The lights are dim, the drinks are flowing, the food looks more like art than it does a meal. Everyone here looks like they could be on a sitcom or drama about young professionals in the city just trying to make it. Next door, it looks just like this. Actually, most of the bars and the restaurants along this strip and many others in Brooklyn look just like this.
The neighborhood has changed over the past 10 years and so have the restaurants. A quick stroll up Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights will have you come across some award-winning restaurants, close to other award-winning restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, and organic grocery stores. None of these places existed 10 years ago, and yet today, they have come to define the neighborhood. They’ve taken the place of the bodegas, Chinese takeout, and Puerto Rican and Caribbean spots that once lined this historic stretch. They’re a part of the reason thousands of people have moved here over the past five years.
We hear the term gentrification a lot. In its most basic definition, gentrification is when a neighborhood goes through the process of rebuilding, resulting in an influx of new affluent residents to previously impoverished areas, ultimately resulting in the displacement of the poorer residents. This definition says nothing about skin color but the overwhelming majority of the time, this plays out along the lines of white and black. The white people move in, and the black people are moved out.It is over food that we relax, share our stories, our hopes, and often our dreams; we debate politics and argue sports over drinks and snacks; it can be argued that when food is present, we are most human.
This is a conversation we have been having a lot over the past few years. It seems every major to mid-major city in the country is going through it. I have heard story after story of the horrors or beauty (depending on which side you fall on) of gentrification, from Portland to Dallas to Chicago to my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. You hear stories of the spike in rent prices, property taxes being raised, long-time businesses closing down, and neighborhood associations being taken over.
More Than Housing
The other thing you hear a lot about? Coffee shops and restaurants. When new residents come to an area, they need to eat. While most neighborhoods already have existing restaurants, the new residents tend to have a different palate and, therefore, need new places that will cater to their tastes.
With Brooklyn’s rapid growth over the past 10 years, with thousands of new residents pouring in each year, the restaurant scene has kept apace. Hundreds of restaurants open in Brooklyn each year. Restaurateurs and hungry chefs see what they believe to be previously unexplored territory and a fresh opportunity to make their mark. But the question is who are they for? Are these new eateries being opened for any resident there, or is there a specific demographic they are targeting? The answer will undoubtedly vary from owner to owner.
Many of the long-time residents do have the feeling that these new spots aren’t for them. “I’m all for revitalizing a community, but I don’t feel they are catered to my preferences. There are way too many places to get tacos around here. Where was this stuff before? What’s culturally for me? Why do we need six bars?” asked one lifelong Crown Heights resident. As the neighborhood changes around her, the only home she has known, she suddenly finds herself trying to find her place in it. When I asked a native from the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, he said, “If they were being opened by people from the neighborhood, my posture would be different because I know what’s on the menu would be catered towards the community, and the money that’s being made from these new businesses would be going back into the community. But that’s not the case, so yeah I don’t really care for these new spots.”
The general sentiment about all of these new restaurants is, essentially, they’re cool, but clearly not for me. As the new begins to outnumber the old, natives are left feeling like aliens in their homeland.
Not all of the new business owners see it this way. The owner of a coffee shop in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens section of Brooklyn said he opened his place because he realized the neighborhood is rapidly changing and he wanted to be a part of that. He wants to improve the neighborhood but keep things “small business-y.” To him, this is what the neighborhood was missing, a good communal place for people to hang out and have coffee.
It was interesting that the word communal was in his vision because to some, his presence, and that of others like him, represent the exact opposite of community. One Crown Heights resident says:
“I miss old stuff about the neighborhood. It was more communal, there were people from the neighborhood you can just sit and chat with, people who knew your kids and you knew theirs but now because of the brunch stroll and bar stroll, you don’t know who is in the neighborhood. It’s just a bunch of randoms. You don’t see anyone doing the back-to-school drives, back-to-school haircut specials, and things like that anymore. Sometimes people look at me weird. They see me entering my home and look at me weird, like I don’t belong here, but I’ve been here my whole life.”
It would seem the presence of all these new people and their establishments are destroying community, not creating it.
Communities are formed around food. If there is one thing we all have in common as people, it’s that we eat. All of us, for example, eat chicken—we might cook it a little differently, but at the end of the day, it’s the same bird. Food can connect us. It is a look into culture, life, relationships, everything. Yet what we continue to see in these gentrifying neighborhoods is food separating us.
Experiences vary in different establishments but many locals generally feel unwanted in these new venues. One man shared a story about a bar he went to that recently opened up in his section Staten Island:
“There was one occasion recently I went into this new spot which is right down the street from where I grew up, and when I walked in the bartender stared at me a few times, and never once asked if I needed help, didn’t ask if I needed a table, so I sat at the end of the bar and waited to see how long it would take for her or anyone else to come serve me. Eventually I was served but it wasn’t a good experience, and I probably won’t go back there.”
