Quality of Life Is Not So Black And White

By Mark Winston Griffith

The strangest thing happened to me a few weeks ago. There I was, propped up at a meeting, listening to the new Borough President of Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz, as he denounced public annoyances, such as spitting on the street and car horn honking, both of which, along with cigarette smoking, rank among my all time pet peeves. Suddenly I found myself swept up in the moment, leading Marty's amen corner as he proclaimed his administration's number one priority to be the improvement of Brooklyn's "quality of life," a term I have always regarded as, at best, suspect and, at worst, mildly fascist.

I'm a progressive political activist. So how did I get here?

Over the past year, ever since I got married and actually bought the Crown Heights home where I was raised and have lived most of my life, my concept of what it means to a member of my "community" has been evolving. And as the head of a neighborhood-based, not-for-profit that is dedicated to concepts like social change and building economic power among low-income people (in the neighborhood where I live), this has wide-reaching implications.

Before the events of September 11 introduced a new level of anxiety to our lives, many people in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and the surrounding area had already begun to express a deep sense of fear and uncertainty around gentrification, a concept as vague, complicated and ominous as the notion of terrorism itself. And like quality of life, where you stand on the issue of gentrification becomes a litmus test of your social values and political leanings. If you're so politically inclined, for instance, those fighting the scourge of gentrification and the quality of life campaigns championed by Giuliani (remember his campaign against the squeegee men?) are on the side of good. The rabid capitalists and coffee-house, mall-loving gentrifiers are emissaries from hell.

Unfortunately, where I live and work, these issues are not so black and white, literally.

The first problem is just trying to define what the issue is. Typically, in predominately Black areas like Bed-Stuy or Harlem, gentrification is meant to mean an upper class and/or white invasion accompanied by a dramatic increase of property values that displaces long standing residents and businesses.

Clearly some areas on the outskirts of Central Brooklyn are becoming "whiter". But in Bed-Stuy the folks driving up the rents and changing consumer tastes are mostly black professionals who either want to live in a brownstone-lined area among other Black people or are simply priced out of neighboring Fort Green, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights or Park Slope.

For me, it gets even trickier. I have begun to look at my immediate environment much differently. I'm making plans to plant new trees on my block. I crusade against dog owners not cleaning up after their pets in front of my house. I curse when I hear cars going sixty miles per hour down my residential street. I glare at and lecture kids who spit and litter on the sidewalk. And car alarms sounding off at 4:00 a.m. get me very angry.

Furthermore, my neighbor across the street -- three o'clock-in-the-morning, drug-hustling, potentially gun-slinging -- is no longer a diverse color of my vibrant community. He no longer inspires in me a perverse pride, a misguided comfort in knowing my neighborhood is "real" and "down". Now I see him as a man who could possibly put a bullet in the head of my as yet un-born child, or set my home on fire or simply scare away another hard working family seeking to live on the block.

So the question is, how do I, as an agent of neighborhood improvement and as a resident, create social change and advocate for better housing and living conditions without confronting and possibly "displacing" people, including long term residents, who are preying on me and my neighbors? How do I try to improve the quality of life for people on my block and address deeply rooted criminal action without either placing my family at risk or inviting draconian police actions that ignore civil liberties? How do I cooperate with my neighbors without joining the nazi-like, not-in-my-backyard, crowd? And assuming I succeed in making my neighborhood a more inviting and, by extension, more valuable place to live, what do I say to other Black people who want to own and rent here and are willing to pay more to do so?

Ironically, I am not bent on answering these questions definitively. I am perfectly fine working through them, one day at a time. I just want some of my fellow activists to acknowledge that these contradictions exist. There is a difference between improving the quality of poor people's lives and simply moving them out of the way. At the same time I know that broad, ideological causes, such as fights against gentrification, often gloss over certain day-to-day realities, like the sincere right for someone to want a safer, cleaner and yes, even more "upscale", living environment. Why would we work so hard to change the social order and then work so hard to keep it intact?

Furthermore, I am now deeply suspicious of some of my political allies whose own yuppie lifestyles contradict the visions of community living they glamorize. I recently participated in a group debate on gentrification with a group of progressive colleagues and not one of us talked about the neighborhood where each of us personally lived. Our prescriptions and pronouncements were directed at mythical lands whose "community interests" had to be protected.

The truth is there is no such thing as a monolithic "community" or "poor" people's interest. To suggest that there is, is not only recklessly reductive, but in the hands of people who claim to be fighting on behalf of the "community", it's also paternalistic and exploitative.

Still, in the desperate fight for urban space, with all its market driven pressures, the greatest danger is in looking at "undesirable" neighbors - particularly those who are violent and destructive - like pests that need to be exterminated or at least chased away. Not every social ill can be locked up or simply shuttled from view, to someone else's neighborhood.

When our family and pursuit of safe living is threatened, no matter how progressive our politics, it's easy to feel little bits of our humanity and a broader understanding of what internalized oppression looks like, slip away. It would be important for all of us to recognize this the next time we have an urge to "clean up" our community.

Mark Winston Griffith is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin. He is also executive director of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.

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