take out their tools: “one carried a pail or a hose or a paintbrush, another, a scraper for the drops of paint spotting their new windows, another, a ladder to rest against the wall to climb and repair a weathered window strip.”

In L. J. Davis’s excellent A Meaningful Life—published a year after Desperate Characters and recently reissued by NYRB Classics—Lowell Lake, married managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly,” impulsively purchases a brownstone in Fort Greene. Once home to an industrial baron, it is now a half-decayed rooming house. The novel is dense with details of Lowell’s labor: by its final third, neither he nor the narrative leaves the house. In Walking Small (1974), Davis again focuses on the physical work that is and makes possible gentrification: an advertising executive sets about renovating the brownstone he has purchased, despite one tenant’s refusal to move out.

As fixated as they are on the appearance of their houses, characters in early gentrification novels recognize that there are consequences to their labor. The newcomers are not immune to guilt. Whether or not they believe what they are doing is wrong, they know others despise them for it, and with this knowledge comes fear of retribution. When Sophie Brentwood tries to feed a stray cat that appears on her stoop, the cat bites her. The cat is but a pretext for dread: Sophie knows she will be made to suffer for her presence in the neighborhood. While she waits for the results of her rabies test, people shit on the sidewalk, and at a party in Brooklyn Heights, someone throws a rock through the window. A Meaningful Lifeends with Lowell waking to find an intruder in his home. He smashes the man’s skull with a crowbar. The implication is clear: the gentrifier, frightened in his castle, imagines the neighborhood’s avenging spirit to be always at his door. If gentrification is violence, its agent fears payback in kind.

What the gentrifier pursues is beauty: he demolishes layers of linoleum and rotten wood and rickety pipes in order to carve out something new. Lowell wants “his house to be like claret and Dutch chocolate.” Struggling with his renovations, he tries to “think about the matter creatively” and “intelligently.” Gentrifiers reframe destruction as creation: “You take raw material and you transform it,” says a friend in Desperate Characters. “That is civilization.” The goal of gentrification—like the composition of fiction—is to create a work of art. By emphasizing the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, the early gentrification novel employs renovation as a metaphor for the novel, a means for authors to explore the pleasures and perils of constructing a private world.

For the first generation of Brooklyn gentrification novelists, the genre appeared to offer a compromise: they could pursue beauty, and extol its pursuit, while simultaneously remaining sensitive to anxieties about race and class. The books, however, rarely fulfill this promise. In A Meaningful Life, Lowell cannot remember whether the man he killed was black or white. This outrageously improbable lapse thwarts any reading of the novel as a straightforward racial allegory, a portrait of gentrification as thoughtless white-on-black violence. Although such an allegory would be inadequate to describe gentrification—especially in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where A Meaningful Life takes place, and where a relatively high percentage of black home ownership means rising housing prices do not always translate to the displacement of long-term residents—Lowell’s frayed memory allows Davis to deny that race is a factor in the destruction of a neighborhood. Read together with Walking Small, in which the obdurate tenant is an affable white hippie,A Meaningful Life imagines a world where race is irrelevant to the cause and course of gentrification.

When A Meaningful Life was reissued earlier this year, the novelist Jonathan Lethem interviewed Davis for PBS. Both men have lived in Brooklyn since the 1960s. Lethem was born in 1964; a year later, Davis moved to Boerum Hill (and paid a record price for his brownstone: $17,500). In the interview, Lethem admits that when he first read Walking Small, he thought Davis’s tenant was pure fiction, a “charming image” of the last, hopeless holdouts entrenched against gentrification. Then, Lethem says, he saw a similar scene play out when the last row house on a nearby block was renovated in the 1980s. The unyielding tenant was not white but Dominican.

Writers like Lethem constitute the second generation of gentrification novelists. Raised in Brooklyn, they witnessed the first wave of gentrification but, as children, did not choose where they lived and were not responsible for the physical process of demolition and construction. In their work, the contradictions found in Davis’s novels intensify. For the second generation, the terms most relevant to gentrification are not black and white, or rich and poor, but cool and uncool. What unites those disturbed by the course of gentrification, these writers argue, is the authenticity of their appreciation for Brooklyn. The writer, in the whitewashed world of most contemporary gentrification novels, is as much a victim as anyone else, a conservator of urban legitimacy at odds with the greedy and vulgar gentrifier.

