Culture & Livability

A Black Gentrifier Moves to the Suburbs

The author in his suburban home office. Credit: Dax-Devlon Ross

Two years ago I appeared on WNYC and WBAI to talk about my experience as a self-identified black gentrifier in West Harlem. Last year I wrote an in-depth piece about race, class and the changing demography in Washington, D.C., my hometown. At this point I’m battling gentrification fatigue. The conversation just doesn’t strike the same emotional cord or intellectual punch for me. The stories that people send me about it feel like retreads of the same issues and challenges I’ve been reading and writing about for the past decade, set in different locales.

We writers tend to find the same urban studies experts and non-profit executives, quote the most updated versions of the same census or economic policy data, and trot out variations of the stock community member who either a) utterly despises the very idea of gentrification or b) unabashedly sings its praises without considering its downsides. The evil landlords and the ghoulish gentrifiers — presumably young, educated white people with disposable income — are typically written about with such snark-laden derision that readers never see them as real people making actual decisions based on real-life economic factors, notwithstanding greed and opportunism. By the end, if I make it, I’m typically wondering what I’m supposed to take away, what’s going to happen now that I know yet another poor community is getting a makeover against its will, why yet another bright editor thought it vital to assign yet another gentrification story that draws the same “oh well” conclusion.

For the most part, Justin Davidson’s “Is Gentrification All Bad?” story in New York magazine follows the same formula. I spotted the stock characters, the rhetorical wordplay passing for deep analysis, the winding climb toward another “oh well” ending. I mean, of course it’s not all bad. Who ever said it was? But then, as I was about to close the book on another well-written but futile gentrification story, I came across a paragraph that made me feel something:

Everyone’s heard stories of brutally coercive landlords forcing low-income tenants out of rent-controlled apartments in order to renovate them and triple the rent. But it’s difficult to know how often that takes place. Between 2009 and 2011, about 7 percent of New York households — around 200,000 of them — moved within the city in each year. Others left town altogether. Yet we know little about where they went, or why, or whether their decisions were made under duress.

Herein lies my beef with the standard gentrification narrative. We talk as if gentrification only affects low-income people, and only by way of them being squeezed out of their communities. Even worse, we talk with moral certainty about the injustice of displacement without ever considering the displaced, or where they end up. The I remembered that a little over a month ago my partner, Gabrielle, and I had moved from our pre-war apartment building on Riverside Drive in West Harlem to a post-war Cape Cod house 35 miles north in West Haverstraw, N.Y. I was one of those who had left the city. I had a story tell about my departure. This is it.

Since we announced our intention to leave the city three months ago, the number one-question we’ve fielded has been: Are we expecting our first little one? The answer is no. Although we now pay a sizable school tax each September, Gab and I actually didn’t move to the ‘burbs to raise children. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Give it a year or two and we’ll have a baby seat in the back of an SUV. Barring third-party participation — modern medicine, an adoption or fostering agency, or an unforeseeable circumstance — the two shelter cats who’ve been sniffing out new scratching and lounging posts the past two days will be the only occupants of our backseat carriers.

So why, if not to raise a nuclear family or start a new job, would two hip gadflies leave the very epicenter of coolness, culture and creativity for the allegedly soulless and stodgy suburbs? I mean, just look what they did to Don Draper (and Pete Campbell if you want to get technical). The suburbs rendered on Mad Men and in every post-structuralist theory text don’t simply suck, but are also the single greatest cause of American decline. Everyone eats processed food, buys lots of unnecessary crap and owns a landfill-sized carbon footprint. Stifled wives smoke and drink to quell their disillusion with the American dream and bitter husbands are utterly out of touch with their inner selves. Just as the city’s vague promise of a fresh start reeled Don from the brink of self destruction, the “smart growth” movement posits a sustainable urban lifestyle as the cure-all for a consumption crisis, the very embodiment of which is suburban sprawl.

The origins of my own dark image of suburbia trace back to the Peanuts gang. I’m reminded of this each fall when ABC airs the Charlie Brown trifecta. Everyone’s parents were absent, Chuck struggled with his self-esteem, Linus was more attached to an inanimate object than other human beings, Peppermint Patty was forced to suppress her true feelings for Marcie, and poor Franklin appeared in the neighborhood a mere four months after Dr. King’s assassination — I can only assume his tenement went up in flames during the riots — and had to conceal his emotions beneath the model negro mask. I had to wait another 30 years for Franklin’s Gen X descendants, The Boondocks‘ Huey and Riley Freeman, to bring blackness to the ‘burbs.

