Tamar McFarlane: Gentrification Fighter

Tamar McFarlane has worked with Families United for Racial & Economic Equality (FUREE), a multi-racial, women-led, membership-run organization based in Brooklyn, New York, for the last two years. While at FUREE, she has worked on welfare reform, youth empowerment, and the beginning of a pay equity childcare campaign. With a long history of youth activism under her belt, she’s onto gentrification and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan to develop Brooklyn.
“Basically, at one point I was reading Patrice Lumumba [a former Congolese anti-colonial leader], and it just came down to this…even if I am able to move these young people, if their parents don’t have a place to live, or an affordable place to live, then they won’t be able to live as healthy, conscious human beings. And so people have to start thinking about each other and their communities. They can’t wait for their government or someone in office to. They have to start taking care of each other.�
Here’s Tamar…

Can you describe the work that you’re doing now with FUREE against gentrification?
I’m working on the Downtown Brooklyn project to organize and mobilize low-income communities of color for accountable development. The Bloomberg administration is forcefully pushing forward a large-scale development plan for Downtown Brooklyn that will drastically impact the social, economic, and cultural stability of low-income residents of Downtown Brooklyn. If the Downtown Brooklyn Plan goes into effect, it will completely change the cultural vibrancy of Fulton Street Mall from being a place where predominantly Black and Latino shoppers, socialites, and workers can come comfortably into a 5th Avenue big chain retail district. We are working with public housing and stabilized-rent residents, clergy, and community-based organizations and services.
We’re also mobilizing members around the Underground Railroad site that is on Duffield Street. It’s located in the center of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan where they proposed a quasi–green space and underground parking lot for proposed condos and a hotel. The city planning department is abusing eminent domain to seize Joy Chatel’s house along with three other houses for the interest of corporate profit. Joy Chatel is a FUREE friend and for the last two or three years, she has been fighting tooth and nail for her house because of its site. She’s calling for a city council hearing where prominent site researchers, experts, and witnesses can testify that it’s an Underground Railroad site. And the city is basically using all types of corrupt loops to illegitimize the need for investigation. We have set out to get 5,000 petition signatures calling to landmark Duffield Street.
But right now the city has shut down the Brooklyn Historic Society, which allows them to trace the documentation and obituaries of freedom fighters and abolitionists. We believe they are closing the Historic Society’s library until the Downtown Brooklyn Plan has been completed. And Joy can’t go to academics or experts or researchers because the city has hampered the ability for experts to directly testify in front of the landmark and land use committee.
So, as of now, we know that they want to build an underground parking lot, four towers, a hotel, a corporate building, and two towers for luxurious condos. They want to build an underground parking lot for all of these developments, not for the existing community. And they are justifying its public benefit with the promise of a quasi two-block green space. The truth is those that will be using it won’t be from the community.
When are the buildings estimated to go up?
None of this is final until 2010. But a big part of what’s happening now in Brooklyn is the city is looking for a quick way to create any type of jobs for residents but it is not recognizing that developers are not delivering quality and long-term jobs. Rather, what we are seeing is the race to build luxurious condos and loft space. The city is putting all their eggs in the control of developers, who are then pushing for market-rate housing. [Laughs] Developers are breaking ground before communities have the say-so in whether they want a 60-story condo with no affordable housing next door.
And the background of all of this is 70 percent of the local constituency that lives in Downtown Brooklyn are low- to moderate-income people of color. There is a large historically Black and Latino community in Fort Greene housing and Farragut. This community has a 72 percent unemployment rate that has been on the rise since the last seven to ten years. So, when Mayor Bloomberg announced this Downtown Brooklyn “Improvement Plan,� he pretended to be revitalizing and improving Brooklyn for the existing community. But this plan has no intention to interlock and develop the existing community stakeholders and community members. [Community members] who have been living there for 30, 50, 60 years.
