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The Mea Culpa of Gentrification: Danny Hoch with Williams Cole

Danny Hoch’s new one-man show, Taking Over, starts its run at the Public Theater on November 7th. Taking Over is comprised of diverse characters of different race and class, including Hoch as himself, who embody the dilemmas and problems of gentrification in Brooklyn. Many are specific to Williamsburg, but with implications that connect to urban transformation all over the country. Hoch, a long-time Williamsburg resident himself, has already had an extensive and innovative career in theater that includes his one-man shows Some People and Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop. He was the founder of the Hip Hop Theater Festival and has also had numerous film roles. Taking Over is a provocative piece about authenticity, identity, the sense of place, and the waning of community in the super-heated commercialism of the “new” New York. Both funny and poignant, it stands as one of the most important pieces about dislocation and gentrification to be produced in some time. I recently sat down with Hoch in his house on the street in Williamsburg where we both live.

Williams Cole (Rail): Why did you decide to do a piece about gentrification?

Photos courtesy of Michael Short
Photos courtesy of Michael Short

Danny Hoch: It’s been something that had been in my face here in New York City, for eighteen years in Williamsburg, at least a decade if not more before that living in Queens, and living in the city and seeing it. I’ve been thinking about this for years, but I never wanted to make a piece about it. Most pieces take me about a year and a half or two years to develop but this time I sat down and I wrote the entire thing in four days because I think I had been thinking about it for so long that finally when I opened the floodgates it just came spewing out and, yeah, there was a lot to say.

Rail: You grew up here in the city and have lived in New York for a long time. When did you first become aware of gentrification?

Hoch: Back in the 80s I noticed that old mom and pop stores and cultural establishments like family-owned restaurants were being replaced with quirky cafes and a vintage clothing store or a weird gallery that didn’t seem to sell anything or you weren’t really sure what they were selling. In Park Slope, the West Village, the East Village, these things were catering to the new people, either because they were set up by the new people, or because New Yorkers said, “Hey, I know the new people are going to spend money on this.” Then in the early 90s in Williamsburg there were these big, art/industrial music parties in old factories like the Dutch Mustard building. Some people in the neighborhood would go to them—some organized them—but there was kind of this motley crew of grungy looking people from all over the city that would go to them. Then I remember around ’94 or ’95 there was the “L Café.” And it wasn’t that we didn’t have a café in the neighborhood before, but we didn’t have a café where there were tattooed, pierced people working and where there was this alternative kind of “American” vibe happening. It was very “American.” You kind of felt that you were in an American city when you walked into the café—

Rail: As opposed to what?

Hoch: As opposed to something that was indigenous and organic from the longtime residents of the neighborhood. We had Dominican cafés, we had Puerto Rican cafés and restaurants, we had Italian ones, we had Polish ones, you know places you get your pastry and coffee. Same with the Hasidim. But this looked like it had kind of arrived out of nowhere, that it was just kind of planted down and “poof.”

Rail: What about the last few years? Obviously a tidal wave of hipsters came pouring in…

Hoch: For the rest of the country, Williamsburg has become the blueprint for how to do gentrification swiftly. It’s also a microcosm for the rest of the country in that all these factories were here and when the manufacturing went overseas, although there were a lot of residents here, there was a greater physical prominence of the factories and warehouses that were left empty. And artists that were getting gentrified out of downtown Manhattan moved in and occupied these spaces, and then a café opened, and then a gallery opened, and then somebody got famous and then it became popularized. And then, when a lot of businesses started investing in the neighborhood to get the money of the young artists who had occupied the neighborhood, developers took notice and real estate people took notice, and then things started getting rezoned, and then people started buying up buildings—and this happened very, very, very quickly—and before you know it, in the mid to late 90s, yuppies began flooding into the neighborhood.

Rail: Concurrently, it was “Giuliani Time,” with the idea of “zero tolerance” that appealed to the rest of the country…

Hoch: Yeah, at the same time the city had become re-branded as a “safe American city.” But the city wasn’t necessarily safe in the early or mid 90s or even now. You know it’s still a big city, there’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of crime. Except, if you’re an intrepid young American wanting to forge your identity in the big city and you’ve come here to be an artist or you’ve come here to go to school, or you came here to get girls or guys, then it’s okay if someone from the neighborhood got shot last week, because there’s a café and a vintage clothing store, and an art gallery that makes you feel safe. And the fact that one of the residents got shot actually may make you feel more intrepid and actually more cool. It’s that romanticism of the grit. There’s a character in Taking Over who says, “I’ve only been here three years, but so much has changed already. You know, there’s a Subway sandwiches and a baby store and that’s cool, but I liked it when it was a little grittier here.” Because the grit I think provides Americans with an affirmation of their simulated struggle—that they’re struggling and actually living in a real community.