My view of the suburbs as sites of social repression took on new meaning once my mother sold my childhood home in D.C. and bought a house in nearby Montgomery County, Md. By then my father had been living out in the county for seven or eight years. On weekends I’d visit him for the express purpose of getting away from the city, but I always considered myself an urban kid to the core. I went to school in the city. My friends were scattered across D.C.’s eight wards. I played basketball on practically every indoor and outdoor court within the District’s 68.3 square miles. My friends and I took cultish pride in our official D.C. addresses, even, perhaps especially, when it was the murder capital and national laughing stock.

Moving to the suburbs at 16 meant giving up my city identity. I dreaded the months leading up to our departure. Out of desperation I hatched the only plan I had the power to pull off. First, I hustled to get my D.C. license while we still had the address. In the years that followed that ID would be proof of my urban origins. Second, I waited until the moving truck showed up and insisted that changing addresses so close to finals could jeopardize my chances of college admission. For whatever reason, probably pity, my mother relented and for seven days I lived alone in a sleeping bag in our barren house. I eventually made my way to the suburbs, but after slugging through my final two years of high school I quickly fled North for college and rekindled my romance with city life. Over the course of 20 years I rented apartments in New Brunswick, Newark, Jersey City, Brooklyn and Manhattan. I even returned to D.C. for a two-year stint in Adams Morgan.

Gabrielle and I began our urban exodus in September with the dreaded lease renewal notice. Since previous year’s increase had been a $100, we expected something similar this go-round, especially since nothing — not the building, neighborhood or economy — had improved in the past year. But when we opened the letter we discovered that the company was “pleased” to extend a new lease on the condition that we paid an extra $300 a month. Like so many market-rate renters in New York City, we were at the mercy of a faceless, corporate management company that preyed on our allegiance to urban life — the diversity, the amenities, the social atmosphere, the proximity. Since New York landlords are allowed to raise market-rate rents up to 16 percent annually (ours was a mere 15 percent), middle-income earners who can’t afford to buy but make too much to qualify for assistance are perennially screwed, which is why New York’s middle class is quietly disappearing.

After sulking for a few days, I called the management company to air my grievance. We paid our rent early each month. We were quiet and clean. We were among the group of market-rate renters in the building even though we knew perfectly well that our neighbors to the left and right were paying a third what we paid for bigger apartments. They liked to remind us how cheap their rent was whenever we crossed paths in the hallway. We all laughed about it. This was the New York housing game and we begrudgingly accepted the rules.

The landlord’s rationale was that maintenance costs had gone up. I said this was odd to hear considering we still only had one maintenance man responsible for more than 50 units in our building, not to mention a second building around the corner. It was no coincidence that the lawn was weedy in the summer and dusty in the winter or that the lobby was habitually filthy or that the elevator was broken at least once a month and often saddled with spit, wrappers and garbage. On multiple occasions I’d discovered someone sleeping beneath the mailboxes and a trail of blood leading from the entrance to the elevator. People routinely smoked inside the vestibule and on the stairwells. A group of college kids renting a first floor apartment had nearly kicked in their front door. Someone’s dog barked like it was beaten regularly. The ceiling in the lobby was crumbling.

“I agree with you,” the landlord admitted. “I’m embarrassed every time I visit the building.”

“You could easily put up cameras and find out who is littering in the halls,” I pleaded. “The building has so much potential, but it needs some attention. You can’t just collect rent and expect the building to maintain itself.”

“How ‘bout this,” he sighed. “How ‘bout I take a hundred off the rent.”

I was too blindsided by the offer to realize he wasn’t doing me any favors, let alone to make a counter offer. “I guess that sounds fair,” I said.

My sense of accomplishment lasted all of an afternoon. By midnight the bass from the nightclub that had opened across the street was shaking our walls. Gab put in earplugs, then headphones, then turned on the fan. Still, we couldn’t sleep. I lay awake at 3am, fuming. I got up and did the one thing I could — sent yet another pointless email to NYPD’s 311 complaint hotline.

Then I got back in bed and started rethinking our rent hike. I heard myself saying things I’d never heard myself say before. My neighbors were lazy. They had too many children. They didn’t want better for themselves or their families. They were content to let people like me work hard and pay full freight so they could coast through life. My rage spilled out of the building and up the block. I despised the dudes who stood on the sidewalks smoking blunts and calling each other the “N” word all day and the fools who drove around in the summer playing ignorant rap at full blast and those irritating dirt bike crews who raced up and down Riverside and the cops who handed out parking tickets but were never around when you needed them for anything and those cheap car alarms that went berserk every time a truck drove by and the Laundromat that never got my clothes clean and the god-awful urine smell that greeted me whenever I walked down to the grocery store on 12th Avenue. I really and truly resented the neighbors, the building, the entire neighborhood. By 4am I was on the verge of joining the Tea Party Movement.

