The Theater of Gentrification

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday February 12, 2008

Danny Hoch’s new solo, Taking Over, is having its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep. I saw the show in January, my interest piqued by the rave review in the Chronicle. But what got me to buy a $49 ticket was curiosity about the play’s treatment of gentrification. I knew that Hoch’s latest piece dramatized the recent, wrenching transformation of his Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.  

Having participated in Berkeley’s own gentrification wars for a good decade, I wanted see how Hoch’s play framed the Brooklyn experience. I wondered, too, whether local struggles would be illuminated by his show. That the piece had been commissioned by the Rep and directed by the company’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, made its potential relevance all the more intriguing. 

To a casual observer, the differences between Brooklyn and Berkeley may seem so great as to make it unlikely that the one place could shed any light on the other, at least before Brooklyn was invaded by the new gentry. Such an observer might well equate gentrification with Berkeley-ization, as manifest in the cultural posturing, political pretension, therapeutic entrepreneurship and “progressive” consumerism that confront the Williamsburg natives in Taking Over. Indeed, in one scene a manic Jewish developer holds forth to a reporter while being coached in tai chi and yoga by a Berkeley woman for $350 an hour.  

The multi-tasking developer is one of seven closely observed characters (eight, if you count Hoch’s out-of-character cameo) who contribute to the show’s complex portrait of a place in uneasy transition. On the positive side, the crackheads are gone, and with them, the area’s once-notorious crime and violence. The Hispanic ex-con who comes upon a low-budget movie being filmed on his block recalls that not long ago he and his neighbors routinely witnessed a different sort of shooting. Seductive shopping options, especially for food, drink and clothing, suddenly abound. The fifty-something African-American social worker who keeps the peace from her front stoop is drawn to a trendy café by the shop’s delectable almond croissants. The area’s building stock is being swiftly upgraded through rehabilitation or outright demolition and new construction. “This is a resurgent neighborhood,” says the developer, who has 3,000 apartments on the market.  

But the longtime Williamsburgers also resent the changes that make them feel, as one of them says, “like a fucking tourist in my own neighborhood.” The turbaned social worker finds herself virtually invisible at the trendy café. The unemployed ex-con approaches the film crew in hopes of getting a little work and thereby impressing his mother, who’s watching from the window of their nearby home—only to be brushed off. These offenses are mild, however, compared to the physical displacement experienced by those forced out of their homes by the speculative real estate market. “Times change,” says the developer, whose units are selling for $2 million. “Some old-time families have to leave.” 

In short, Taking Over depicts a place that’s changing for better and for worse. At the same time, the show makes it clear that gentrification’s benefits and liabilities are not evenly distributed, and that the newcomers’ aggrandizement comes largely at the detriment of the existing residents.  

It was disconcerting, then, was to find the show acquiescing in the injustice. Which is to say that Taking Over lacks a viable local politics. A group called “Artists Against Gentrification” protests the loss of affordable space to pricey development. That demonstration, the closest thing to political action in the play, elicits the scorn of the neighborhood’s old-timers, who see artists themselves as gentrification’s “advance troops.” But the neighbors’ scorn also reflects their own alienation and impotence. Their legitimate anger at their plight can be expressed only through rage or surreptitious defiance. The slighted ex-con gets in the face of the indie film crew, shouting “Look at me!” The social worker walks off unnoticed with a few croissants (“Nobody said a word, because I don’t exist”).  

The corollary to the neighbors’ disfranchisement is the absence of accountable authority. Though every one of the thousands of Williamsburg’s new condos presumably had to be approved by some duly constituted body, Taking Over contains but a single reference to a public official: In the middle of his workout-cum-interview, the developer gets a call from a nameless councilmember about a zoning change. In a gesture that indicates where the real power lies, he declines the call.  

As Hoch tells it, he and his neighbors are helpless to resist the appropriation of their home place. Their suffering likely evokes theatergoers’ pity. But that pity may well be mixed with disdain. I want to be clear: I don’t think the playwright has contempt for his fellow Williamsburgers, nor do I think he intends his show to evoke contempt for them. But in presenting the dispossessed as helpless victims, he invites the audience’s condescension toward the characters he wishes to champion. The pathos of their situation is undercut by Hoch’s nervy wit and intense delivery. As the Rep’s website states, Taking Over has “compassionate and hilarious results.” But the audience’s sympathetic laughter palliates a deeper recognition of the play’s harrowing premise: Nothing can be done to abate gentrification and its wrongs.  

