Brooklyn's New Colonial Frontier
by Samantha Maldonado
Colony 1209 is a luxury apartment complex located at 1209 Dekalb Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Located one block from a public library and a smattering of ninety-nine-cent shops, the five-story property’s geometric, shiny blue and gray façade, which makes it look like a fortress built by a first-grader in Minecraft, sticks out in a largely residential neighborhood packed with brick or vinyl-sided two- and three-family buildings. Through the windows, you can peer into the ultra-modern lobby, which is furnished with items like a plastic bubble chair hanging from the ceiling. It seems like a colony on the moon, but the idea behind it is less space jam than manifest destiny.
According to the website of aptsandlofts.com, the brokerage firm renting units at Colony 1209, only fourteen units remain available in Colony 1209. The rest are occupied by renters settling what the luxury building’s website calls “Brooklyn’s new frontier.” That “new frontier” is “bohemian Bushwick, a vibrant industrial setting reimagined through artful eyes.” The area — where there are just as many empty lots overgrown with weeds and buildings with boarded-up windows as there are tree-lined streets, Puerto Rican flags, and yards with colorful lawn ornaments — might unnerve some potential settlers if Colony 1209’s website didn’t reassure them, “we already surveyed the territory for you.” Once settlers arrive, they’ll “find a group of like-minded settlers, mixing the customs of their original homeland with those of one of NYC’s most historic neighborhoods to create art, community, and a new lifestyle.”
When I contacted Quinn, the “lifestyle public relations agency with global impact” behind the building’s marketing, to ask what kind of statement the branding was trying to make, the spokesperson declined to comment. But it’s clear that Colony 1209 celebrates America’s colonial past in order to enact a similar kind of displacement in the present: A colony-themed residential complex in a historically working-class neighborhood promises potential tenants that they’ll enjoy what they will inevitably “discover” in the neighborhood. The rhetoric of pioneering implies that Bushwick is a blank-slate territory, full of possibilities; thinking of the urban space as an empty frontier authorizes recent arrivals to reshape it to match their own particular vision of “authenticity.” The process of discovering the authentic, then, is not so much a process of seeking what exists in the neighborhood, but of tailoring the environment to their own preferences, like conquistadors.
In fact, the potential tenants’ “bohemian sensibilities,” disguised as shabby-chic authenticity, is what Colony 1209 sells to potential tenants. David Maundrell III, the founder of aptsandlofts.com, spoke to the New York Times in August 2013 about his plans to promote the development without offending the target audience’s style:
“I have to be authentic with this,” said Mr. Maundrell, who has employed a photographer living in Bushwick to capture the essence of the neighborhood in pictures to be used in advertising. The building’s home page will include the Twitter feed of Bushwick Daily, an in-the-know blog. “They don’t like corporate,” he said of his prospective tenants. “You can’t fool around.”
The website promises that “once you discover the burgeoning art scene, cutting-edge eateries, historic mansions, yoga studios, and parks, you’ll feel like a Bushwick native in no time.” These commodities and attractions, however, are not necessarily native to Bushwick. Sociologist Sharon Zukin of CUNY writes in her book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, that “the tropes of ‘grit’ and ‘authenticity’ often lead gentrifiers to feel as though they are participating in the actual (re)production of the city, when in fact they are almost exclusively participating in modes of consumption that didn’t exist before an area gentrified.” Even if you buy into Colony 1209’s promise of being a Bushwhack pioneer, you’d be a little late; the territory is now far from virgin. The earliest gentrifiers were mostly white, somewhat affluent artists who flocked to Bushwick, a place where predominantly low-income Latino families made their homes, back in the nineties for the cheap rent and proximity to the subway. They homesteaded Bushwick and opened yoga studios and coffee shops years ago.
Gentrification is less a form of violence inflicted by individuals than a force generated by greater economic and political tides; the ruthless housing market in New York has made it particularly powerful in Bushwick. From July 2013 to July 2014, rents in Bushwick saw an average increase of 11.3 percent (the second-steepest hike in Brooklyn after Crown Heights, where it went up 17.5 percent on average). Even as these soaring rates drive out existing families, sections of Bushwick remain relatively cheap compared to other parts of Brooklyn: An artist paying nearly three thousand dollars per month for a Williamsburg studio can pack up and move to a studio in Bushwick for “only” two thousand dollars a month. So, while the pioneers of yore wore britches and bonnets, Colony’s 1209’s pioneers are most likely “entry-level Millennial workers with some disposable income,” like Mike, a twenty-two-year-old transplant who works in finance. He told Bushwick Daily’s Katarina Hybenova that he loved the building, which features amenities like a movie theater, arcade, and fitness center.
To colonize a place means to overtake it, to pillage its resources, to dehumanize its people, and to attempt to erase its past; Colony 1209’s revisionist history belittles this legacy of violence. A hierarchy of importance is established in such a situation: The people who already live in the neighborhood, matter less than newcomers from whom developers profit — or matter only in the sense that they add “diversity” and “local culture” to the area. And even if Colony 1209 is an exercise in self-aware irony, it’s at the expense of those who have been living in Bushwick for decades, and of those who can’t afford to live there. Irony here functions, at best, as just another exclusionary inside joke for the young and privileged.
Samantha Maldonado lives in Philadelphia, not Brooklyn.
Photos via Colony 1209 website