The next morning Gab and I drove to our local police station to file a noise complaint. The officer on desk duty listened to me for all of 10 seconds before taking an incoming phone call. When I reminded her that I was still standing there after five minutes, a second officer stood up from his computer and gave me an option: Leave or spend the day behind bars. I chose the first option.

On a whim, we decided to get out of the city for the day. We had no particular destination but decided to look up open houses in nearby Rockland County just to see what our budget could afford us. We’d had vague conversations about buying one day, but the idea seemed so distant and unattainable and risky that we never gave it any serious consideration. Our very first stop was a mountainside hamlet nestled between Harriman State Park and the Hudson River. An eager realtor greeted us as soon as we walked through the door. I told her, point blank, we weren’t on the market. We were merely taking a Saturday stroll through town. The realtor never stopped smiling. It was as if she knew we were serious before we did.

This little green house didn’t boast any modern finishes and or the appliances that every home buyer on real estate TV craves — granite this, stainless steel that — yet it was cozy and everything and had been well maintained by the previous owners, both of whom passed away earlier in the year. Walking from room to room I was reminded that there was indeed a time when Americans built things to last. Still, I remained steadfast in my conviction. We were only looking… until I discovered the office. The wall of built-in bookshelves was just waiting for my books to fill it. The oak desk practically beckoned me to sit down and write the great book buried somewhere inside. Then there was the view overlooking the Hudson. As bad as things had been in our apartment, the silver lining had always been the river view. There we were 30 minutes north of Manhattan, still staring down at the same river. I was sold.

We spent the rest of afternoon in and around Rockland County. Frankly, I was shocked by the diversity. There were people of color and from different ethnic backgrounds everywhere we went. As we drove from one town to the next it occurred to me that maybe I was the one out of step. I’d allowed the American city to evolve into the great multicultural melting pot, but my mind’s eye had kept the suburbs in a whitebread straightjacket.

The smiling realtor to took us around the county the following weekend so we could see comparable houses in our price range. We’d both lived in New York apartments for a dozen years and had more or less accepted our lot as part of the perpetual renting class. I’d resigned myself to circling the block for a half-hour looking for parking and felt blessed that we could afford a second bedroom that doubled and tripled as my office, the guest room and the cats’ lair. I’d grown accustomed to lugging laundry bags up and down Broadway in freezing weather, squeezing onto cramped trains, only buying groceries I could carry by foot and rarely cooking since our kitchen was the size of a closet. A part of me even took pride in my privations — I secretly believed that if the shit ever hit the fan, my self-imposed austerities would ensure my survival. Besides, a few petty inconveniences were but a small price to pay. Living in the heart of New York had made me tougher, hipper, smarter, sharper, sexier, more interesting, sophisticated and open-minded, even more environmentally responsible than my suburban counterparts.

It took us stumbling upon a little green house on the side of a mountain for me to fully appreciate the degree to which I’d imbibed the gospel of New York. The city had become my crutch. My willingness to pay whatever the market demanded for a shoebox in an up-and-coming neighborhood was my version of the post-war rush to the suburbs.

The house.

We put in an offer as soon as the bank approved our loan. We didn’t have to bother with a bidding war: After a day of negotiations, the seller accepted and we happily gave the management company 60 days’ notice. Then, I got a call I wouldn’t have expected in a million years. The deputy inspector at my local precinct wanted to set up a time for us to chat about my 311 complaints. I thought it was some kind of ploy and dismissed the idea out of hand, but my better half convinced me it was my chance to get the past two years off my chest before I moved on. I called back.

As soon as I arrived at the precinct, a detective showed me into the deputy inspector’s office and closed the door. The inspector, a quintessential tough guy, pulled out a chair for me and invited me to tell my story. I let loose. Every issue I’d ever had with any cop landed in this poor guy’s lap. When I was done venting he called in the shift commander and asked me to repeat everything I’d said. Then the inspector handed me a card with his personal cell number.

“Call me the moment you have a problem and I’ll send my guys right over,” he said.

I called his bluff as soon as the club started cranking that night. Sure enough, four of New York’s finest were standing in my living room within five minutes.