A lot of private developers don’t have any type of accountability to the community. They are building condos and taking away laundromats, drugstores, supermarkets, which are the basic needs of the people. We realized that this is all a part of a vision that Mayor Bloomberg announced. He announced the division and just opened up the market.
Two years ago he up-zoned all of Downtown Brooklyn. He made it a free-for-all for all private developers that have money. He up-zoned it so he could bring more commercial districts to bring in more corporate business. But there was no accountability for developers. So, developers think they came to build luxurious condos. And from the position that we came in, people were like, well, we can’t afford it. They’re not hiring us. And the bottom line is the city is selling this property cheap to developers to encourage them to come.
Forget about the vital needs of the community. Senior citizens are saying, “I need my drugs.� Families are saying they can’t afford to go to Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill to shop for groceries. And the current supermarkets are not buying any more food because they know they’re going out of business. So, where are we going to eat? Where are we going to shop for vegetables, milk, water, tissue?
We had a huge march in Brooklyn, over 300 families came out and we marched to claim back Brooklyn for the community. We want community control over development. We’ve been living here 60, 70 years, and it’s our historical district. We know the first colored school in Brooklyn was PS 67, which was ranked as one of the worst performing schools in Brooklyn. Not only does this school need to be landmarked but also adequately funded by the city to improve the quality of its education. We know that the remains of freedom fighters and freedom speakers are buried by the Navy Yard, but developers can still build a condo on their gravesite because it is not landmarked.
Basically, what the mayor is saying to low-income communities of Brooklyn is their community is under-utilized because there isn’t a large affluent White clientele. And so, the low-income, working communities of color that have made Brooklyn what it is, is also the reason why it is under-utilized. The Bloomberg administration proposes to utilize it by building condos and bringing in chain stores and Starbucks-types of services. But they’re not realizing that what has kept Brooklyn vitalized are these diverse pockets of community. And the plan he’s holding does not include them.
Going forward on informing people who may not be aware of gentrification, or its ramifications, what’s the short-version definition that you can give to them?
Basically, when newcomers promote improvement of an existing community by increasing property taxes, changing the demographic, and bringing in large chain stores.
Is there a way where there can be positive change in a community?
Yes. There are 14 successful community agreements out there. And it goes as far back as 1989 in Chicago. I’m not sure about the year, but it started in Chicago, where at one point Chicago was run down, really corrupt, and there was a lot of drugs coming in and out of it. And then developers decided that it was a key property and they could make profit off of it. But what the community initially asked for was jobs. And so, the developers could do whatever they wanted as long as they hired a certain percentage from the community. At that time, it was 20 percent, which is pathetic now. But that was the first wave of demanding some type of existing benefit.
In Oakland, it came down between the environmentalists and the Asian community in the Mission district. The key thing that worked out with them was that they decided that this area is an industrial district and they didn’t want to shift it to a residential, urban environment. They wanted to keep it industrial because that would keep the jobs. And so, the developer, instead of building as wide, he left a space out and kept the existing plant, but then developed a hotel at the side of it.
For us, we can’t settle for the crumbs. We’re not against development. We recognize that the population is growing, and in urban areas it’s going to get more crowded. But we need to do it in a more sustainable and functional way where key players are held accountable. The argument you hear often is if developers are coming we should give them everything they need because they’re going to improve us and there is not an equal trade off. The community’s social, political and economic networks are not valued, nor is the impact of this change accounted for.

If somebody is a small business owner and they want to open up a shop, what can that small business owner not do, or do, to make sure that s/he is not a perpetrator of gentrification?

