Not The Safe Space You Were Thinking Of

Is a high-end coffee shop in a gentrifying neighborhood just a refuge for wealthy whites?

Image: Jonathan Grado

The initial six-stop stretch of the L line in Brooklyn, between Bedford and Morgan avenues, is an expanding block of homogeneity. After rezoning allowed for new developments along the route in 2005, those with access to reasonable amounts of capital descended upon the region, alongside graduates of a particular set of universities with a singular vision of rustic creativity that still defines “Brooklyn” to this day. Even though the slow migration of this demographic to the the area dates as far back as the ’80s, the past decade — perhaps crowned with the addition of a Whole Foods and an Apple Store last month — has seen Williamsburg and Bushwick fully transformed in the image of the types of inhabitants early developers hoped to attract. The region now functions as a “safe space” for a type of person who pursues a lifestyle associated with white, educated, and upwardly mobile young people.

The idea of safe spaces, often maligned by conservatives as politically correct nonsense, predate collegiate controversies and speeches from billionaires who like to hold grudges. The concept has origins in the early women’s movement as gathering places for women to generate strategies for resistance — as well as simply to not be surrounded by men, for once. The idea extends to any group of people looking to commune, or hang out, or scheme, in peace. At its core, demanding safe space is demanding dignity.

That the resources to make safe spaces out of your physical surroundings are consolidated among white people in the form of generational wealth—which allows white millennials to reach financial milestones like home-ownership at higher rates than minority millennials—makes homogenous development a constant. When upwardly mobile whites flock to urban centers and bring with them the trappings of a particular lifestyle, they effectively create a safe space out of another community’s tepidly existent one.

At its core, demanding safe space is demanding dignity.

The contagion-like spread of well-off whites in Brooklyn, often with the help of government, is a tactile representation of the types of privilege built in to how society functions. Possibly as a result of Bill De Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan, which incentivizes new development in East New York, there is currently a great deal of interest as far along the L line as Wilson Avenue, where Routine, a new cafe opened by Corcoran realtor David Taylor, opened earlier this year. An art school graduate from Michigan, Taylor lives in the same Bushwick neighborhood where his shop — a cozy freelancer’s paradise with ample outlets, Toby’s Estate coffee and delicacies like avocado toast — is seen by some as the beginning of a forceful claim of space over the community.

Taylor told Bushwick Daily, “I started to notice the push to buy in this area of Bushwick. Then quickly noticed how under served the area is for good food and coffee and decided to fix it.” Taylor, a realtor whose email signature includes the words “Multi Million Dollar Club,” told me in an email he thought the claim that coffee shops like his created safe spaces for white people at the expense of minorities was offensive.

“Minorities are not being pushed out by Routine. Is the idea that nice places can’t exist in areas that have a primarily minority population? It’s absurd. The premise is, in itself, racist and I resent it.” He said, before adding, “it should not matter, but would it change your story to know that my [business] partner is black and he’s owned the building for 20 years? We have a black-owned business, opened and thriving in his own community. Why wouldn’t we want to open something to make our neighborhood nicer?”

Taylor’s point is a familiar one. As Sarah Schulman wrote in The Gentrification of the Mind, “gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves.” The tax breaks that allow the developments listed in the area by Corcoran, for example, are what would naturally drive up demand for high-end coffee that far into Bushwick. Taylor, who has opened a number of restaurants in the city, isn’t on the hook for why or how neighborhoods like Bushwick morph in the image of people who look like him; he merely profits from it.

When I asked whether or not he thought the shop was explicitly making this community more comfortable for white tenants he responded, “You’re implying that minority tenants of the neighborhood aren’t also more comfortable in their neighborhood having a nice place to get quality food and coffee. Yes.. it makes certain types of tenants more comfortable; as well as everyone else.”

The tax breaks that allow [development] are what would naturally drive up demand for high-end coffee that far into Bushwick.

It is true that such changes have generally positive effects on neighborhoods. A group of Yale researchers found that in Chicago, a higher concentration of coffee shops in a neighborhood was associated with a decline in reported shootings. It is a familiar refrain in Williamsburg, too, where most would agree that the current hyper-developed version of the neighborhood is preferable to the neglected industrial zone it once was.

The nature of these “improvements,” however, is chilling. Sociologists Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson published a survey of gentrification in Chicago neighborhoods and found that rather than move into predominantly black neighborhoods, white gentrifiers tend to move to more ethnically mixed neighborhoods, driving down diversity until the neighborhood is homogenous. Neighborhood revitalization tends to exist in extremes that assume equitable growth for minority and white residents isn’t possible, and that, ultimately, nothing can stop wealthy whites.

Earlier this Summer, The New York Times reported on an increasingly volatile situation at Brooklyn Bridge Park, specifically on the 85-acre park’s basketball courts. In recent months, a number of fights have broken out on the courts, which spill out into nearby Joralemon Street, and have residents of the affluent neighborhood on edge. Gothamist reported that some residents feared for the “character” of their neighborhood and others called for the removal of the courts all together. The proposed replacement? Tennis courts. The violence at the park, which on at least one occasion involved a gun, is certainly a cause for concern, but something about replacing storied Brooklyn basketball courts with tennis courts seems particularly aggressive.

In the Times story, 17-year-old Aaliyah Johnson, who is black, said, “Sometimes I try and avoid going on Joralemon, it’s like they look at you, move their kids over like you’re going to do something, and clutch on to their purse. You’re doing that — it just makes us not feel welcome. We just came here to play basketball.” While the proposed removal of the courts was eventually shot down, it isn’t hard to imagine stories like this taking place around the country, as the safe space of wealthy whites expands like Manifest Destiny.

“Sometimes I try and avoid going on Joralemon, it’s like they look at you, move their kids over like you’re going to do something, and clutch on to their purse.”

Efforts to truly revitalize “forgotten” communities should address the reasons they were forgotten in the first place. The pattern that has emerged, driven by an assumed blindness to race, allows white privilege to consume itself, expanding in search of diversity only to push diverse populations out again and again. A report released this week by the Institute for Policy Studies suggests that if current public policies stay the same, it will take over two centuries for Black families to attain the amount of wealth that white families have today. For Latino families, it’ll take eighty-four years.

Safe spaces represent a social reality. People want to be empowered to make the area around them nicer, to exist freely in their community and feel a sense of equity to their homes. The seemingly endless conversation around gentrification should consider this more evenly. Nice amenities like coffee shops often appear first in a neighborhood before bodegas and corner stores start taking on a different character and, seemingly overnight, the number of brown and black faces in a neighborhood drops and sameness settles in. The expanding block of sameness present in Williamsburg and similar neighborhoods around the country will surely keep growing as long as some “safe spaces” remain valued above others.