The cops leveled with me. Their hands were tied. The club had a permit and its owner was “politically connected.” Their honesty reminded me why I’d loved the city so passionately in the first place. My beef wasn’t with the police, or anyone in my building for that matter. My neighbors worked as hard as anyone. The ladies at the Laundromat were always kind to me. Even the knuckleheads on the corner stepped to the side when Gab and I approached. We were all just getting by the best way we could. My frustrations were with the structural arrangement that consigned poor people to overcrowded, under-serviced communities and allowed absentee slumlords to extract criminal profits without any duty to reinvest in a building’s upkeep.

Ultimately, though, the real menace holding my neighbors and I hostage might have been the Harlem Growth Hormone — Columbia University. I’d kept a close eye on its Manhattanville expansion, and had seen it grow from a 17-acre mound of dirt to one full-fledged river view edifice with much, much more to come. It didn’t take an urban planner to see my landlord’s larger vision: Columbia’s new campus would become the neighborhood anchor. Once it opened, money would flow in and rents would spike. Then, and only then, would the management company begin to take an active interest in building maintenance. In the meantime, middle-income earners like us would continue to get gouged for the privilege of remaining in what was still only a neighborhood in the early stages of transition.

Two weeks before the big move I found myself sitting 10 feet away from mayor-elect Bill de Blasio at a gala. As he waved to the crowd, it dawned to me that Michael Bloomberg would be the only New York City mayor I would ever call my own. My tenure in the city literally paralleled his time in office. Under his reign the super rich had prospered and the middle class had withered. The mayor-to-be used his stage time to reiterate his promise to raise taxes on the wealthy and create more housing for working people. The audience erupted. Maybe New York under de Blasio would be a better place for people like me after all. Until that moment I hadn’t once second-guessed our decision to leave.

But it was what he didn’t address that spoke loudest. On the sidewalk in front of the venue a group of protestors called the new mayor to task for reappointing Rudy Giuliani’s former police commissioner and stop-and-frisk’s innovator, William Bratton. The move all but undercut the vary basis of his landslide victory, yet de Blasio — the self-styled progressive in the Fiorello LaGuardia tradition — didn’t even acknowledge the dissonance in the air. It was, remarkably, a non-issue for him. We can say a lot about the Bloomberg mayoralty, but he never ducked a dicey issue. We always knew where he stood, because he told us whether we wanted to hear it or not. As de Blasio finished his remarks and his future constituents rose a second time to a thunderous applause, the doubts I’d briefly entertained vanished. I was ready to let go.

Now that we’ve been away from the city for a month, I’ve had some time to reflect on the transition. Yes, I drive more, but I rarely sit in traffic, easily park wherever I go and never have to worry about finding a spot when I get back home. I have a laundry room and a backyard. My supermarket is closer than when I lived in the city. I’ve found an amazing Asian restaurant in the Palisades Center Mall. The other day I got up, drove exactly one minute to the state park for a run in the woods, got back in my car and drove exactly 90 seconds to my state-of-the-art gym.

Are there times when I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into? Heck yeah. We’re the only black couple on the block. I don’t have a friend within 40 miles. My neighbors haven’t exactly sent out a welcoming party. I’ve shoveled more snow in the last month than in the last 20 years. My first month’s heating bill would have covered rent on my first apartment.

But then, invariably, I find myself looking at the Hudson, wondering what took me so long to come to my senses. The part of my life that revolved around the city — drinks after work, clubbing, being in the mix of things, even just walking the streets without a destination — ended long before we left. Why I insisted on drinking the overpriced Kool-Aid well past the expiration date is beyond me, especially now that it matters less where we live than how we live, since we all have access to what we want.

I’m perfectly aware that my suburban neighborhood isn’t some realtor’s marketable image of diversity, authenticity and vibrancy. That’s not my burden. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been the fly in the buttermilk ever since my parents were lucky enough to scrape together a few dollars to send me to a lily-white Quaker school when I was 12. I’ve lived in enough places to learn that people are people and city life doesn’t have a copyright on cool, community or culture. Now that I’ve finally figured that out — and embraced it — I fully intend to invite any and everyone who feels they’re being pushed out of their beloved neighborhoods to join me in the ‘burbs.

Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of five books and has written essays and articles for a range of publications, including Time and the New York Times. He is a nonprofit higher-education consultant and the executive director of After-School All-Stars NY-NJ. You can find him at daxdevlonross.com and on Twitter @daxdev.

Tags: new york, livability, michael bloomberg, gentrification, bill de blasio, suburbia, displacement, rental market, media, nypd