Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Entitlement Gone Wild!!!

(subtitle: why I can’t live in Park Slope, and why no one should read online comments)

As promised, another blog post within literally days of the last one. Don’t get spoiled, though. You never know when I might get lazy again.

Anyways, let’s start out with some news/bragging: I recently moved out of park slope and into bed-stuy. And I literally couldn’t be happier about it. I’m sure I’m romanticizing the whole situation (it’s still new york, after all), but the fact remains that my first morning at my new place, I walked out the front gate and a passer-by said “good morning” to me. Shocking! Unheard-of! By the end of the week I had been introduced to not one, not two, but SIX of my neighbors. Who smile at me on the street, and sometimes talk to me on the subway. I’m in heaven. Which, of course, brings me to my current topic: hell. AKA park slope, Brooklyn.

I know what you’re going to say – hating on park slope is SO last season. But I say last season’s not all that long ago, and I don’t think the issue was properly addressed back then. Let’s quickly go over the typical reasons people might hate on park slope: it’s overpriced, over-gentrified, and full of self-righteous yuppie parents who want to turn the whole neighborhood into a playground for their entitled little children. It’s full of strollers, puppies, yuppies, and gays, all of whom will judge you on the street for not being one of them. True. But let’s “unpack” that, shall we?

There are a lot of reasons to hate park slope, some legitimate, some not. An example of “not” legitimate would be “I hate puppies.” No one hates puppies. Your argument doesn’t hold water. Similarly, no one hates good food. People do, however, hate overpriced good food. Which leads us to gentrification. The complaints about gentrification, and specifically the complaints about the attitude of park slope residents, get to the heart of the issue I want to discuss here: the false sense of entitlement that seems to permeate every aspect of white middle class culture these days (and not just in park slope. I guess this isn’t just about hating on park slope after all). Trust me, if anyone knows about the sense of entitlement today’s 30-somethings and soon-to-be 30-somethings seem to have, it’s a former Harvard student. I survived that, so now I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert, and in a fine place to talk about it on a larger scale: New York.

A recent Village Voice article prompted me to start thinking about this topic yet again. I of course recommend that you read the whole article (it’s very illuminating), but I’ll summarize it briefly here for your convenience: A well-off young Manhattan couple, with the help of some friends, purchased a building in prospect heights (just north of park slope, for you non-New Yorkers) at a price that was significantly under market value due to the fact that there were several rent-stabilized apartments in the building. They then began evicting, one by one, each of the rent-stabilized tenants (four families, to date) so that they could convert their own dwelling into a 20-room home. Only one of the rent-stabilized tenants remain, and the two parties are currently involved in a legal battle over her eviction. The current tenant, Evelyn Suarez, has been living in the apartment for 28 years and currently shares it with her boyfriend, her son, and two young nieces. She pays $402/mo for an apartment that most likely would rent for somewhere around $1800/mo if it was new to the market today. Various factors have been thrown around as arguments for one party or the other, including the fact that Ms. Suarez is unemployed, the fact that she has colon cancer, and the fact that the apartment is slated to be turned into storage space for the new owners.

Needless to say, the issue has blown up. There was a “block party” to raise awareness about it a while back, and something about a councilwoman speaking out against the landlords. Obviously there was a Village Voice article about it. More interesting, I think, is the reaction on the Brownstoner real estate blog (a blog heavy in park slope readership). I don’t want you to have to go through the painful process I did of reading every single comment, so I’ll just pick out some of the best ones for you (I’m sparing you the comments on the Village Voice website because, frankly, some are too racist to re-print):

“These renters could have purchased property but did not. Tough luck.”

“Why should folks who don't want to work be able to live off welfare in rent controlled privately owned housing? It's frigging nuts!”

“is it immoral to eat as much food as we eat in America while folks in Darfur starve?

everytime you go to grocery store to buy that big steak, the politicians should picket infront of the store so you feel guilty that someone who doesn't have the money to buy the steak can't have any.”

