I’m traipsing through the tree-less streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The sky reaches down between the two-story townhomes and the wide streets, far from the dismal light of tall-towered Manhattan. What Manhattan lacks in natural light, it makes up for in human energy; yet here, it is desolate. No one roams the sidewalks, and if they do, their lips are pursed as they refuse to meet my eyes with their own. There is no welcome to pet their dog, to complement their outfit, to ask about their artistic canvas tote bag. No being neighborly. Instead, Brooklyn residents take on the stereotype of the city dweller and act cold toward strangers.
Recently, New York City has been lingering on my mind. The distraction of my happy place keeps me trudging on toward my upcoming finals. I’m also reminded of the city because I recently visited my mother there for fall break. Just a year ago, she moved on a whim from Traverse City, Mich., to Yorkville, N.Y. I spent some of my break in her crooked pre-war studio apartment. I also took the trek to Brooklyn, transferring train lines and getting lost between streets, to see my recently-graduated friends who live in Bushwick. As I packed a carry-on for my short visit, my mind couldn’t help but wander to the fundamental flaw of moving to Brooklyn after college.
In the untouched neighborhoods of New York, ones that newcomers have not yet gentrified, there is love and light and a nebulous magic that people from around the world come to this city for. The unexplainable movement, life, joy. These neighborhoods are found in special pockets of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, sometimes even Manhattan, and are shrinking back from the expanding wave of out-of-towners moving in. The once-affordable cost of living in Brooklyn has skyrocketed from the demand for new higher-income residents. What may seem affordable to a salaried college graduate is outrageous to someone working an hourly restaurant job, for example. Brooklyn draws in new residents with the sunny streets, the sense of community, and the promise of culture.
Brooklyn is home to some of New York City’s biggest entertainment institutions. While I criticize the gentrification of Brooklyn, the borough’s inclusive culture is unwavering. I went to she/they night at Bossa Nova Civic Club, a foundation in the New York club scene, during my recent break from school. I witnessed a lineup of all women and feminine-presenting DJs. A safe environment for dancing is all that I dream of. In a tiny club on Myrtle Avenue, I finally found what I have been searching for. Maybe I will one day end up in Brooklyn for good.
I grapple with the dilemma of wanting to move to Brooklyn. I haven’t made up my mind yet and I have plenty of time to do so, but I’ve started pondering the idea of joining my friends in my favorite city. My biggest concern, of course, is affording the high cost of living required to inhabit New York City. All of the small expenses are quite big in New York, and with a competitive job market, this is a prominent hurdle. If I moved to the city, I would have to move to an inexpensive neighborhood. With the added wish to be near my friends and family, this would inevitably land me in Brooklyn or Queens. Clearly, I can rationalize where my new-New Yorker friends are coming from. In searching for affordable rent, they may have participated in gentrification. Before my friends moved to the city, they expressed this worry to me. They did not want to cause harm in moving to New York, yet it’s possible that they have. I have the same concerns for my future self that my friends had before they moved— it is an icky feeling to think that I may follow their stride of gentrifying a lower-income neighborhood.
I’m over the moon that my friends successfully moved to New York. It’s always a delight to see the people I love achieving their goals, and moving to one of the most expensive cities in the country is no exception. But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that nags me about the ethicality of their newfound lives. My friends are socially conscious— at least, they try their best to be— yet they are moving into working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. They are participating in the very gentrification they used to criticize in other contexts. In conversations, my friends are quick to explain the harms of gentrification. In practice, it is a different story.
Many of these friends have wound up in Bushwick— a haven for recent college graduates. It was never much of a residential neighborhood, to begin with. Throughout its history, Bushwick has served as a home for industry. Full of old sugar, chemical and oil factories and various warehouses, new apartment buildings do not exactly displace former residents. In Bushwick, the 20-somethings hailing from around the country settle amongst the Brooklyn Sanitation Department and parked concrete trucks. Most of the new apartment complexes in construction aren’t replacing anything but a dirt lot. Gentrification feels a little less palpable here.
Things are different when you think of gentrification in other neighborhoods that aren’t Bushwick, like Crown Heights. This lively neighborhood is nestled to the east of Prospect Park, the self-proclaimed “flagship park of Brooklyn.” It is full of tree-lined streets and friendly chatter. Every now and then I hear about a friend of a friend who finds $600 rent in Crown Heights. This is a neighborhood in the throes of harmful gentrification. Whereas Bushwick was formerly home to factories, Crown Heights has always been a residential area. Now, privileged college students are moving to the neighborhood because $600 is cheap from our perspective. This is gentrification happening before our eyes.
This has prompted me to think about the ways in which university teaches us to interact with the world around us, and more specifically, the world outside of our college. For University of Michigan students, most of the work we produce and spend time on contributes to the University. In return, we live off of the Ann Arbor community, frequenting the farmer’s market, dining in Ann Arbor restaurants, fueling the ever-expanding local boba cafes. And sure, this relationship is symbiotic. The Daily provides news for the entire Ann Arbor community. Occasionally, student organizations put on incredible events to help local nonprofits. We stay here for a few short years, an extended vacation, and leave to find the next best thing after graduation.
This is a parasitic relationship to the outside world that we have been taught to have. After college, we want to move where the rent is cheap. In doing so, we take advantage of the mom-and-pop restaurants with the three-dollar empanadas. Eventually, with the help of our education, we find a salaried job and we move up in the world. Meanwhile, the permanent residents of gentrified neighborhoods may be displaced, or their small businesses closed down. This is the cycle that many U-M graduates are a part of. College is the last time in many of our lives where we take and take and are not expected to give. This is the relationship between a child and a parent, and now, it is our relationship between student and university. We are not required to produce much except for a short essay or a reproduction of some code that has already been solved. Nothing is dependent on us to be a part of a whole. When we do not show up for class, it is business as usual. Nobody bats an eye. Then, we graduate with this mindset. We are released into the real world without realizing the space we take up.
We all come from around the world to study in Ann Arbor, Mich. For most of us, this is home for four years, less if we leave during summers. We cash in on the fun of the state-school experience. Then, when it’s all over, we leave and find something new to feed off of — and add to. While we may still move to Brooklyn after graduation, we must be cognizant of the opportunities we have that other people do not. It’s important for us to remain aware of our relationship with the world around us. To use our privilege, our education, and our subsequent ease of success to contribute to the communities that we take from.
Statement Columnist Martha Starkel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.