Jonathan Lethem on the Depths of Gentrification
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Jonathan Lethem joins host Whitney Terrell live at the Cider Gallery in Lawrence, Kansas. Lethem discusses his new book, Brooklyn Crime Novel, which is set in the neighborhood where he grew up—and where he also set his 2003 novel Fortress of Solitude. They discuss terms like blockbusting and redlining, and the ways that Lethem’s writing explores the ramifications of real estate manipulation on residents of these cities and others around the nation. Lethem reads from Brooklyn Crime Novel and talks about the book’s inventive approach to time.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: You have an entire section in the book that goes through and examines all the language of gentrification, which I liked and enjoyed—terms like blockbuster, redliner, real estate broker, displace your pioneer settlers, and questions about that language and thoughts about that language. Lawrence is not immune to gentrification, by the way. There’s quite a bit happening in the neighborhood where I live. How much has the language of gentrification—the conception of what it means—changed since the ’70s?
Jonathan Lethem: I’m going to do a pretzel maneuver on your question. The word gentrification itself is so taken for granted. It’s not that old. This common use of it where we all just say it like everyone knows what that is. It had to be invented and then become familiar. It began as an academic term in England. I started researching it, and this certainty that we have that attaches to the familiarity of that word, is recent. People didn’t know what was going on, and they had different words for it. Of course, early on, when the process was being given names, it was being given positive names.
WT: It’s not a term that I remember being used in Kansas City at all, until people became aware of the fact that… You can make a lot of money in Brooklyn, people actually learned that in the 90s, like in Kansas City. And then artists and younger people who were not from Kansas City started realizing they might be able to pull that off here. And that’s sort of happening in a place called the Crossroads.
JL: I watched the adults—the parents in my neighborhood—discover that they were doing something, sometimes very intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes with mixed purposes, or confusion about what role they were playing. And they had to find that name, before they could even begin arguing about whether it was a good or bad result. It was a fresh word at that time. It’s amazing how many metaphors from what we would now call colonial or settler history of the United States that, you know, this was not Conestoga wagons in Brooklyn, right. But this idea of settlers or pioneers was very, very strong. And more than that, you had very strange other words that were imposed.
There was a project by the Brooklyn Union Gas, our utility company, to help people renovate the buildings. It was called the Cinderella Project, which is really uneasy if you think about Cinderella. Does that mean the other buildings are the ugly stepsisters, or that it’s all going to go back the way it was at midnight? Or there needs to be a prince? And then there was the Brown Stoners newspaper called the Phoenix, which is like a thing coming back to life. Well, very awkward given that there were actually a lot of buildings on fire there all the time. But this inadvertent yearning to put it in some kind of metaphorical framework—
WT: Or to find language for what was happening, to name things, in a way, for the first time.
JL: And there was an obsession with Victorianism, with restoring the buildings to a previous legacy/past that would explain why it was okay that now they were being taken over by a white community. Because they were Victorian houses, right? Oh, then you exaggerate this kind of image of gas-fitted fixtures in the chandelier or the marble fireplaces, and people would actually even dress up in Victorian outfits and be photographed in their restored parlors. As if to say, “We’re just bringing it back.”
WT: This is weird because the quote I wrote down cuts out part of what you’re talking about. Let me put it this way, I grew up very near this neighborhood, but I lived in a Black neighborhood in Kansas City for about 10 years when I came back from New York—a beautiful neighborhood—and I still own that house, and my neighbors are still my friends, and they never talked about gentrification. My neighbor, Helen Thomas, would be like, “When is my property value going to go up?” Because all the houses, just a few blocks away, in white neighborhoods… like my parents’ house, has gone up 100 times in value since they bought the house in ’67. Whereas Helen’s house is the same price as what she bought it for 30 years ago, right? In a way, there are people who own property in Black neighborhoods who would like to see this. You know, it seems fair. The store value of real estate going up in value and for them, at least for Helen, and for other friends that I had there, that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. I think it’s a complicated issue. It’s not as simple as, “Oh, this will be terrible for everyone.”
JL: It’s very complicated. And now, I want to push it one stage further and say that the word gentrification covers so many different kinds of dynamic and process and experience when people refer to it, that it’s actually concealing as much as it successfully names. And one of the things I started to intuit was that the action for me—in terms of my political desires, my sense of justice, or my idealization of a world that would make sense to me—would reflect my values. I started to look at this kind of carving off of one area, like eight city blocks, or even 20 city blocks, and saying the argument is whether or not it should change and in what way, is itself a blind.
That larger structural issues about capitalism, equity and our society were what we really needed to address, and just being in favor or not in favor of pretty buildings or property values or really good restaurants or whatever, was not going to actually be the argument that mattered. Of course, many people experienced the early part of what we call the gentrification of my neighborhood as like, “Wow, it’s coming back to life,” or, “Wow, now the cops will come and take this criminal activity out of our viewfinder.” Like, “We won’t come out of our houses at night and see something going on or be mugged.” “The schools got better.” But that’s not the story that I started to think was the one that had to be understood. The story that had to be understood is how larger forces, developers, the city itself, the society itself, were leaving enormous kinds of tragic inequity.
WT: So is that the crime in Brooklyn Crime Novel?
JL: I’m not going to tell you what the crime is—
WT: I feel like the story of Kansas City is the story of the Nichols company that used racial covenants to divide the city, and so Helen Thomas’s property was worth less because a company had spent a century teaching people that separate white space was more valuable than the space multi-ethnic people lived in. And real estate is all about imaginary value. It’s more because you say it’s more or because someone will pay for it. It’s not like anything that’s real.
JL: You mentioned blockbusting. And this is a term that people haven’t heard as much anymore, but it was a sensation and a scandal in the 1950s. The way neighborhoods were exploited was a reverse maneuver of scaring the white people out, specifically by telling them the neighborhood had gotten so Black that their property values were about to plummet, and chasing them into the suburbs, and then flipping the houses to make a fully non-white community. And it was a double monstrosity, because once you’ve done that, you controlled the property values in it.
We all feel like we want to treat the people in front of us humanely, and many of the people I grew up with were participants in the Civil Rights era. They’d gone on freedom rides, and they taught in impoverished neighborhoods where there was a segregated school. And then there had been busing, and the teachers had left or been fired. I mean, all kinds of desires to live in a society that reflected the values that the Civil Rights era helped create. And these bitter ironies helped to create the desire to live in Brooklyn—to come back from the suburbs and live in the cities. And you mentioned artists—it’s so often driven by people looking for affordable places to live and make art and people who can’t afford and want to be in a community where there’s that kind of possibility. It is even often driven by people who feel that they are in some way, radicals, sexual exiles, or not welcome in other places. Gentrification starts with an inordinate number of different kinds of desires, many of them really idealistic.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Mikayla Vo.
James Alan McPherson • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith • Black Spring by Henry Miller • Another Country by James Baldwin • James Joyce • Patricia Highsmith • Iris Murdoch • Henry James • Mark Twain • Benito Cereno by Herman Melville • Ralph Ellison