Funny how things work out, my friend said, as she changed the channel on her flat-screen TV. “The other day at the bodega I ran into these four white girls. I started talking to them. They said they were living right across the street in this dumpy building paying $800. I thought, Well, that’s all right. Then they say they’re paying $800 apiece! One of them is sleeping on the couch. Sleeping on the couch in their own house! I went back to my apartment, looked at my view, and thought, Maybe my elevator is pissy, but if that’s gentrification, who’s the joke on now?”
“I’ll know the projects are changing when the first hipster applies for admission,” said April Simpson-Taylor, as we sat together on a bench at the Queensbridge projects, where she has lived most of her life.
We got to talking about the future of the projects. I mentioned Howard Husock’s plan. Simpson-Taylor frowned. “They’re always talking about selling the projects. I don’t listen to it,” she said.
“But, if they did, how much do you think you could get for this place?”
“Yeah. How much do you think it’s worth?”
The idea had been roiling around for a couple of weeks. Husock mentioned selling the Ingersoll Houses, a twenty-building development tucked under the BQE in Fort Greene. But Queensbridge, 50 acres with all that river frontage, had to be way more valuable. Queensbridge Park, right by the water, was a beauty. The renovated F-train station right on the corner was a mere two stops from Manhattan.
A couple of phone calls to property assessors returned the following information: Despite the image of the teeming projects, the leafy QB is severely underbuilt. The buildings themselves take in 1.6 million square feet, but the area was zoned for a “buildable” total of 3.6 million square feet. With that 3.6 million feet currently going for $80 per, the site could be worth close to $300 million. “Selling Queensbridge,” Simpson-Taylor said mournfully. “You know how many times I’ve thought about moving away from here? Who wants to live their whole life in a project? But I keep coming back. You don’t always get to choose your home, but it is still home, and not just because I grew up here. It’s home because everybody’s here. What happens to everyone then?”
That was the question, the one Howard Husock’s modest proposals didn’t quite cover. He said the best way to pry the people out of the projects was “with carrots, not sticks.” The residents could be “bought out,” in the way landlords in the private sector give tenants money to empty a building. That way, the former residents would be free to move anywhere, Husock said.
Somehow I didn’t think it was going to work that way.
“What’s up with the dead kids” I say, pulling a shiny spirit-killing blade out of my cane. He doesn’t speak, but I got his attention. Without moving his eyes, the old ghost focuses all his energy and concentration on my weapon.
“Listen,” Riley says, producing his own glowing saber and directing it at the easy chair, “we being nice by talking to you right now instead of just getting this over with, but we could certainly—“
You dare address Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, boy?
The voice is a sharp slither inside our heads. The old man just sits there smiling.
“Excuse me?” Riley demands.
“What do you want?” I say.
The Calhouns were once a well-respected family. It feels like a knife is cutting away parts of my brain with each word. Kept New York harbor a central point in the transatlantic slave trade. Ran a de facto empire from our estates in the Hudson Valley. A name known all over the civilized world. Three generations later, my fop of a great-great grandson has further disgraced his noble lineage.
“Is he talking to us?” Riley whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My knees are starting to give out. I’m not sure if I’m holding off ending him from fascination or fear, but the no-turning back point’s fast approaching.
And now: Here I am in this faggotine city of corpulence, cross-breeding and cowardice, shackled to a worthless, slave loving progeny. Still: I manage to have my fun, wreak my vengeance in a manner fit for pharaohs.
“The first born sons,” I say. “The tenth plague. You’re a dipshit just like your great grandson.”
The old man turns his shaggy sneering face towards me for the first time and I almost double over with nausea. The extinction of the black race has to begin somewhere. Why not in the uppermost echelons?
I’m done finding shit out. Time to endgame the situation. As I step forward to engage the ghost, the office door swings open and John Calhoun bursts in. He’s wearing tighty-whitey and a stained, white t-shirt. He looks pissed. Gone is the forced smile he had flashed again and again that afternoon. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my office, Detective?”
He stands directly between my blade and his slave-trading, child-killing ancestor. A cruel laughter erupts in my brain like a bomb going off. “Get out of the way,” I say. I’m trying to put on a calm front but a shiver has found its way into my voice. Both Calhouns hear it. The laughter in my head gets louder. “I have to destroy that chair.”
“That chair is an heirloom!” John Calhoun screams.
“I bet,” Riley mutters.