It’s stories like this that make you cringe. Stories of people of color just trying to live a regular life like everyone else but constantly being reminded they are not everyone else, or at least, the right everyone else.
There could very well be a perception problem drawn from lines rarely ever crossing between natives and transplants. One woman said she moved to her neighborhood because, “It’s authentic Brooklyn not like Williamsburg where it’s all yuppity and full of people from Kansas and Texas—I want to live amongst real Brooklynites, real Jamaicans who make jerk chicken. It’s not perfect looking, it’s still rustic.” She has a vision of being amongst the people of Brooklyn, not replacing them, however, there are many natives who believe her sole purpose is to see them gone.
God’s Love for Us All
Throughout the Bible, we see God’s fierce protection of four groups: the widows, the poor, the orphans, and the foreigners. We have two of those groups chiefly at play here, the poor and the foreigners. The process of gentrification is centered around revitalizing poorer neighborhoods, which often happens through more affluent foreigners moving in.
It is generally accepted that no one should be taken advantage of. It should never be accepted when a landlord spikes the rent to force out their old tenants from the only home they’ve ever known just to turn around and charge a newcomer inflated prices because it’s a trendy area and they can get away with it. Yet, this happens every day in many of our cities. The lines between native and foreigner tend to be too thick for them to see they should be fighting for one another, not against each other.
While we are constantly being torn apart along various lines—race, class, gender, and so on—we are given a picture of Christ bringing us all together. In Galatians 3:28, we are all declared one in Jesus. All of the dividing walls of hostility that would normally separate us have been torn down. Knowing this to be true, we struggle to live this out. This is everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike; everyone seems to be failing at this.
Co-existing seems, at times, to be nearly impossible. One recent transplant to Crown Heights put it this way, “The tension I feel is that it is kinda self-segregated, it’s like everybody knows this is a white place and that’s a black place and we just follow suit. The tension for me is, should I go to the black establishment because maybe they just want their own thing.” This vision of one new man in Christ sounds good on paper, is a wonderful theory, a beautiful idea, but something we just can’t seem to live out.
Many people, probably the majority, of those moving to new cities and into new neighborhoods are not Christians. This is where things become particularly tricky. People who have not been transformed by the gospel cannot be expected to view the world through the lens of the gospel. If the Christians, who are supposed to be salt and light in this world, cannot lead the way in bringing together these groups of people, then it begs the question, can we truly expect to ever see things change? Those who are supposed to be countercultural, the followers of Jesus, should lead the way in what love and care for both the native and the foreigner looks like.
If both the native and the foreigner plan to truly live side by side then steps need to be taken on both sides to see that dream become a reality. The first thing that must happen is protection of the vulnerable. The foreigner should be advocating on behalf of their neighbors who are pushed out of the only homes they’ve ever known. That means fighting for them, forcing your landlord to fix the pipes in their apartment or house, not allowing someone to come in and offer them below market value to move out, calling out injustice when it is seen. For the native, that means not allowing someone new to move into your area and be charged exorbitant rent because somebody is trying to make a quick buck off of their naiveté. It was Tim Keller who once said the biblical definition of justice is the disadvantaging of yourself to see the flourishing of others.
Depending on which lens you view this through, it is either a good or bad thing that gentrification is not going away any time soon. Neither is our love for food, part of gentrification is the way it affects the foods ushered in as they usher other foods out. Of all the aspects of gentrification, however, food has the power to draw people together. A meal has a wonderfully disarming charm to it. It is over food that we relax, share our stories, our hopes, and often our dreams; we debate politics and argue sports over drinks and snacks; it can be argued that when food is present, we are most human.
A big part of Jesus’ mission on earth was to see us become more human, human in the way God intended us to be. The cross of Christ reconciles people not just to God but to each other as well. In light of this truth, seeing the world in the way God wants us to see it, how do we work with Him in His work of bringing people together?
Key to this work is getting to know the people around you. If you’ve moved to a new city, and five years later everyone you know is just like you, then you are living a closed-off life that will never allow you to experience empathy for the stranger. Jesus didn’t call us to live in silos of homogeneity; the Bride He died to purchase is full of people of all flavors, each bringing something special to the potluck. Knowing the power of food to bring us all together, perhaps, we can start with inviting our neighbors over for dinner, and sharing stories of where we’ve come from, and maybe even, where we’re going. Whether it is someone new to the city or a person who has been there their whole life, everyone should feel welcomed at the table.
I’m back in my old neighborhood; it’s not the same place I knew as a child. There’s some good to that and some bad to it for sure, but as I sit in this fancy pizza place—a far cry from the shops I knew years ago—drinking a nice, full-bodied red while eating a perfectly crafted pizza, it doesn’t go unnoticed that my friends and I are the only black faces in here. And undoubtedly, the only people from here.