Friday, April 10, 2009

"Isabella: Life Deserved" Advertisement for a Brooklyn Condo Epitomizes the Unthinking Arrogance of America's Economic Elites

“Isabella: Life Deserved" Advertisement for A Brooklyn Condo Epitomizes The Unthinking Arrogance of America’s Economic Elites

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

For the last year, as I have sought to avoid traffic on Flatbush Avenue on my journeys to and from Fordham, I have spent a lot of time driving through Fort Green, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill and have been astonished and appalled by the amount of new luxury housing being constructed in these once African American communities.

On Washington Avenue alone, I have counted over 15 new buildings that have gone up in the last two years on a mile and a half stretch between Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Queens expressway, ranging in size from three story glass fronted town houses, to six story apartment buildings to a 20 story tower, still under construction, that adjoins the BQE

But it is not just the speed and intrusiveness of the new construction that has grabbed my attention, it is the unthinking arrogance with which they claim their identity as luxury buildings in neighborhoods which have large concentrations of public housing and still contain many working class black residents.

The advertising slogan on "The Isabella" an eight story condominium on Washington Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street, which was completed only a month ago, epitomizes the arrogance and insensitivity of the economic elites whose reckless financial practices have brought the world to the brink of economic disaster

Less than a block from Black Brooklyn's major thoroughfare, filled with bodegas, hair braiding salons, dollar stores, and small evangelical churches, less than one hundred feet from two large African American churches, and only a half block from an "A" train stop, a twenty foot sign on the second story of the building proclaims "Live Magnificently! Live Isabella."

To hard working, struggling residents of the neighborhood who have to walk by the building each day when shopping, going to school or work, or attending church, one can only speculate what emotions that enormous sign inspires

One thing is clear, in a neighborhood where less than twenty years earlier, the crack epidemic took a terrible toll, and where economic survival, rather than "Living Magnificently" is the goal of most residents, the sign proclaims that Clinton Hill is about to be deluged with wealthy outsiders, many of them white, and that the days of Clinton Hill as a place where black working class people can feel at home are coming to the end

But that is not all. Right next to the huge "Live Magnificently" sign are two smaller signs which read "Isabella: Life Deserved"

It’s bad enough that the Isabella’s developers broadcast the message that the building they have constructed is only for those people who have enough money to “Live Magnificently”- they are also saying that the wealthy people about to descend on Clinton Hill, DESERVE their good fortune, and by implication, that the neighborhood people walking by the building deserve their life of scarcity and hardship.

To me, this message epitomizes everything that has been wrong with our economic system in the last twenty years

It is one thing to say that extreme inequality is an unfortunate by product of rapid economic growth, and to try to mitigate the consequences through social policy, it is another thing to say that people at the top of the system deserve everything they get, and that the wealt h the acquire is a sign of superior talent, even superior virtue

Tracy Chapman described this ideology brilliantly in her song “Mounains O Things”

Sweet lazy life Champagne and caviar
I hope you'll come and find me
Cause you know who we are
Those who deserve the best in life
And know what money's worth
And those whose sole misfortune
Was having mountains o' nothing at birth

It was this overwhelming sense of entitlement, that impelled the leaders of failing companies to use government bailout money to give themselves .huge bonuses, and then defend those bonuses in Congressional hearings as the reward for a job20well done.

The idea that wealth and poverty are distributed logically through some form of “moral economy,” and that the accumulation of great wealth benefits everyone, can no longer be sustained, not in a time of layoffs and foreclosures, bread lines and unemployment lines,

In this time in American history, the redistribution of wealth should be the major imperative guiding social policy

As for the Isabella, where not one unit has been bought and rented, it is prime space for conversion to affordable housing,

After all, don’t the working people of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill deserve the opportunity to “Live Magnificantly/”

Mark Naison
April 10, 2009


Putnam-denizen said...

(I thought I would post here as well as at the location where you post was reposted). Wasn't it the seminary condo next door which sold the parking lot to build the Isabella. Really, who can get upset by building on a parking lot? I think it looks pretty good compared to a lot of the schlock in the neighborhood. Let me (predictably?) disagree with the sentiments expressed by the original blogger. The developments of which he speaks have been built on vacant or under-used (by churches etc) land. While one might very well take issue with the displacement of low-income renters by condo coversions, it is hard to feel as much sympathy with the argument that heightening income diversity by building new housing stock. The public housing is nowhere near these developments (at least in NYC terms), but given concentrating the poor in isolated public housing has not been such a great success, why would it be a bad thing if they were living cheek to jowel with each other. It is underdevelopment, not increased development which has threatened communities. I wish the church on Grand between Fulton and Lefferts would sell their parking lot - or develop it as low-income housing. You want to talk about arrogance, talk about a church maintaining a large parcel of land for its members to sweep into an underdevloped neighborhood so that they can park and pray. Haven't they heard of mass transit?

uptownflavor said...

Thank you for writing this. I am a former resident of Clinton Hill who lived in a deteriorating brownstone for 5 years. Even after the private owner sold the building to a management company the exterior repairs and vacant unit repairs never reached my tiny 5th floor unit. I moved across the river to a larger one modernized one bedroom. Now the area is experiencing the same turn around but middle income folks are being left out of the fray. Now once again Harlem is in the same boat it was when blacks first moved in the neighborhood. Over-built 'luxury' housing (luxury is a loose term) that the intended are not buying. One building has been turned into a hostel rather than made available to 'locals' which others are offering everything from rent to buy options to get a free Smart Car with purchase. Still, there are good, hard working people and seniors who have lived in Harlem through the rough times who will not be granted access to the stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. So many layers here.

Anonymous said...

What were Fort Greene and Clinton Hill before they became predominantly black neighborhoods in mid-20th century? They were wealthy white neighborhoods for most of their history.

At what point can you freeze time and history and declare a neighborhood black or white, rich or poor?

Neighborhoods are always in transition, and always will be. This type of pining for the past is completely useless.

I also think that diversification-- economically and racially of a neighborhood is a positive thing that even many long-time residents of the neighborhood would welcome.

But trying to keep others out of a neighborhood you consider "yours" or to belong to one specific ethnic or socio-economic class is not only a useless exercise, but also borders on being racist.

FYI- many wealthy blacks are buying a lot of these developments, or are fixing up old and crumbling brownstones, so making generalizations about race is something to be avoided.

Yes, there are ugly condos and wrong-headed developments too, and yes change is difficult and can be painful. But stopping it is turning a blind eye to so much of the change that has already happened in these neighborhoods in the past.

A lot of this gentrification has also made these neighborhoods safer, more beautiful, and diverse. And isn't that what we want?

But you don't acknowledge the good, any of it.

Tying development to race or class or the current economic problems is a stretch. Please be more balanced and take into account history and the feelings of people who live there now. Do these residents want to live in a museum-- a freeze-frame of their neighborhood? And if so, what decade? 1980s? 1860s?