But the thing is, they’re not really part of the community. Now the blondest, coolest kids from Iowa are getting off in the middle of Harlem—in the middle of Bed-Stuy, in the middle of Clinton Hill! Where, in 80s, that would not have been possible. [Laughs.] Like another character in the play says, “Forget about, ‘You would have been killed or robbed’--you would have just evaporated!” Now, when these kids are getting off at the same stops with everybody else, they’re not stepping into the same community. There are these vacuum communities that have developed. It is a community of Americans who have settled as pilgrims, if you will, and sometimes as missionaries, in a pre-existing community. And they set up businesses, and they set up a social network, within this community that is in its own vacuum. It’s in its own bubble. And I use the example of the Williamsburg Arts Festival, which was started, I think, sometime in the early 90s. I remember seeing an advertisement for it, and I looked at it and I thought, “Wow! There’s no Hasids, there’s no Dominicans, there’s no Polish, and there’s no Italians, there’s no Puerto Ricans, and there’s no black folks in this Williamsburg Arts Festival. So what Williamsburg are they talking about?

Rail: What about the quest for authenticity people have when coming into these communities? Some of your characters represent that. A lot of the time when I tell people how long I’ve lived here they say, “Oh wow, you must have been one of the first here!” As if nobody was here before…

Hoch: Well, I think the psychology around authenticity and coming earlier rather than later is about the thrill of the frontier. It’s about discovery. There’s something in not just the American psyche, but the Western psyche, that wants to be the first one to discover something, that wants to feel like they were the first ones to build a cabin, if you will, you know, the first ones to plant a flag. Because it makes us feel more authentic as human beings, it makes us feel more intrepid, it makes us feel brave, it makes us feel like—we’re simulating struggle—like we’re actually struggling. If you remember the character in the play that’s the French real estate agent, one of the things he says to the couple that he’s showing this luxury apartment on Kent Avenue is, “Don’t worry, the people in the neighborhood are great. There’s lots of Europeans, lots of Californians, but not too many.” He says this because he wants to reassure them that they’re frontiers-people and even though they’re spending $1.5 million on a luxury apartment that is really not luxury and isn’t at all worth $1.5 million, that they’ll have all the amenities they need, but still be able to consider themselves “the firsts.” The first in this building, the first to live on the river, some of the first Californians to have discovered the neighborhood. That, I think, is just in the D.N.A. of the Western psyche somehow.

Rail: Talk a little bit about the characters. Why did you choose the ones you did?

Hoch: I think I’m beginning now, twenty years—if you can believe it—into making solo shows, that I’m figuring out what my formula is, what my instinct is, in terms of the way I formulaically write a show. I think it’s about a whole bunch of contradicting voices, that are even contradicting themselves and each other, and that are kind of a tapestry of a theme. I did it in Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, I did it in Some People, I did it in Pot Melting. I’ve done it in some other shows that I’ve written for other actors. I didn’t sit down and map it out like “Okay, I’ve got to have a real estate developer and I’ve got to have somebody getting kicked out, I’ve got to have a person on a stoop who’s watching the kids and I’ve got to have a car service dispatcher.” I think it was really listening to my own inner monologue and the inner monologues of other people that I know and have heard arguing the merits and the downsides of gentrification. And as a playwright I say these things out loud in my head and start to hear characters and say “Wow, the person who would say that is the NYU dropout sitting on Bedford Avenue selling their shit; the person who would say this is someone old from the neighborhood; The person who would say this is the one that feels like there’s no place for them anymore in their own neighborhood; The person who would say this is a New Yorker who feels entitled to the neighborhood. [Laughs.] The person who would say this is someone who’s in the middle of the violent semiotics of trans-generational immigration.” So you start to say, “Okay, well, I think that’s this person, and I think that’s this person.” A lot of people ask me, “Is each character in the show someone that I know?” And it’s a yes and no question, because each character is actually based on maybe ten people. They’re composites, because the more layers that each one character has of several different people, the richer they become and the more they speak to a wider audience.

Rail: Like Robert, who is half-Polish and half-Puerto Rican and who grew up in Williamsburg and now has a Master’s Degree and is pissed about how the place has changed.

Hoch: Yeah, that allows for a lot of leeway [Laughs.].

Rail: What about your decision to add yourself in as a character? I mean, did you feel like you had to do that given the subject matter?

Hoch: Well, I think given the subject matter, it’s important, because people want to know where I stand on this. In this play, the performer is the playwright. It would be one thing if I was performing somebody else’s play. But because people know that I wrote this, I think they want to know who’s he in all this and where does he stand? Part of that has to do with that I’m playing all these different characters. So it throws people off, they don’t know who I am and they kind of want to know. There’s something unsettling if they don’t hear me in the midst of all these characters, but then, ultimately, when I come out in this show as myself, I don’t think it’s what people are expecting to hear. [Laughs.] A lot of people are disappointed and upset actually by what I say.

Rail: Really? Why do you think that is?

