White Fear and Safety in the Struggle for Housing Justice
Several years ago I was walking by myself on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, New York. At this point downtown Brooklyn was not the chaotic cloud of cranes, dust, and empty skyscraping glass that it is today. Up ahead, I saw a man sitting atop the metal armrest of a bench, one foot planted on the bench’s seat, the other on the concrete. As I approached, I could see that he was staring directly at me and was tapping repeatedly at his wrist, which he had held out for me to see. The thing I remember most distinctly about this encounter was that I was scared. “The time?” I asked nervously. “You want to know the time?” He did not react to the question; I looked at my phone and told him what time it was anyway. He just stared, unwaveringly, and kept tapping at his wrist. Time’s up, he seemed to mean. For me? For everyone? I moved past him as quickly as I could.
This was 2014, not really that long ago but certainly a time when a pandemic, another economic crisis, and the elevation of a vicious real estate mogul to the US presidency were all inconceivable to me.
I moved to Brooklyn eight years ago and have lived in seven different apartments spread across as many neighborhoods. I have had to move because of rent hikes, because of building noise and landlord abuse, because of life changes, breakups, and new cohabitations. I currently live in a subsidized cooperative building downtown, of a type known as a “Mitchell-Lama” after the two state senators who established the program back in the 1950s. In Mitchell-Lama buildings, those lucky enough to get an apartment off a publicly-accessible waiting list put down a relatively small investment, which is returned in full whenever they decide to leave. My partner spent 10 years on the waiting list before her name came up; now that I’ve moved in, we each pay about $350 a month for building upkeep.
Our board, which is composed of longtime residents, has tried unsuccessfully to privatize our building so those fortunate enough to have qualified for a unit could cash in on the real-estate market. Many Mitchell-Lama buildings in New York City have already gone down this path. In the wake of past defeats, our board, emboldened by the city’s encouragement, is now trying to withdraw the building from the Mitchell-Lama program and convert it to a HDFC cooperative. This would enable cooperators to make a profit on their units if they sell them; our building would become even more inaccessible to the public than it already is now. Call it protecting our advantage or just capitalizing on a good business opportunity, we would be tweaking the law to hoard the wealth we lucked into.
What I experience as a landscape of protection and accommodation my parents perceive as something much different. Over the past eight years, each time I had to relocate, my mom demanded that I tell her the street intersection closest to the place I was planning to move to, so she could look it up on a crime data analysis website at her lakeside home in the Catskills, where she and my dad have lived for 35 years. Usually they would insist that I borrow money from them so that I could afford to live somewhere “safer.” Once I got so angry that I wrote them a five-page, single-spaced letter berating them for their racial fears. In the letter I explained that “safety” in this city is a relative term depending on what you look like, that as a white man living in historically Black and brown neighborhoods I was in fact very safe, but that didn’t mean that all was well with this arrangement. I ranted that my ability and willingness to pay market rate in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Sunset Park was part of what was driving gentrification, which was when a city loses its culture, its affordability, its previous residents, and its soul.
I never sent the letter because it felt too strident and harsh, and because I realized that I was directing my anger at the wrong audience.
This spring my mom began to ask me when I was planning on leaving Brooklyn for good. People were fleeing New York City in droves—temporarily, permanently—and due to the imminent economic crisis many were predicting that a chill would descend upon the city soon, evoking images of blight and lawlessness from the 1970s. The federal government was starving us of public funding; schools, restaurants, and offices were closed; the rats were chewing through car wires in search of food. Crime and unemployment had spiked alongside COVID-19 infection rates. Wouldn’t I want to spare myself the stress and live somewhere nicer, easier, less dangerous?