Second-generation gentrification novelists portray gentrifiers as villains not because of what they do—destroy homes, displace residents, homogenize neighborhoods—but for reasons of taste. In Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2004), gentrification is effected by a single character, Isabel Vendle. We see her for the first time inside her dark house as she peers, witch-like, at two girls playing on the street. Alone in her brownstone, its basement rooms reeking of wet newspaper, the old white woman conceives of a new future for her South Brooklyn neighborhood, one entirely disassociated from its past.

Isabel Vendle found the name in a tattered, leather-bound volume at the Brooklyn Historical Society: Boerum … because Gowanus wouldn’t do. Gowanus was a canal and a housing project. Isabel Vendle needed to distinguish her encampment from the Gowanus Houses, from Wyckoff Gardens, that other housing project which hemmed in her new paradise, distinguish it from the canal … She was explicating a link to the Heights, the Slope. So, Boerum Hill, even though there wasn’t any hill.

When she gives the neighborhood a prettier name, Vendle creates a false history. (Her real-life model had an extensive network of supporters and assistants. But Vendle works alone, which makes her project all the more sinister and artificial.) Real Brooklyn for Lethem is the rooming houses, the Puerto Rican men on the corner, the black kids playing on the street. (“Court Street, where it passed through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, was the only Brooklyn really,” he writes inMotherless Brooklyn. Brooklyn Heights is “secretly a part of Manhattan.”) Everything else is fake, and renovators like Vendle, and Fox’s and Davis’s characters, do not so much restore a past world as create a new one in their own image.

Vendle’s foil is Rachel Ebdus, mother of Lethem’s fictional avatar Dylan. Rachel, we are told, was a Brooklyn street kid, whereas Vendle’s family comes from upstate New York—that is, not Brooklyn. “If someone asks you,” Rachel tells her son, “say you live in Gowanus. Don’t be ashamed. Boerum Hill is pretentious bullshit.” The Boerum Hill types “deserve the break-ins,” Rachel says. “They ought to lose their quadraphonic stereos.” The Ebduses are just “here to live.” Both in attitude and by not actively working to transform the neighborhood they are, as the saying goes, keeping it real, and for Lethem “real” is the highest praise one can give. Gentrification, as manifested by Vendle, destroys the real, and for this reason ought to be condemned. But Vendle’s Brooklyn is as real as Rachel Ebdus’s. Developed between 1840 and 1870 on what was once the Boerum family’s farm, the neighborhood was originally home to the middle class.

Lethem’s definition of what is real flatters his characters and the author himself: “I closely resemble the Manhattan hordes that have taken over the neighborhood,” he told Salon, “but I paid my dues. I can sit and drink a $4 latte on a corner where I vividly remember having had a knife held to my throat.” Perhaps when he finished his latte, he had a beer at the Brooklyn Inn, which, when it originally opened as a speakeasy during Prohibition, was called the Boerum Hill Café. The past Lethem defines as the only legitimate past, that of his own reimagined childhood, is but one of many. Lowell the amnesiac returns: we forget the past when it suits us; we obliterate whatever it is that most tarnishes our vision of our selves.

Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girls, Brownstones (1959) reminds us that the past Lethem offers is an abbreviated one. Like Lethem, Marshall was raised in Brooklyn. Born in 1929, she is a generation older than Davis, and her novel offers a glimpse of Brooklyn in the decades preceding gentrification. Soon after the first steam ferries between Manhattan and Brooklyn began running in 1814, rich merchants developed “Manhattan’s first suburb” on the bluff now known as Brooklyn Heights. Wealth spread eastward; by the 1860s, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, previously rural retreats, began to attract wealthy families. The Pratts, the Pfizers, and the Singers numbered among the golden names of American industry who had settled in those neighborhoods by the century’s end. Set during the next cycle of development—when affluent whites departed for the suburbs and West Indian immigrants moved in during the Depression—Marshall’s story is told by Selina Boyce, who feels unwelcome in the brownstone her parents rent. The house “was a museum of all the lives that had ever lived here.” Looking at herself in the mirror, she sees “a torn middy blouse, dirty shorts, and socks that always worked down into the heel of her sneakers. That was all she was. She did not belong here. She was something vulgar in a holy place. The room was theirs, she knew.” In Marshall’s novel, wealthy whites are not the borough’s future but its past. If what was is the only measure by which we decide what should be, then the real Brooklyn might as well still be the Brooklyn of the rich.