There are two things. We’re in collaboration with a labor union because we realize that this aspect is intertwined with the socio-cultural-political aspect. And so what we’ve started to do is document the local businesses [in Downtown Brooklyn]. Like the vendors who are mostly from immigrant communities, who have raised three generations on that business. It’s not a GAP or a Macy’s, but they make money. And then we realized there are a couple of Mom & Pop shops or indigenous businesses where people that live in that community are building little coffee shops with a reasonable price and health food stores.
Before we can even go to how we can allow these creative outlets to exist, the fight is still on how we can secure the space. If small Mom & Pop shops, small businesses, are competing with corporate markets, they will lose all the time because whoever owns the property will increase the rent so that only a big player can profit and buy it. A big part of it is getting business owners and the community to understand that they’re in it together. They have the same things to lose.
There’s a coffee shop on DeKalb Avenue. It’s kind of got a New York-Soho-like environment and it’s owned by a person that came out of this community. Her prices are really reasonable—a dollar coffee. It’s about working with her and making sure we reserve outlets for people within a community when they come to set up their own business by having a collective plan where the city cuts a certain budget to secure that these spaces are not going to be thrown into the market. Or that the market won’t be competing for it. That these spaces are secure as long as there are a group of store owners or small businesses who agree to do business there. The city will make back the money but they will put up the grant initially to secure that, so that a certain radius of the commercial district is kept for the community.
But small businesses who start in these spaces need to realize that they can’t be upscale. The prices need to be affordable. I think a lot of new Black neo-soul stores are trying to compete in the market. And when you try to compete in the market, you become the market. It becomes this capitalist machine or a capitalist player. And when you sell a shirt for $98, next the rent will go up, the area will change, and it will become more upscale.
Is gentrification then mostly about economics? Are there different kinds of gentrification?
Because of the globalized world that we live in, the markets that are pushed are pushed with the culture. If gentrification was simplified down to economics, it would remove the social, cultural networks and enrichments of communities that need that aspect to function. It’s like having an American Eagle store on a Caribbean, Jewish, avenue. Is this what the community needs? Is this a demand in the community or is this a capitalist monopoly that is a big player and they can afford it and do it.
You can say it’s economics, but it also has to do with race. How will it impact the community and their race and culture? Even in Jamaica, where my parents are from, they have to produce things that they don’t need because the global economy would only give them space for business if they produced a certain type of food or certain products. The whole country’s workforce is geared towards the global market and not what they need to sustain themselves.

What can consumers do to stop the spread of gentrification?

For example, there’s a department store selling uniforms. We’re asking consumers to be conscious of where their money goes. And that’s hard to do. You want to say don’t spend your dollar at a store that has sweatshops, or that has bad conditions for their workers. Every store is like that. And the small business owner, you’re asking them to make a sacrifice of the things they need. If they need clothes for their kids, or they need sheets for their bed, they need them at a reasonable price.
I think this alternative culture that we’re asking and demanding and trying to create is not here yet. And so are you asking people to starve? I think with consumers, the key thing is using their money to have leverage. We won’t be able to change the Coca Cola industry at all. But, because we spend our money, we should expect stuff back. And I think a lot of people spend money, and they don’t even expect it to be treated properly. They think that they can be followed and can be questioned a million times, “Can I help you? Can I help you?� [while they’re shopping]. [They receive this treatment] and they still spend money there. I think with consumers, it’s challenging them to expect more for their money. We don’t expect nothing back, but we’re spending millions and millions of dollars. And that’s saying how we treat ourselves. We don’t think we’re deserving. So, we’re just really challenging consumers to really get mad. We’re saying, expect something. Businesses never want to have an environment where people are interested in how they function.

Join the Conversation

  • chase

    It is said that the only way to fight globalisation is with globalisation. I submit that the only way to fight property developers is by confiscating their assets and address books until they can be taught the true meaning of ‘value added.’ Unrealistic perhaps, but the simplicity of it appeals to me.
    Holding government authorities accountable for the needs the community is paramount, but quite rare. The stumbling blocks listed in the case of Joy Chatel are nothing short of injust. Are there national lobby groups that might be useful (although getting a trade union on side is a good step) in pushing through legislation favouring fiscal transparency (though it sounds like there’s a lot of valuable information collated already) and/or consultation with/accountability to community representatives on land & business issues?
    Tracing the chain of ownership, not to mention detrimental day-to-day business activities of corporate entities can be quite tedious, expensive and difficult. But it is in many instances do-able. If they are listed companies, ownership is publically available information. I’d be curious to know if there are one or more websites detailing the offenders against cultural and social well-being, what their wares are, and where there profits eventually end up (ie the parent company of a multi-national) as to make it easier for the consumer to deny such entities their business. Especially if information regarding the nature and effects of their socially irresponsible business activities such as this is pooled and more readily available to the public.
    In any case, thanks to Celina and Tamar for bringing this to my attention. A very interesting piece.