“I’m calling the police,” Calhoun announces, as if that settles the matter. He produces a cell phone and I swat it out of his hands with my cane. He glares at me in total disbelief. I swat him again, higher this time and he falls out of the way and cowers in a corner.
“Let’s get this over with, man” Riley says. He’s beside me now, weak but ready to move. “Hold Captain Underpants and I’ll deal with Gramps.” I feel his icy hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
The transmission comes in blaring and staticky: Councilman Arsten to agents Washington and Delacruz. We both straighten to attention at the sound of Bart’s nasally voice. Be advised, the entity known as Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, deceased 1846 of New York State, is a confirmed protected entity. He is not to be touched, harmed, or insulted. I try to concentrate on holding my blade steady, keeping both Calhouns at bay. Riley starts breathing heavily. Under no circumstances is he to be dispatched into non-existence. This concludes Emergency Executive Order 203-14 of the New York Council of the Dead. Failure to comply will result in banishment and termination.
When the transmission ends, all I hear is the ghost Calhoun’s piercing laughter. I lower my blade slightly and then bring it back up. I feel Riley’s bristling and burning like a fireball beside me. There’s a pause. Then Riley lurches forward. I see the blade flash and the old man’s face suddenly looks frail and desperate. You ever notice how old people do that? Act all powerful until things don’t go their way. The ancient phantom moans, gurgles and then shrivels our of existence. On the floor lies the crumples pile of wood and fabric that had once been a Calhoun family heirloom. I feel sudden light on my feet. The whole room takes a breath, like the steam had been let out of the pressure cooker.
John Calhoun, still cowering in the corner, stammers nonsensically. Riley and I look at each other. I can’t decide if that’s disappointment in his frown or just the sullen satisfaction of a grim job well done. I had hesitated. When he moved, the whole world had moved to deliver that divine justice; I could feel the sacred pantheon reveling in his victory around us. But the repercussions of defying the Council are devastating. We don’t have much time. Death’s angry bull’s-eye is already swirling towards Riley.
Calhoun screams and I realize that Riley has made himself visible. I guess once you’ve tossed the rulebook out, you might as well go all the way.
“You’ve caused a lot of problems,” Riley says.
“Jesus, what are you?
“It’s not about me. Maybe if you’d spent more time studying your own people before your came studying mine, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I-I don’t understand!”
“I think you do, but I’ll let it slide. Imma need you to do me a favor, though, Mr. Calhoun.”
“Put some of the degree’d-up intellect of yours into dealing with your own shit,” Riley says, “and move out.”
—Excerpted from Salsa Nocturna: Stories, a collection of “ghost noir” short stories by R guest contributor Daniel José Older.
Look. I get it. The Chocolate City has changed. It isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that D.C. was once so marred by murder that it was nicknamed Dodge City or that there is now a hipster bar on U St. that holds the same name. Point is, there is a certain cultural vulturalism, an African American historical “swagger-jacking,” going on on U Street. It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—while a faux black ethos remains.
In a six-block stretch, we have Brixton, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, Patty Boom Boom, Blackbyrd and Marvin. All are based on some facet of black history, some memory of blackness that feels artificially done and palatable. Does it matter that the owners aren’t black? Maybe. Does it matter that these places slid in around the time that black folks slid out? Maybe. Indeed, some might argue that these hip spots are actually preserving black culture, not stealing it.
Here’s a news flash to those who don’t know: This place was a place well before you. You didn’t discover us. We aren’t Indians. You didn’t make Ben’s; we did. This city was pig intestines after so many left, and we made it into chitterlings. And these places, these fancy places with “authentic” food, aren’t homes. They’re just rentals.
The bigger question is: Is it possible for a once-black city to experience gentrification while opening businesses that exploit black culture? Yes. Culture is weird in the way that air is weird: You need it, you breathe it, but you don’t own air.
You can connect through culture, embrace culture, dance culture, but in the end, you can’t be the culture police. Maybe I want to sit at the doors of D.C.’s black culture and check IDs, making sure you deserve to appreciate what Marvin Gaye and Donald Byrd meant to a city that really didn’t have much to be proud of when these cats came up.
As I emerged from the Brixton Tube Station, a steel drum band greeted me on the corner. I stayed to listen to the music, but as it was cold, I finally started walking.
The first thing I spotted was the open–air market, which reminded me of a typical African or Caribbean market—lots of starchy tubers, grand pieces of meat, exotic veggies and fruits, and a ton of random stuff, from socks and bedding to key chains?
But where was the covered market?
