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Has a Changing Flatbush Put its Culture up for Sale?

Activist and public speaker Leslie Mac talks about the impact of gentrification in the place she calls home
Photo courtesy of Equality for Flatbush via Twitter

Upscale retail chains replace mom-and-pop shops, rents creep up, old timers move out -- gentrification is striking to a Brooklyn transplant, but to Leslie Mac, a Flatbush-born-and-raised activist of Jamaican heritage, the pace of change is disorienting.

Mac has worked on issues like mass incarceration, bail reform, white supremacy and poverty, and founded the Ferguson Response Network in 2014. Mac also launched the subscription "Safety Pin Box" to help white people become better allies, and is the lead organizer with Black Lives Matter of Unitarian Universalism.

Mac, who now resides in North Carolina, shared her insights on the rapid gentrification of Flatbush, the commodification of culture and what responsible change looks like.

Brooklyn Reader (BKR): How has Flatbush changed in your lifetime?

Leslie Mac (LM): My husband and I have been together for 20 years, and he's been coming home with me throughout our relationship. We used to joke when we'd be on the Q train and all the black people would get off at Church Avenue. The last time we were home, all these white people stood up on the train and he looked at me, like, 'Where are they going?'

For me, the most disturbing thing to watch has been the safety of black people shift in the neighborhood. This Labor Day, portions of Flatbush were literally under police blockade and you had to prove you lived there to get past it.

There's a shift in focus to property over people as gentrification seeps in. The property of the white people who've moved into Flatbush is valued highly, so it's protected in a very different way. I realized as I was talking with friends that, if I was home, I wouldn't be able to get to my sister's house because I couldn't prove I belonged there. Even though this is my home, I wouldn't be allowed in that space.

BKR: Gentrification is often seen as an unchangeable phenomenon. 'Neighborhoods get trendy, people want to live there, what can we do?' Is it the result of individual choices or is it a natural force that's hard to withstand?

LM: Ultimately, it comes down to individual choices. I read an article about gentrification in Flatbush which positioned it as 'These people wanted a more affordable place to live, so they had no choice!' This is only ever framed for whiteness. Black people always have a choice, allegedly, whatever we do.

Gentrification is a business and these communities become investment strategies. Once that happens, you see an immediate devaluing of the black and brown lives already there. When black tenants move out of an apartment it's often under the guise of unlawful or racist evictions, or they're forced out by owners refusing to do work on the property to hike rents up.

Gentrification is a force, but it's not natural at all; it's business. Change is a part of life, but there's also responsible change. As New Yorkers, who've watched this play out over decades all over the city, we should be conscious of it. Flatbush is the latest, but it's not the last.

BKR: You tweeted about The James Beard Foundation's branding of Flatbush as a destination for Caribbean food and culture. On the upside, that will bring in business. But what is the downside?

LM: Flatbush is this vibrant Caribbean neighborhood that has been there for decades, created by an influx of Caribbean immigrants who settled there because they wanted to feel like they were still home. Now that culture is being commodified. Yes, these businesses will see value. But it's sad to realize the value is only there because whiteness has decided it's valuable.

I grew up eating all this amazing food. What was normal for me, is now valuable because whiteness thinks it's interesting. To be valuable, it has to cater to whiteness. We want these businesses to thrive and we want the culture to be sustained. But, at what cost, when the culture is being distilled into something that can be digested by whiteness?

BKR: How can an outsider who is moving to a new neighborhood be part of responsible change?

LM: I think the individual responsibility is understanding where you're moving, who owns the building and who you are displacing. You have to understand that the decisions you make affect other people.

Ask: Who lived in the apartment before you and what did it look like? How long has the landlord owned the building? What are the building's other residents dealing with that you won't because you're getting the nice, new appliances, flooring et cetera.

I'm not under the assumption that every white person is going to learn the facts and change their mind. But going into this with a "colorblind" approach is really dangerous.

BKR: What policies can help curb and protect against gentrification? 

LM: Increased tenants' rights, and an increase in the responsibility of landlords and developers. We can't allow the narrative to be that all change is good, and we have to carefully look at development policy put forth by the city and by individuals. Some of the development that is occurring is detrimental to the communities in these neighborhoods, who are looking to continue to live there.