Naima Coster: Gentrification Isn’t Just a Buzzword
In Conversation with Kendra Winchester on Reading Women
From the episode:
Kendra Winchester: Your book looks at gentrification, specifically in Brooklyn. I feel like there have been a lot of outlets that have kind of parachuted in and just told the story, but I don’t often hear about it on a national scale from people actually from Brooklyn, which you would think would be obvious, that those are stories needing to be told. What was something you wanted to bring to the discussion of gentrification that might be missing from people who aren’t from the area? Were there any gaps you wanted to fill, or something you specifically wanted to tackle in the novel?
Naima Coster: I love this question. I think it’s a real problem that there isn’t a wider platform provided for people directly affected by gentrification. And I think it is a problem related to privilege. I do think that writers or people who grew up in Brooklyn talking about how Brooklyn has been gentrified is rarer than it should be. And it’s certainly rarer than newcomers to Brooklyn crafting narratives about Brooklyn, whether that’s the HBO show Girls or a novel, right? How many novels are set in gentrified Brooklyn without any acknowledgment of the gentrification that’s occurring and shaping lives?
I was only able to publish my piece [“Remembering When Brooklyn Was Mine”] because I was in grad school and I had a teacher who said I want to send this to my editor at the New York Times. It was that privilege and that connection that enabled me to tell my story. And I think that’s a problem and there’s a silence that I wanted to write into.
One of the things I wanted to challenge with the book was the idea that gentrification is inevitable and there’s nothing that can be done about it, because I’ve heard that a lot. Sort of like, life is about change. Cities change. Everything changes. If you love any place long enough, you’ll lose the things you love about it.
And while there may be some truth to that, it felt like an easy way to gloss over the real pain and the losses and to not have to sit with the implications of large-scale actions by governments and developers, or even individual actions, when we think about where we live and which shops we patronize and how we treat our neighbors. And so I wanted to make those losses and tensions felt and real. Gentrification isn’t just a buzzword. It’s the life of a man like Ralph. It’s a life of a young woman like Penelope and other characters in the book, the students at her school. So that the reader could pause and instead of using any of those easy ideas or clichés about gentrification to avoid thinking about it, to be invited to step deeper into the questions of the book and even maybe to locate themselves and say, well, what do I have in common with the Harpers who moved into this neighborhood? Or what do I have in common with Ralph? Or Penelope? Or John, who she meets later in the book? I think that kind of self-reflection can be really powerful and change the ways we live in the world.
Naima Coster is a native of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, an MA in English and creative writing from Fordham University, and a BA in English and African American studies from Yale. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, Arts & Letters, Kweli, and the Rumpus. Coster is the recipient of numerous awards and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former editor of CURA and a former mentor of Girls Write Now, Coster is also a proud alumna of Prep for Prep, the leadership development program in New York City aiding high-potential minority students in public, charter, and parochial schools. She currently teaches writing in North Carolina, where she lives with her family. Halsey Street is her first novel.