What is at stake in novels like Lethem’s is not a neighborhood’s authenticity but the author’s. The second-generation gentrification novelist commits the same crime he accuses the gentrifier of committing. Although each defines Brooklyn’s past differently, both overvalue the past they have chosen to the point of fantasy. Evading economic and racial realities, the contemporary gentrification novelist prefers to assert his own status as dispossessed in the imagined war against authenticity. If the first generation of gentrification novelists worked to some degree in the self-reflexive tradition of American symbolism, the second generation proves itself to be less concerned with the novel than the novelist and his lifestyle: where he lives, how long he has lived there, and what bars he frequents.

An offshoot of the second generation of novelists includes those who moved to Brooklyn as adults in the decades after the first flush of gentrification. Closer in age to Davis than Lethem, these writers date the borough’s decline to some point shortly after their arrival: they were the last, they insist, to experience the real Brooklyn. Lethem might doubt their credentials—just as when, in Fortress of Solitude, Dylan encounters an old college acquaintance working at a restaurant on Smith Street and says sarcastically, “‘You’re part of the old guard around here’”—but, like him, they worship at the temple of “real Brooklyn.”

One of these novelists is Kitty Burns Florey, whose novel Solos (2004) again subsumes questions of class and race in discussions of interior design. One’s morality is measured by one’s taste in apartments: an affinity for gritty, industrial architecture signifies allegiance with the lower classes, the pure, unpretentious folk who scoff at skylights. Florey’s protagonist, Emily Lime, paid $300 a month for a loft on North Third Street when she moved to Williamsburg in 1991 and “wouldn’t pay the two-thousand-dollar-plus rent” to live on the sixth floor of her building “even if she could afford it. She thinks the sixth-floor lofts are banal, boring, pretentious, untrue to the spirit of Brooklyn and Williamsburg in particular.” Emily prefers the unrenovated penthouse and perceives virtue and charm in its peeling linoleum. For gentrification novelist and gentrifier alike, aesthetic choices are accurate indices of ethics. All that has changed is the definition of aesthetic success.

Another example of the gentrification novelists’ new aesthetic, which simultaneously stands in for and guts any concrete ethical feeling, can be found in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies. (Auster, six years younger than Davis, moved to Brooklyn in the 1980s.) Meandering through Park Slope, Auster’s narrator rhapsodizes in one joyous breath about the neighborhood’s churches, trees, and “solitary, homeless scavengers, pushing their shopping carts down the avenue and digging for bottles in the trash.” What amenities one finds in Brooklyn!

Of the second wave of gentrification novelists, Amy Sohn emerges as least invested in preserving a specific image of Brooklyn’s past. Sohn is of Lethem’s generation, and like him was raised in “the only Brooklyn” by homesteading parents. Rachel, the narrator of Sohn’s 2004 novel My Old Man, identifies herself as

one of those brownstone Brooklyn seventies kids who were born into a neighborhood that twenty years later happens to be experiencing a hipster influx. We holdovers are in a difficult bind. While our small-town peers spend their lives trying to get as far away from home as possible, we have a double motivation to stay: placating our parents and taking advantage of the cheap rent. Cobble Hill is a lot like Grover’s Corners. It’s tedious and repetitive, but it has a hold.

In Sohn’s novels, people fetishize Brooklyn, and her cannier characters cash in on this romanticizing tendency to advance their own romantic relationships. Although mostly inured to the charms of Cobble Hill, Rachel remains entranced by old Italian delis and dive bars. She is shrewd enough to know that authenticity is the ultimate aphrodisiac. When she invites a date to Montero’s, a bar on the edge of Brooklyn Heights, she pretends she’s never taken anyone there before: “You have to make every guy think he’s the first to see the places you like, even if he’s the twelfth.” InProspect Park West, two characters in the early stages of an affair lament the present state of Park Slope: “Did you know that a United Airlines plane crashed on Sterling Place in 1960? … Nothing like that happens in Park Slope anymore … I don’t think I can take it much longer.”

Sohn makes no effort to flatter the intelligence of her readers, and correspondingly no effort to flatter herself. Her novels, especially Prospect Park West, are inventories of proper nouns familiar to Brooklyn residents: shoes, schools, restaurants, bars. The poverty of her language enables her to say more about wealth than the other Brooklyn novelists: what she does is accumulate objects, and objects, in her hands, don’t lie.

