It was a nice surprise that I was asked to be part of a column by Emily Meehan on WSJ.com (Wall Street Journal Online, for those of you not in the know) on the wave of twenty-somethings moving to dodgy neighborhoods in search of cheap rent and new frontiers. As an added “bonus, she videotaped me giving a video tour of my beloved Bushwick, where I’ve lived for almost 7 years (time flies).
Here is the excerpt of her column that discusses me and a link to the video on WSJ.com. The segment is titled “INNER CITY GENTRIFICATION IN BROOKLYN” (1min 24sec):
Never Mind the Bullets
Gunfire and Graffiti Aside, There are Upside To Living in Neighborhoods With Low Rents
(WSJ.com January 24, 2007)
…and my section…
Others who cope with inner-city conditions may be amused by the cat-calls of local lotharios and appreciate graffiti. These hearty individuals can be rewarded for their patience.
Hrag Vartanian, 33, is one of them. He first moved to New York City’s Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn six years ago, when the area was in bad shape. Much of Bushwick burned in riots, looting, and arson prompted by a 1977 blackout — and the housing stock still hadn’t recovered. In 2000, Mr. Vartanian’s rent for an 850 square foot loft was $1,000 a month — quite low for a comparable space in fancier city districts. The price was right. He was single, a free-lance writer and earning just over $30,000 a year working at a nonprofit in Manhattan. He says he wanted to live alone, with more space and light to do his writing than he had in a basement apartment he had shared in Manhattan.
In 2001, Bushwick’s 83rd police precinct had 606 violent crime complaints, including rape, felony assault, and murder. Five miles south, in Brooklyn’s tony Park Slope neighborhood, the 78th precinct had 120 violent crime complaints the same year. Mr. Vartanian says he was robbed of his cellphone once while walking down the street, attacked once by muggers and, he says, there was a crack house at the end of his street. The neighborhood had small grocery stores and only a few restaurants, where he says the staff often gave him the cold shoulder. But he puts a positive spin on it: “It encouraged us to cook,” he says. He laughed at the teenage wise guys who heckled him, and befriended his fellow tenants: a carpenter, a bartender, a writer, an artist. “It put me at the epicenter of creative life in New York,” he says.
Mr. Vartanian and other creative types may have helped spur Bushwick’s continuing gentrification. Though he says his rent has not increased significantly in the past six years, nearby loft spaces of the same size, listed on Craigslist.com, are on the rental market now for $1,600 to $2,000 a month. A couple of hip restaurants have arrived, and quirky residents of the area’s copious converted warehouses host dance performances, D.J. parties, rock concerts and open studio tours that make it into blogs, newspapers and magazines. Mr. Vartanian says that “The New York Times,” long absent from neighborhood shops, is finally available. The crack house went out of business. Its building has been refurbished and adorned with a graffiti mural of penguins, sanctioned by its owner. The number of violent crime complaints in the 83rd precinct was down to 436 in 2006.
Young adults have been homesteading in neglected urban neighborhoods since after World War II, according to geographer Neil Smith, an author and professor who studies gentrification at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center. Artists did it long before, in spurts, he says. Now gentrification by the poorer, younger crowd is almost systematic in cities around the world.