  • EG

    Wish Tamar had been around when my neighborhood was gentrified. There was a good book about it, though. Janet Abu-Lughod’s From Urban Village to East Village.

  • Jane Minty

    Interesting article, and I think what she’s doing is awesome.
    I do wonder, however, if each of us thinks we’re not part of the problem, if you can even define it as such. I’ll readily admit to being in a slightly better position than some, but if I’m a taxpayer and part of the community, I’m going to live wherever I please.
    This kind of thing going on all over the country to varying degrees in different kinds of communities, but it’s pretty clear we’re talking about NYC-style gentrification. I’ve not only moved into neighborhoods of people a little different from myself, but I’ve also been squeezed out of other neighborhoods in other cities. It’s a fact of life; New York has always been a city of change, and it’s kind of ridiculous to expect that your neighborhood will always remain the same.
    Williamsburg is always cited as an example. Lots of people groan about “hipsters,” yet back in the 1950s the neighbors were complaining about another population wave (most of whom are doing the current complaining). I know this from talking to the old lady in my building…I love getting such perspectives firsthand!
    Now I’m not saying the new element is always going to be beneficial. but the fact remains that if you really want to settle somewhere impervious to rapid development, then I can show you a few nice small Midwestern towns in which this could be a possibility.
    I’m more than willing to pay a little more in rent than the Polish family a few doors down who have just stepped off the boat. However, as much as I like to support the mom & pop places, why should I get doubly screwed for the price of a set of sheets when I can get them for half the price at Target? I’m willing to pay my dues, but not willing to pay twice as much for everything just because I wasn’t born within a 5 mile radius.
    Also, let’s not forget that many of the landlords, especially in such areas of Brooklyn, are NY natives themselves! Some anti-gentrification activists are too quick to put all the blame on someone willing to pay market rent, and none on the landlord (and why even blame someone who can get whatever it’s worth?). It’s all about encouraging some kind of balance, I suppose. I’m fortunate that my own landlord recognizes this.

  • EG

    It may be so that NYC is a city of constant change, but for the last several decades the change has been in one direction. I’ve never seen or heard of a neighborhood going from rich, yuppy/hipster-land to diverse, working-class/bohemian/immigrant ground, but loads of neighborhoods have gone the other way, and they’ve been going that way quite quickly. (Though there have been neighborhoods that have changed hands ethnically, I’m more concerned in this context with class-based changes.)
    As for shopping at Target, I suppose it depends on why you want to live in NYC in the first place. What I love about the city is its strangeness and its various local characters, so I have always gone out of my way to support the businesses that contribute to those qualities, even if it means I pay a little more (though it often doesn’t, depending on how/where/for what you’re shopping). If I wanted to live in a place that was all Target and B&N, I would live in a suburb somewhere.

  • EG

    Hmm. On re-reading, that last paragraph comes off as condemnatory and snotty. Sorry, Jane. It’s not meant to be (at least not consciously!); it was actually just meant to be an explanation of how and why I make an effort not to shop at Target and Kmart and the like.