Before I headed toward where I thought the covered market was, I spotted a stand selling fresh juices and Jamaican snacks, including beef patties. I decided that a patty would be my introduction to food in Brixton.
I would later regret wasting my appetite.
As I entered the covered market, the first eatery that caught my eye was a small cupcake shop. Then I saw a diminutive gourmet brick oven pizza joint. Then, a Caribbean food and goods place, a hamburger restaurant, a tiny shop selling hair weaves, three Colombian restaurants, a braid shop, a vintage clothes shop, and finally a home-style Thai restaurant. And that was just the beginning.
The restaurants weren’t big, either. Most appeared to be between 100 and 200 square feet. But their size didn’t deter the people. I saw dozens of customers eating on benches in the arcade’s breezeway, which was pretty darned cold in early February.
I was confused.
Where was I? In what kind of place can you find intimate, approachable, and clearly very good restaurants alongside weave and ethnic food shops?
Clearly, the Brixton Village Market. And I felt quite comfortable. The hair shops and African/Caribbean goods appealed to my practical need of those things—my blackness. The intimate, affordable and high-quality restaurants featuring food from around the globe appealed to my expanded worldview, my love of others cultures, and my foodie tendencies.
The Brixton Village Market also represented the “new” Brixton, one quite far along on the path of gentrification, but still maintaining its black roots.
public busing (you know, that shit that helps people get to work/school) has just taken huge hits in funding, workers are being slowly de-unionized, etc etc etc, and look at that! just in time to save the day! and make sure all the rich out of towners can get to the bars/resturants in safe clean comfort!
i been wondering this forever.
flint has just as many beat up run down decaying houses that detroit does. in fact, flint has had many of the same proposals surrounding it to “deal” with blight that detroit has—downsizing, 1$ houses, etc.
and yet—when it comes to the whole “zomg i luuuurv abandoned houses!”—the narrative focuses almost exclusively on Detroit. the “once great city.” the “former glory.”
flint is also a “once great city” and has a lot of “former glory”—tons of wealth, lots of beautiful old buildings/architechture…
so what’s the difference here? why is the gaze on detroit so fucking focused?
i can only think of two things.
first; michael moore’s movie, roger and me, detailed exactly how violent the process of resource withdrawal really is. families being kicked out of their homes, families going hungry—empty houses in his movie (and many of his follow up documentaries) don’t carry that same mystique that houses shown in ruin porn do. in short, he contextualizes what ruin porn deliberate fails to. that the houses aren’t just randomly abandoned—that many times (probably most or all), *eviction* happened—making it a violent, demeaning, shaming, frightening experience—the ghost of frightened children and terrified mothers hang around michael moore’s houses.
second: because ruin porn *deliberately* decontextualizes the houses, viewers are able to write their own fantasies onto the blight. one of the fantasies I saw on the detroit ruin porn flowing around tumblr involved a person crying, then flipping over piano and playing it while smoking a cigar (or something, I was so grossed out, I didn’t read it very closely). Viewers of ruin porn repeatedly value terms like “haunting” and “once great” and “so sad” and “heartbreaking.” —and yet, to see a (black) family removed from their house (as you see in Roger and me) can often be described using the same terms. the haunting image of the little boys face as he watches his mother scream at his siblings….
but i get a feeling that THAT is not the haunting image people are recalling as the looking at Detroit ruin porn. because detroit ruin porn decontextualizes the houses, viewers can do the same thing they do when racism or white supremacy stairs them in the face—ignore it, turn away from it, or pretend like it doesn’t exist.
detroit ruin porn, in a sense, allows viewers to reinforce the fantasy that there are no consequences to white supremacist heteropatriarchy—there are no consequences to capitalism. houses, like the titantic, just accidently hit a magic ice burg. everything would’ve been fine if the captian had slowed down like he’d been told. or if there had been enough lifeboats. it’s not that exploitation, violence, resource hoarding, pollution, segregation, violence against workers, and a corporate greed created a new more extravegant way to hoard money and reinforce violent structures of control—it’s that the captain didn’t listen to the warnings to slow down.
I think there’s also something going on with working class white folks *from the south* (i.e. hillbillies, rednecks, etc—or: whites that are easily written as being *inherently* violently racist by upper class white folks) being a big community in flint—whereas in Detroit that community exists, but for most of it’s history, the “face” of detroit whiteness was either white collar management or white immigrants (i.e. polish, esp.).
but right now…i’m tired and i still have a long day of work ahead of me.
so fair the well, tumblr.