A Dirty Word?

While mulling over my vision for the future of this column, an associate of mine, who we’ll call “Jim,” asked to tag along as my photographer.

I immediately thought of all the powerful images he could capture… visions of photo-essays ran rampant in my head. “Yes, this could be good,” I thought.

Jim’s a stand-up guy, a dope designer and burgeoning photographer. Ever since he moved to the neighborhood we’ve been meaning to catch up for coffee or a bike ride. But something about the scenario still gave me pause. Jim is white and new to Bed-Stuy. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when Jim and I entered certain scenes in Bed-Stuy proposing to cover a story.

I was worried about Jim’s comfort: Would people be put off that a white man wants to capture on film the visual details of gentrification?

Although Jim and I moved into Bed-Stuy under similar circumstances, we have very different realities. As a black woman, who may at times be perceived as a gentrifier when viewed through the lens of class, the community generally trusts me.

I like to think it’s because I am a hybrid, a “translator” who brings a much-needed level of cultural competency to the discussion of gentrification. However, I wonder if that’s truly the reason. Do I get a pass for some other reason?

My thoughts around this simple scenario have everything to do with the complicated conceptions of gentrification. The word is loaded with so many assumptions about how people think, feel and behave.

What does “gentrification” actually mean? It certainly depends on who you ask. Some look at it as a racial thing; some say it’s a class thing. Others refuse to acknowledge that there is even such a thing, choosing instead to view it as an historical cycle repeated time and time again and that it does not single out any one ethnicity.

The word is loaded, complex, misunderstood and, too often, causes a bristling effect. So who should decide its meaning?

Will some people view Jim with suspicion in certain circumstances because of how gentrification has been casted as a black vs. white issue?

Or perhaps, if Jim’s intentions are met with hesitation, it would have less to do with his skin color and more to do with what he represents, as a newcomer.

Bedford-Stuyvesant natives do not take lightly the threat of being priced out of their apartments and losing their homes, as historically, the neighborhood is a cultural mecca for many successful African-Americans.

Census data shows that the composition and complexion of Bed-Stuy is changing at a much slower rate than its neighboring communities. But nevertheless, it is changing.

Gentrification is often viewed through the lens of our experiences. What is your experience? And what does gentrification mean to you?

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