  • Jane Minty

    EG: not snotty at all!
    As far as the class changes, what are you realistically going to do? Threaten the women of the class with rape (which I’ve heard jokingly, I kid you not…most Willamsburg girls have heard this)? Threaten other kinds of violence on the new inhabitants? I don’t particularly care for my weird neighbors, who belong in some revoltingly Upper West Side contemporary Woody Allen film, but who am I to say they can’t live there?
    I’m not without sympathy for older inhabitants, since I basically grew up in poverty. But I’ll tell ya, we lived in really, REALLY undesirable locations. I’ll challenge anyone complaining about being priced out of a neighborhood to live in some of my childhood locations, and maybe they would then see that a few miles out from the 5 boroughs doesn’t look so bad. I realize a lot of these kids have it rough, but clearly the advantage of proximity to the greatest city in the world is on their side; in any case, urban dwellers underestimate the scary fucking people one encounters in a rural childhood (ahem, “Deliverance”).
    Maybe it’s also arrogant to say that it’s unnatural to stay on one place all your life in this day and age, but I still believe it.
    Shopping at Target is a vacation, and the locals also seem to love affordable supplies. I’ve lived here over 12 years now, and have always loved the variety of local shops (which I too go out of the way to support). However, it’s common knowledge that simple tasks require 10 times the energy they do anywhere else. For instance, I may have to go to 10 privately-owned grocery stores to find cake flour, and then when I finally do get home, I crash. And again, I don’t mind paying more for rent than the immigrant family down the street, but why should I be gouged TWICE if I need reasonably-priced cleaning supplies? I can only do so much. What I would give for a huge, 24-hr laundromat with wi-fi! My work schedule isn’t compatible with the (unarguably crappy – “mom & pop” doesn’t always mean “better quality”) laundromats within walking diatance. Perhaps when I have a houseboy who can run my errands on an “old world housewife” schedule, then I can fully support all the small businesses!

  • http://abstractnonsense.wordpress.com/ Alon Levy

    I’ve never seen or heard of a neighborhood going from rich, yuppy/hipster-land to diverse, working-class/bohemian/immigrant ground, but loads of neighborhoods have gone the other way, and they’ve been going that way quite quickly.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Williamsburg get an infusion of bohemians who were priced out of the West Village? To my understanding, the only reason the hipsters started moving in in the first place is because of the bohemian artists.

  • noname

    So some of you here are comfortable with classifying a group of people and trying to find ways to keep them out of your neighborhood?

  • EG

    “We’re not against black people or white people or purple. What we’re against is rich people.”
    — Pam Blessinger, president of the residents’ association of New York’s Roosevelt Island, 1986.
    Yep, noname–I am proudly against the appropriation of my neighborhood by rich people! And I don’t much like hipsters either. They tend to have really stupid haircuts. Go ahead and quote me.
    But, c’mon Jane, I know I’ve never said anything that would indicate that I’d find threats of rape to be anything but disgusting misogynist crap! What I do about it is to do my best to shop at local, independent businesses, which isn’t much, and clearly doesn’t work when it’s just me. For a while I considered going into community organizing as a career, but after some internships etc. when I was younger, I realized that I would be miserable, so I didn’t. I don’t really have a gameplan; I’m more of a “sit on the sidelines and kvetch and go the occasional demonstration/fundraising event/town hall meeting” type. That’s why I appreciate people like Ms. McFarlane so much–she’s got a gameplan, and putting it to work doesn’t make her miserable (as far as I can tell).
    Target does make life easier–that’s why people of all stripes shop there. I wouldn’t argue with that. They wouldn’t be successful–and they wouldn’t be a threat to anyone’s neighborhood–if they weren’t.
    Right, Alon. Like I said, it’s the move the other way–where poor people supplant rich–that I haven’t seen.

  • EG

    A thought–according to Abu-Lughod’s book, what is now called the East Village did successfully repel a prior attempt at gentrification in the ’80s. I was a kid then, but I remember it as a pretty intense time, even though I wasn’t quite clear on all the issues, obviously! She writes that the success was based on very strong, cross-ethnic neighborhood coalitions and the strength of NYC’s tenants’ rights laws at the time. Ten years later, those coalitions didn’t hold.