Contemporaries of Lethem and Sohn who grew up outside of Brooklyn compose the third generation of gentrification novelists. Like Auster et al., they moved to the borough as adults, but years later and in most cases years younger. They arrived in the 1990s, savvy postgrads accustomed to anthropologizing their friends and attuned to the possibility of ironizing New Yorker’s compulsive quest for authenticity, rather than competing in the contest themselves. In her debut novel A Fortunate Age, Joanna Smith Rakoff lampoons the cutthroat reverence for Brooklyn’s past and the attendant affection for grit and grime. (One particularly hideous scene takes place in an apartment soaked with cat urine.) Set in the ’90s, the novel documents the creation of micro-epochs within that decade, which are as fiercely contested as the boundaries of certain neighborhoods. In one scene, Caitlin Gold-Green describes the gentrification of Williamsburg to Sadie Peregrine, excoriating landlords who hire Mexican workers to refurbish lofts. Once granite counters are installed and rents raised to $1,800, these workers will be priced out of the area.

Caitlin believes that she exists outside this process, a sympathetic witness rather than a complicit agent. When asked how long she has lived in her place, Caitlin says “about a year. Which makes us old-timers in the neighborhood.” For early adopters like Caitlin, epochs shrink to months: sign a lease in January and stake a more authentic claim than those who sign in June. Caitlin, like Lethem, allies herself with a golden Brooklyn that existed “before.” The day you arrived serves as the boundary: you bear no responsibility for the fallen “after,” even if you eat your brunch at the newest garden café.

Caitlin isn’t wrong, however, about the end-point of gentrification: housing in New York is expensive. Laborers and artists who could afford to live in Williamsburg twenty years ago no longer can. It is in dealing with the conflict between artistic ambition and the trappings that signify success that A Fortunate Age becomes an exercise in wish fulfillment, and as naïve as forebears. Two characters avoid Caitlin’s self-ratifying dissections thanks to conveniently timed deaths. Dave’s grandmother leaves him money he uses to buy a place in Boerum Hill and Sadie inherits a Lower East Side apartment from her great-aunt. (Deus ex machina: it is an elevator building.) A fortunate age apparently is whatever age you are when an elderly relative dies and leaves you property. Ultimately, the novel fails to explore class and the way young men and women form and are formed by the city’s economic realities. It is simply a portrait of college graduates who are, for the most part, privileged enough to ignore them.

This is the great fantasy of the second and third-generation gentrification novelist: the fruits of gentrification without the guilt. One can be an artist and live like an advertising executive, scorning wealth while enjoying its bounty. The Brooklyn lifestyle is so fraught with luxury and guilt that one cannot admit to pursuing it: you must fall into it accidentally.

Writers should not fear describing the world as it is, and the ambitions and acquisitions of the middle class are undeniably part of our world. Gentrification novelists, however, avoid the conflict between the things we covet and the people we imagine ourselves to be, and thus dispense with the contradictions most inherent to the class they purport to describe. Despite its pretenses to social realism, the gentrification novel is only magic real-estate-ism.

In its attachment to the past, the gentrification novel is only the most recent and the most hypocritical iteration of Brooklyn nostalgia. Before the borough was even incorporated into New York City, writers lamented its destruction: “Brooklyn, you know, is much admired by the Gothamites,” observed Edgar Allen Poe. “In fact, much has been done by Nature for the place. But this much the New Yorkers have contrived very thoroughly to spoil.” The average new Brooklyn home, he complained, was so ugly that he could see “little difference between the putting up such a house as this, and blowing up a House of Parliament, or cutting the throat of one’s grand-father.” Preferring the Brooklyn of old is older than Brooklyn itself.

The sentiment endures. A Fortunate Age was originally called Brooklyn until Rakoff’s publishers learned Colm Toibin wanted the title for his newest novel. Rakoff acquiesced. It was a predictable victory, and an appropriate one. Toibin’s Brooklyntakes place in the Brooklyn of 1951, before the grand department stores left downtown and before Ebbetts Field was demolished. As a portrait of the borough as it was fifty-odd years ago, Toibin’s book and its superior claim to the name Brooklyn neatly embody what happens when people write about the borough. All Brooklyn fiction is historical fiction.

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