Early this year, I worried about the coronavirus privately but since no one seemed to be talking about it I was able to pretend that it wasn’t coming for us, just as the rest of the country and our elected leaders seemed to be doing. The first time I was forced to engage with the specter of epidemic in public was in the library, when a white man I did not know stepped beside me at the sink, looked at me through the mirror and said, in a Speedy Gonzales accent, “I had too many drinks last night, I think I’ve got the coronavirus.” He waited for me to laugh; I charged out of the bathroom, flustered and newly anxious at having been reminded of the very thing I wanted to forget about.
Plenty has been written about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown people in the United States; there is no need to rehash the statistics or explain why it has played out like this. On March 1, I was at a monthly meeting of the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a housing justice organization rooted in an historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where people were still shaking hands, embracing, talking in small groups in an enclosed room. Masks still seemed excessive. I had been a member of CHTU for two years—Crown Heights was the last neighborhood I lived in before I moved in with my partner—and much of that time was spent trying to win stronger protections for tenants in New York State, including new limits on how much landlords could raise the rent with each vacancy. In spring of 2019 I chanted and sang as my neighbors blocked entrance to the New York State Senate and Assembly chambers, getting pummeled by Capitol police officers before they were arrested and led away. (I chose not to get arrested, mostly because I was scared.) Less vulnerable to landlord abuse, unjust evictions, displacement, and the duress of chronic, normalized rental overcharge, our neighborhoods are safer now because of those efforts.
After the March 1 meeting, I did not see many of my co-activists and organizers again until June, when we met at tenant rallies and actions to shut down the housing courts, after New York’s first wave had passed and 100,000 Americans had already died. Black and brown people in Crown Heights had been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. “I’ve spent the majority of my day struggling to breathe,” a friend and organizer from Crown Heights wrote in an email in April, several weeks after he had begun to experience symptoms. Another organizer admitted on a conference call that, since his battle with COVID, chronic blood clots in his legs left him no longer able to sit down for long periods of time. By then over 100 people in the neighborhood had already died. At one nursing home, in early April, eight corpses were left for days to decompose before the city came and picked them up.
These stories and their hideous imagery rightfully scare people who have moved upstate long ago, half a year or half a century ago. My mom never let up on her suggestions that I leave the city, each news report seemingly reinforcing her worries, but ironically, in this case, distance from the epicenter did not seem to nurture any illusions of safety. My parents still will not go inside grocery stores. They continue to let their mail sit unopened for at least 24 hours before touching it. They are far from alone in their pursuit of self-protection.
These days I have thought a lot about how the intense rural and suburban experience of a problem that begins in cities seems typical of our politics in general. In efforts to sway voters, for example, Donald Trump has doubled down on narratives of uncontrollable violence and anarchism in the city that will supposedly spread outward. He appears to be banking on white voters’ capacity to fearfully imagine one kind of contagion in order to obscure another.
And yet, for eight years I have been telling myself to remember that liberals in northern cities have just as much propensity for racialized fear as anyone in this country. The gentrifying city tacitly promises to allay those fears, forcing out poor people and whitening the neighborhood, though the process deals outwardly only in the mythifying language of inclusivity and improvement for all. By stuffing vacant lots with gleaming luxury compartments and boutique eateries, gentrification purports to zap away poverty and abolish crime; what it actually does is sweep insecurity outward and deepen it generally, while training a heavier police presence upon its pioneering blocks. After the initial New York State shutdown, construction on high-rise condos in urban neighborhoods like Crown Heights quickly resumed. My friend recovering from COVID-19 called the real estate companies vultures, “waiting to pick at our bodies and build glass towers atop our bones.” LLCs tried to argue that their condo construction was “essential work”; in this way many were approved to resume work by Governor Cuomo’s office. Across the street from my building downtown, construction at a luxury development resumed when the realty company cited a handful of “affordable” units (i.e., for people who make an average of $60,000 a year) that were being constructed in a different building they owned. If we don’t have luxury units, they contended, we can’t have affordable housing. Our governor bought the argument; after all, this was already the city’s policy.
