D.W. Gibson’s oral history, The Edge Becomes the Center (Overlook; $27.95), presents the reflections of some 30 people from Brooklyn and Manhattan, diverse in age, origin, race, and wealth, on the meaning of the word “gentrification.” The result is kind of a town-hall meeting that also serves as a snapshot of New York City in 2014, before some of its people and places are swept away by another cycle of development.
The first to speak is mKalla, a landlord, poet, musician, and native black Brooklynite, who insists that real estate is an art form, as it entails “people coming together and being understanding and being courageous and breaking through the space where they were and making something new in the universe for themselves.” He celebrates the Barclays Center and newcomers to Brooklyn at the same time that he recognizes the racial character of the displacement. By foregrounding mKalla and other real-estate professionals, Gibson shows his commitment to the fair representation of a complex phenomenon that has benefited some native New Yorkers, while undermining the livelihoods of others.
Later come the voices of community gardeners and entrepreneurs, who recognize the ways that both government and capitalism have failed residents in the past and who call for democratic processes of neighborhood revitalization. Next, a number of artists, ranging from graffitists to the managers of multimillion-dollar family collections, discuss the effect of the lucrative art industry on the city’s creative potential. The debate intensifies in the second half of the book, with Gibson juxtaposing the accounts of bankers and tenants, squatters and speculators.
Gibson uses keywords and common themes to bridge the gap between these voices. Some transitions are more natural than others, and they work best when Gibson takes us on a descriptive journey between neighborhoods. From mKalla’s office, we drive with his business partner to a property in Bedford-Stuyvesant. We meet a contractor, MJ Mai, follow him to his office for an interview, and from there we go to the site of a construction project he had supervised in Manhattan. Gibson’s first book, Not Working (2012), an oral history of the unemployed from California to New York, also used this travelogue style. The form is particularly effective here, in a book so obsessed with space—its privatization and potential for communal use. Traversing the city with Gibson, we cross the boundaries that separate shelter poverty from skyscraping wealth. Perhaps this approach is, like community organizing, a way to “harness disparate currents, new and old, running through the borough.”