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Who Wears the Crown? Multiple Legacies of Change and Continuity in Crown Heights

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In 2011, Brooklyn's Crown Heights became the latest New York City neighborhood to stumble into the gentrification spotlight. It started in February, when an article by the Wall Street Journal's Robbie Whelan revealed that real estate brokers were trying to re-brand the northwest corner of the neighborhood "ProCro" (an awkward amalgam of PROspect Heights, the more upscale neighborhood next door, and CROwn Heights).

This tidbit, nestled in the third paragraph of the article, proved to be a spark to dry tinder, launching furious debates about the sources and trajectory of change in Crown Heights and Brooklyn that quickly consumed the borough's overheated blogosphere, made for some lively community meetings, and even inspired local State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries to propose a law banning real-estate re-naming.

While the proposed legislation never had a serious chance of becoming law, Jeffries' proposal set off another round of heated discussions about who has, and who should have, the right to name neighborhoods and determine their futures (Locally, it was credited with inspiring big-time broker Corcoran to redraw its maps of Prospect and Crown Heights.

Attention returned to the neighborhood in August as the city observed the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. Assessing the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities along Eastern Parkway, many commentators noted that both groups are now adjusting to the influx of younger, whiter folks to the western half of the neighborhood.

This attention seems unlikely to wane in the new year. The RentJuice Rent Index reported that the cost per square foot of residential rentals in Crown Heights rose 18 percent in the last quarter of 2011, the fourth-highest increase in the city. Census data point in a similar direction -- in the four census districts along Franklin Avenue between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue (one of the fastest-changing strips in the area), the white population increased between four and twelvefold from 2000 and 2010.

In three years of blogging from Crown Heights, documenting and analyzing these changes has been my bread and butter, but I've recently been bothered by the feeling that even the most thoughtful accounts of gentrification fail to capture much of what's actually happening. The problem isn't informational (we've got plenty of data on these areas) or political (writers across the spectrum have embraced the g-word), but something more fundamental: despite it's (over)use, gentrification, as it turns out, is a very poor analytical frame. There's no clear definition of the process in popular discourse, where it's primarily used either as a put-down, punchline, or a catch-all to describe a wide range of changes driven by an even wider range of actors and motives. Even when bloggers and journalists report the presence of these different players and examine their different goals, the binary between gentrifiers and the gentrified can obscure more than it reveals.

This point has been made before in the service of de-stigmatizing gentrification and highlighting the benefits these changes can bring to communities. Fair enough, but that's not my gripe here. By suggesting the presence of passive areas and populations that are "being gentrified" by forces from without, gentrification narratives homogenize and victimize complex and well-organized communities. Neighborhoods like Crown Heights were changing long before "gentrifiers" arrived, and the networks of people and institutions that drove these changes continue to influence the direction and pace of change.

This is not to say that the renovation of brownstones, the rise of glassy condos, and the displacement of the poor is just a figment of our collective imagination (in those same four districts I mentioned earlier, overall population has declined since 2000, and the proportion of that population that is Black has shrunk by 30 percent). If "gentrification" is defined more narrowly, it can serve to describe a set of real-estate-driven forces within the larger urban matrix without becoming the rubric by which we understand the past forty years. In the spirit of de-centering gentrification, we should consider (at least) two other social processes that have shaped Crown Heights (and other communities like it). Today, these forces complement and challenge gentrification, and continue to affect the trajectory of the neighborhood.

Immigration is credited with "revitalizing" New York almost as frequently as gentrification. Crown Heights, of course, is home to two of the city's best-known immigrant communities, the practitioners of Chabad-Lubavitch Judaism and migrants from the Caribbean. The Chabad community, which draws its members from around the globe, owns a great deal of property in the neighborhood and operates schools, synagogues, hospitals, social services, and even its own security force, the shomrim. While their tightly-knit but well-connected group lives east of the most rapidly-changing areas, many of their number are involved in the process, whether through property development, the opening of a kosher pizzeria and wine bar, opposition to bike lanes, or the hosting of a white-hot monthly reading series. These activities constitute interventions in local changes, but they're hard to pigenhole into the story of gentrification.

If not differentiated by their islands of origin, Afro-Caribbean migrants make up the largest single group of immigrants to New York City since 1965. While more West Indians now live in Flatbush than Crown Heights, they remain a powerful presence in the neighborhood, and they too operate churches, schools, social services, homeowner's associations, and social clubs. Their annual Labor Day Carnival is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and the mayor usually marches at its head, followed by local politicians. While some Caribbean businesses and families have certainly been displaced by the recent shifts in Crown Heights, many others have taken advantage of them, raising rents in buildings they own, opening new businesses, and renovating old ones (along rapidly-changing Franklin Avenue, one beloved jerk chicken place moved out, but a new Jamaican kitchen and a Rastafari-run vegan juice bar and restaurant have opened over the past two years).

Crown Heights' immigrant communities, while facing challenges of their own over the past few decades, remain culturally vibrant and socially organized. In many cases, they have been agents, not victims of change, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Community Organizing receives a distorted portrayal in many gentrification narratives. In these accounts, such organizations are the province of white, middle-class brownstoners with massive guilt complexes that don't quite override their NIMBYism. In fact, community organizing has been one of the most sustained and important forces for community building and preservation, and for attracting public and private investment, over the last fifty years. Aided by a massive influx of federal dollars from War on Poverty and Great Society programming in the 1960s, many of these organizations have been particularly influential in neighborhoods that were, until the last decade or so, well outside the gentrification conversation. In Crown Heights, CUNY's Medgar Evers College stands as a testament to the tenacity of organizers who demanded such an institution in central Brooklyn.

Today, the college educates over 7,000 undergraduates a year, houses centers for research in Black literature, politics, and women's studies, and hosts all manner of political and cultural events. At the most local level, community boards, NYPD community councils, block groups, and community associations attract new arrivals, but they are led by African-American and Afro-Caribbean organizers who have been making change in their communities for decades. Along Franklin, the Crow Hill Community Association has installed streetlights, changed traffic patterns, planted trees, organized merchants, helped develop a summer youth festival, and demanded the presence of an NYPD "Impact Zone" to stop crime. Their leaders have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and many of these accomplishments came before the massive influx of new residents.

It would be far too neat, of course, to suggest that these forces can truly be separated from gentrification, and fair to note that processes of displacement and upscaling can be driven by longtime locals as well as recent arrivals or developers. This, however, is just the point -- when we talk about neighborhood change, we need to take account of all of these forces to assess the process, and not retreat behind ready-made narratives of "gentrification" or "revitalization." Change will continue in Crown Heights in 2012, and anyone who wants to affect that process will have to understand it in all its complexity first.