By June, meanwhile, an estimated 400,000 people had left New York. One survey found that some 11 percent of New Yorkers were planning on moving away for good, if they hadn’t already. New luxury housing was going up anyway. Simultaneously, several hundred thousand tenants are expected to be evicted as the housing courts begin to reopen. From a bird’s eye view it is almost as though the city were trying to make as many uninhabitable apartments as possible. Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, white residents who felt threatened by the sudden presence of houseless people placed temporarily in the Lucerne Hotel demanded that the city take action. “The fear is palpable,” one longtime Upper West Side resident said of local attitudes toward their new neighbors—men who were called “scum” and “sub-human” on the Upper West Side activists’ Facebook page. Our mayor bought their case, and cleared the hotel out.
On May 30, 2020, an NYPD “mobile command center” parked itself outside our building downtown where it would remain for 53 days. Every day before dusk a legion of officers assembled in riot gear on the sidewalk to receive orders for the coming night’s work, suppressing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. When I walked to protests I skirted battalions of police parading back to their makeshift hub; on my way home I slipped through the hundreds of officers standing, waiting in the road. It was almost like they were having a demonstration themselves, I thought, except they were being paid for their displays of force. Each time I passed I prayed silently that they would not smell the uprising on me, that they would let me proceed freely.
A spring of lurking paranoia gave way to a summer of more immediate terror and trauma, in the form of police kettles, drive-by rammings, and weapons of war. In Washington D.C., police used tear gas on peaceful protesters so that the president of the United States could pose as a God-fearing Christian in front of a church. In New York City, police arrested people who were out after 8 p.m. while also blocking the subway entrances that they might have used to go home. Peaceful protesters were beaten with police bats, plowed into by police vehicles, tossed onto the ground and left there handcuffed in the rain. “I’m feeling anxious and scared and furious and hopeful,” I told a friend by text message on June 5 before we headed to a protest outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. As a white person I was not used to this kind of vulnerability, even if it was a kind of poetic justice after all these years of roaming uncriminalized in gentrifying New York.
My partner and I hung a homemade “Defund Police” banner from our balcony. As anticipated, the call from our building administrator came several days later. The Board agreed with our sentiments, she said, but unfortunately due to building policy, the sign had to come down. Meanwhile cops filed in and out of our building, using the employees’ bathroom as they pleased.
In certain commercial districts at this time there seemed to be two kinds of businesses: those still open, with a “Black Lives Matter” printout in the window, and those boarded up entirely. The latter establishments made it easy enough to see that their priorities lay in safeguarding their property, staving off that old fear of urban attack and material loss. Of the former, I wondered if their signage was just a more discreet form of self-protection. Banks, universities, and chain retail shops rushed to apply the colors of racial justice to their iconography; “Black Lives Matter” was painted on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and on the cement in front of the Brooklyn Municipal Building, over which police and security vehicles promptly parked.
I marched with tenant activists, friends, and strangers one morning to the Brooklyn Con Edison office after the energy monopoly’s negligence had left 73,000 outer-borough customers without power. Other mornings we marched inside the offices of some of Brooklyn’s most prolific eviction lawyers and marshals to protest business models that depend on harming people. We continued to speak with our bodies, our voices, and our signatures against the expansion of unaffordable housing and retail megadevelopments. We were protesting to disrupt the profit motive, the insidious, banal racism of economic normalcy in our city, the conventional wisdom that everything up-and-coming is safer.
Now October, these demonstrations continue, and they are part and parcel of the uprising for justice this country watched accelerate in June. Fear seems increasingly inevitable, and perhaps unavoidable as the need for disruptive action continues to rise—not just in my city but all around us. To me, it’s important that I acknowledge it and accept it as I continue to participate. Maybe my time is indeed up, as the man I passed on Schermerhorn Street seemed to gesture, or perhaps the doom he foresaw was for all of us, or maybe I was just watching some personal crisis of his unfold and I will be fine. All of those versions of the story are concerning; all are scary, all are worth acting upon.