“I bought when I had no money, and did it as a single working class female by(1) saving every cent I otherwise would have paid in rent for eight years when I had a stabilized apt in Manhattan and (2) buying in a neighborhood that none of my friends would visit. I had to fight banks to get a mortgage, since the neighborhood was still redlined. It was called Clinton Hill. My parents wept and my friends said I'd be dead in a year.”

“This is retarded. The problem with long term rent control is it gets people used to living in areas they realistically cannot afford to. Another way of looking at it is rent control removes a major incentive to improve your lot in life through hard work and sacrifice: financial stress.

The guy who lived there for 17 years and didn't bother to learn English...gee, I wonder why he's not rolling in money right now? Must be the rich peoples' fault. They're so cold and heartless.

My view? Don't punish achievers (like the buyers) and don't coddle losers (like at least some of the tenants). Give the tenants their Section 8 housing and be done with it.”

And of course, my favorite:
“The sense of entitlement that is rampant throughout the city has no limits. Why are these people so special that they should prevent someone who has spent tons of hard earned money from using their own space exactly as they wish.

Rent stabilized units are an incredible perk that most of us will never enjoy. Be happy you enjoyed it while it lasted and respect people's rights to their own property!”

I’m going to resist the temptation to point out the myriad flaws in each of those posts individually, but I will point out that I think these posters and I have some disagreement over the meaning of the word “entitlement.” Because my argument is that at the end of the day, that’s exactly what this all comes down to. Entitlement, which dictionary.com unhelpfully defines as “the state of being entitled,” is a word I would define as “a belief that one is deserving of some benefit or advantage.” By definition, then, people who are DISadvantaged (aka people who can’t afford to pay market value for their apartment, perhaps) cannot really exhibit a “sense of entitlement.” People who do have certain social privileges and advantages, though (i.e. wealth), such as the type of person who might spend their free time reading a New York real estate blog, can and do exhibit a “sense of entitlement,” and nowhere is it more apparent than in their reactions to public outcry against injustice.

As you can see from the comments above, posters on the whole reacted in a number of fairly predictable ways, such as attributing all poverty to laziness rather than disadvantage; displaying indignance that anyone might want to deny the landlords the house of their dreams; decrying rent stabilization, welfare, and other forms of social programming as unfair to the hardworking middle class; painting themselves as ‘the victim’ by self-labelling as working class while simultaneously talking about working-class neighborhoods in a way that OBVIOUSLY indicates an unfamiliarity with them; and throwing up their hands with the argument that life is unfair, there’s nothing any individual rich person can do about it. In other words, entitlement. To acknowledge that not everyone has access to the resources necessary to lift themselves out of poverty, much less afford the down payment on a New York home, would be to acknowledge that you, as a New York homeowner, have in some way benefited from an advantage you did not earn. Which would mean you should be feeling guilty, which is not something you do feel/want to feel, so the whole thing must be bullshit. It’s the same reason people don’t like to talk about white privilege, male privilege, or any other types of privilege that generally seem to make our society uncomfortable. No one wants to be the bad guy.

The thing is, we live in a society with a whole long history of oppression, injustice, and general inequality. Which has, of course, led to an uneven distribution of resources and privileges. You can either deny that, and in so doing perpetuate it, or you can acknowledge it and try to change it. The reason I can’t move back to park slope: no one wants to acknowledge it. People who are well-off enough to be able to afford a neighborhood full of no one but their peers get a free pass to stop thinking critically about their place in society, and a sense that they’re entitled to all the comforts they desire, no matter the cost to people less fortunate than themselves. It’s that sense of living among people wholly unaware of their own privilege and content in that fact that makes me so uncomfortable in Park Slope, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, etc. It’s definitely not the puppies. I love puppies.

1 comment:

POPS said...

this was great analysis. this should get printed in the Village Voice!