The real Brooklyn tells a different story, one that features the vigorous activism of numerous homegrown organizations. Three of many possible examples: Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, whose 5,000 members are fighting developer Bruce Ratner’s monstrous Atlantic Yards project, equated on the DDDB’s website with “instant gentrification”; the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, which turns old factory and warehouse buildings into affordable space for light industry and artisans; and the Pratt Center for Community Development, which uses policy research and leadership training to empower neighborhoods and foster broadly shared prosperity.  

What makes these groups and others like them political, in the best sense of the word, is that they assume that ordinary people are capable of coming together to act in their common interest and demanding accountability from those charged with protecting the general welfare, and that such action can bring about the exercise of power in behalf of the whole community, and not just its privileged members. 

Compelling political theater fleshes out these assumptions. It doesn’t hector or proselytize. Instead, it shows how the character of a place reflects the political competence of its citizens. Accordingly, it implicates citizens who may be in the audience. By citizens, I mean theatergoers who inhabit a world akin to the one represented onstage. 

Cue the matter of Taking Over’s relevance to Berkeley. Though it might not be evident to that casual observer mentioned at the outset, in Berkeley as in Williamsburg, gentrification threatens to transform a place of social, cultural and economic diversity into a homogeneous enclave of wealth. The pressures of the speculative real estate market can be felt all over town, but they weigh most heavily in West Berkeley. That’s also the area that’s most like Brooklyn, in that it’s where hundreds of industrial firms—almost all of the light variety—and in recent decades, hundreds of artists and artisans, ply their trades. In both places, it’s industry’s presence that’s held down land values. Accordingly, it’s the conversion of industrial lands to other uses—above all, residential (read: high-end condos)—that has facilitated gentrification. 

Given these commonalities, what’s striking is how remote Hoch’s Williamsburg appears from West Berkeley. That remoteness is partly explained by the fact that Brooklyn’s industrial character is imperceptible in Taking Over. But the dissimilarity is also due to the play’s elision of Brooklyn’s grass-roots politics.  

For a quarter of a century, Berkeley’s industrial community—led by resident artists and artisans, no less—has fought to maintain the zoning that protects businesses engaged in production, distribution and repair. Until Tom Bates became mayor in 2002, those tireless efforts had largely succeeded in keeping gentrification at bay. Bates, fronting for the big developers in town and pushing the counterfactual claim that the city’s manufacturing is dead, has made the de-industrialization and corresponding Emeryville-ization of West Berkeley one of his top priorities. The ensuing land use battles have been fierce; the ones on this year’s horizon promise to be the fiercest yet, and perhaps decisive. This struggle has no counterpart in Hoch’s depoliticized portrait of gentrifying Brooklyn. 

Nor is the controversy over West Berkeley’s future evident in the publicity or cultural events that accompany Taking Over. The Rep’s website features a book about gentrification in New York and links viewers to “the San Francisco Chronicle’s story on gentrification of San Francisco’s Bayview district.”Not a word about Berkeley. The playbill is scarcely more instructive. Hoch’s show, says director Taccone in his “Prologue,” is “a portrait of what is happening…in every major city in America….Welcome to Brooklyn. Welcome to Berkeley.” Is Taccone saying that Berkeley is one of those gentrifying major American cities? Impossible to tell. Benjamin Grant’s essay “What is gentrification?,” also in the playbill, contains only one place name: America.  

Worse yet, Grant implies that gentrification cannot be resisted. “Gentrification,” he submits, “works by accretion—gathering momentum like a snowball.” In fact, unlike snowballs and other natural phenomena, gentrification is the outcome of human agency. What drives out longtime residents and established businesses is not just impersonal forces—the “rising rents or shifting sensibilities” cited by Grant—but, at bottom, the failure of democratic governance. He mentions successful community campaigns for city policies “that protect [existing residents] from rapid change and broaden the benefits of economic development” but gives no indication of what such policies might be—and if gentrification’s changes are, as he writes, “inevitable,” what difference would policies make?  

There are plenty of smart people in town who could fill in the blanks, as was evident from last November’s symposium on industrial land use in the Bay Area, sponsored by UC’s Center for Community Innovation. I’ll bet some of them would be happy to take part in a panel discussion at the Rep. If it’s too late for that—Taking Over closes on Feb. 24—the Rep’s website could could still direct its viewers to the most incisive coverage of local gentrification, the coverage provided by the independent press. For my part, I invite Danny Hoch to tour West Berkeley and meet some of the locals who have been fighting the good fight. Maybe he can be persuaded to put some of that fight into his next play.