Hoch: I think that the people that are upset at the piece are all gentrifiers. Because I think there’s an expectation when they see this white guy up there that, ultimately—even though I’ve talked about how fucked up this has been for immigrants and children of immigrants and African-Americans and New Yorkers who have lived here their whole lives—that, ultimately, I’m going to speak for them and, ultimately, I’m going to give their point of view. And when I don’t, I think there’s a betrayal that’s felt. Because, you know, a lot of the white Americans in the audience feel indicted, and they have been indicted. But I kind of indicted myself, as well. But it’s not good enough for them. I think they want to be celebrated. I think that the white Americans who feel uncomfortable in my show not only want to be celebrated, but they also want to feel kinship with the victimization of the New Yorkers. Because I think the white Americans who are uncomfortable in my show feel like victims. I think they feel like they’re not rich and they’re not responsible for this and their rent has gone up, and it’s not fair what’s happening to them, so where’s their story? And I just feel fucked up about them feeling uncomfortable, but I’m not really apologetic because their stories are the majority of stories that we hear. You know, the most celebrated playwright in New York City is from Ohio and he writes plays about people from Ohio. And he’s the most celebrated New York City playwright! And he’s a good fucking playwright too. But there’s something wrong with this picture. And what’s wrong with this picture is that New Yorkers are being erased and New Yorkers’ stories are being erased and the people in my show who are New York characters are being erased. And the white Americans in the audience who consider themselves progressives or liberals or Democrats or Obama-ites or self-aware gentrifiers who try to do good or whatever the fuck they consider themselves, they want to be down with the victims, they don't want to be down with the perpetrators. The problem is that we’re all perpetrators. [Laughs.] We’re all responsible—

Rail: Isn’t that part of the message?

Hoch: Yeah, I mean, there isn’t a message, but yeah, that’s part of the message.

Rail: It’s a pretty important message.

Hoch: Yeah, I mean, the Danny Hoch character, if you will, says, “What’s the message of the show? Is it, ‘go home?’ No—yes, it’s, ‘go home.’ No, no, no I’m just kidding—no actually, the message is, ‘fuck you.’ Okay, no I’m just kidding again. The message is, ‘I love you, I love you, everything is great. Everybody’s wonderful. Just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re all going to be fine.’” Which is the real message of the show. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Oh you feel uncomfortable for one night in a theater? I’m so sorry!”

Rail: So, in the one sense, you understand that probably a lot of the audience, especially at the Public, is going to feel alienated on some level?

Hoch: That’s a good thing! I think that’s a good thing! [Laughs.] You know, I don’t think you should go see a play about gentrification and feel good about yourself when you walk out of the theater! I think if you do, then the playwright has fucked up. [Laughs.]. Because that would be, ultimately, a byproduct of gentrification.

Rail: What do you ideally want to spark in an audience?

Hoch: That, I think, is what the problem is for people. They want a solution or they want a happy ending or they want to know like, “So where do we go from here?” And it’s not my job, it’s really not my job, nor do I have the answer. I don’t have the answer. The answer is—every man for himself. My progressive friends will frown on that.

Rail: What do you mean every man for himself?

Hoch: I think people on the left have demonstrated blindly that it’s every man for himself. Because when we have talkbacks after shows and people stay and they argue with me about gentrification, they either argue about the merits of gentrification or that they had no choice. And most of the time it’s, “Well, I had no choice, what was I supposed to do?” Well what that means is that it’s every man for himself! I don’t know what you were supposed to do. I don’t know what I was supposed to do either. We ran over people in the street. We kicked people out of their homes. We drove up the price of milk. We caused police harassment. Just by our presence, by our mere presence.

Rail: So you have to be able to confront that. You have to look into yourself and find the contradictions or whatever. And if anything, I think that’s important.

Hoch: Right, but that’s not very American. It’s not very American to look within at the contradictions and feel messy about it and feel unhappy about it. Believe it or not, even though we make fun of Disney, we like our stories to be like Disney’s. We like them summed up, and figured out, telling us, “this is how we’re moving forward, and there’s the solution, and the resolution and I can feel good about myself, and I can even feel like I’m being politically active.” My producers ask me—and continue to ask me—to make white folks feel more comfortable in the show. Someone said to me that what they’re doing is asking me to sell little gentrification colorful wristbands so that people can say, like, “Hey, I’m aware of the issue, here’s my wristband! I’m doing something.”

Rail: Talk about what you, Danny Hoch as a character, say in the show about how people could stay in their hometowns to make real difference there in the arts and in social organizing and in things like that. Explain that a little bit…

Hoch: I have a friend from a small town in Appalachian Ohio, and she came to New York, left her economic footprint, gentrified a bunch of different neighborhoods, went to NYU, did all sorts of alternative symbiotic studies and shit, and then she was like, “You know what, I fucked up. The real deal, if I’m really going to like, make change, is to go home, and make it there.” And she is now at home, doing the most incredible fucking work. She’s one of my heroes because she is dealing with, and working with, these young men who are getting back from Iraq and she, person by person, is trying to get people in white Appalachian Ohio not to vote for McCain but to vote for Obama or someone else. I mean, she showed films like Giuliani Time and Why We Fight. But you have to understand, this is not like Macon, Georgia where R.E.M. is from. I don’t know what you call it, whatever the rural version of “the hood” is. But she’s doing it. I saw her recently, and she got really upset at me, because she’s like, “You people in the cities, have no fucking idea, how fucking hard it is, and what’s really happening in the majority of towns in this country.” And I was like, “Yeah, I hear you.”


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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