Social Anxiety: What SNL’s Bushwick Skit Gets Wrong About Gentrification

New York’s gentrification narratives are more complex than middle class fear and fussiness.

January 23, 2015

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

I lived in Bushwick in 2011, in a poorly ventilated loft apartment that had been built out with three small bedrooms along one wall. I was a grad student at the time, drawn to the neighborhood by the cheap rents ($450 a month, which sounds unbelievable now) and a smattering of local DIY venues that have since come and gone, like the Market Hotel, the old Silent Barn, and Body Actualized Center. I guess you could say I was part of the early wave of white, creative class gentrifiers who relocated there after getting priced out of other neighborhoods. Every so often, a new bar or cafe would pop up a couple blocks away from our place (we were on the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Jefferson Street), but these outposts of Williamsburg culture didn't do much to alter the feel of our particular area of Bushwick, which seemed to be populated more by boarded-up family homes and expressionless warehouses than actual people.

I didn't feel safe in Bushwick back then. Getting home from the closest L-train stop—Morgan—required walking up Evergreen Avenue, a poorly lit stretch of industrial buildings that tended to be completely empty, aside from the odd discarded television set or standing car. A male friend of mine got mugged and bruised up on that street en route to my house for a visit one day, and a woman was raped while entering her home around where Evergreen Avenue intersected with mine. On the day when I finally decided to move out—to a similar loft situation, this time on the Williamsburg waterfront—my dad came by to help me load cardboard boxes into the freight elevator. Just as we were about to leave, a young man from the apartment across the hall knocked on my door to tell me that the night before, his female roommate had been robbed at knife-point inside the stairwell. Needless to say, my father was glad I was leaving.

This past Sunday, I was at home poking around the internet when I noticed a skit from SNL popping up everywhere on my Facebook feed. It's titled "Bushwick, Brooklyn," and as of this writing, the YouTube video has over 1.5 million plays. In it, last week's special guest—comedian Kevin Hart—is standing around on a street corner with SNL cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah, just kind of shooting the shit. "Yo, it's getting crazy out here," Thompson says. You get the sense that they spend a lot of time at this very spot, trading war stories about their respective hustles, only as soon as the conversation gets going, they start saying things that make you do a double-take.

Hart starts telling a story that begins with him walking up Bushwick Avenue, on his way to "Martha's." One of the other guys thinks that Martha is his "baby mother," but it's actually a new artisanal mayonnaise spot; "the garlic truffle is a must-try," he says. Continuing his story, Hart boasts about shooting and killing a man named Marty in an alleyway, but he also brags about his new dog-walking business: "Why you tryna play like I ain't got like ten bitches, man?" For his part, Pharoah talks about a new spin class he's been taking in the neighborhood, and Thomson talks about going out for brunch and gelato with the mother of the family he nannies for. Several gags later, we hear a police siren, and they quickly part ways.

I laughed the first couple times I watched it, riveted by its acknowledgement of what is one of the more cringe-worthy aspects of the neighborhood's evolution. In the four years since I left the neighborhood, Bushwick has gone from the kind of place where you can land a room for $450 to the kind of place where you invest in a million-dollar condo. It doesn't have a dedicated mayonnaise shop yet (the one pictured in the SNL skit is actually in Prospect Heights), but it is home to no small number of laughably frou-frou businesses, including a puppy daycare called Brooklyn Bow Wow, a combination bike shop and hipster barbershop, and a hybrid knitting supply and cupcake store. According a Brooklyn Rental Market Report by a brokerage firm, the average price of a one bedroom apartment rental in Bushwick shot up to $2,647 this past August, in a 29.76% increase from July ($2,040).

The joke of "Bushwick, Brooklyn" is that the neighborhood is turning into a haven for a new generation of yuppies with a lot of discretionary income and needlessly specific tastes. Still, in telling that story through the eyes of a three men seemingly involved in illegal behavior (they scatter when the police siren goes off at the end), the skit also plays on a predictable middle class fear, which is that Bushwick is gentrifying faster than it is becoming safe. In September of last year, responding to a recent spike in shootings in North Brooklyn, the New York Post reported that while crime in general fell by 4% in 2014, there was a 9.5% increase in shooting victims, many of them linked to gang activity in the Bushwick and Bed-Stuy areas. When we chuckle at the inevitable gluten joke mid-way through (Thompson: "You acting like someone put gluten in your muffin or something"), it's because we're intuiting the disjunct between the comically trivial concerns of the transplant population and those of a pre-existing local community, one for whom the struggle to survive day-to-day makes worrying about gluten sensitivity seem ridiculous.

According to the 2010 US census, the predominant ethnic group in Bushwick is Hispanic, at 65.4% of the neighborhood's population.

Something that is probably important to note here is that SNL made a bit of a mistake. According to the 2010 US census, the predominant ethnic group in Bushwick is Hispanic, at 65.4% of the neighborhood's population, followed by non-Hispanic African-Americans, at 20.1%. Casting three black men as archetypal Bushwick natives seems a little bit off-color on SNL's part, though then again, what "Bushwick, Brooklyn" is really talking about is white privilege. Not all Brooklyn gentrifiers are white—in real life, or in the SNL version of it—but the skit's rapid-fire tally of stereotypical hipster pastimes certainly wouldn't be at all out of place on the blog Stuff White People Like. Still, SNL's casting choices seem to say, "This is funny because we don't normally expect black people hanging around on street corners to care about the stuff that white people like." Comedy all too often hinges on starkly reductive contrasts, and "Bushwick, Brooklyn" presents an egregiously reductive view of black identity, even as it contradicts that view with a portrayal of three African-American men enjoying the fruits of white privilege.

When you scratch the surface, probably the most frightening thing about this narrative of gentrification is its suggestion of a one-way cultural tide. White gentrifiers aren't just moving in and causing the rents go up, it seems to say; they're also bringing their CrossFit class and their twee folk music salons along with them, importing a cultural sensibility that threatens to infiltrate, and supplant, all pre-existing cultures in its path. Indeed, there's a strange lack of specificity to the skit's protagonists. All the particularizing details about the Kevin Hart character stem from the gentrified culture that he's absorbed, and if you take those details away, you're left with little more than a rough police sketch: a young black man who shot another man at close range.

Of course, the story told by "Bushwick, Brooklyn" isn't the only story one can tell about present-day Brooklyn. In fact, as my coworker Matt Trammell recently pointed out, the skit feels kind of like a scene straight out of Money & Violence, a fictional web TV series that bills itself as "a peek into the streets of Brooklyn," and has garnered something of a cult following on YouTube since the first episode came out last August (read his pitch on why you should watch it here). It's acted, shot, and edited by a posse of friends over in Flatbush, and follows the intertwining personal and professional intrigues of a group of young people trying to survive and thrive in a city where the odds seem stacked against them. Writer and director Moe (@moetivation), who plays a professional burglar mentoring a younger burglar named Miz, says that he based a lot of the story on his own real-life experiences: "It's a look at what society labels as the bad guy," he told ThisIs50 in a recent video interview. "We watch the news and see 'Man Robs Bank,' 'Man Robs Armored Truck'—we know the what but we don't know the why." Despite its stilted acting and low-budget production values, Money & Violence's YouTube comments section is filled with praise for its very true-to-life depiction of life in the community where Moe came up, down to cameos of recognizable neighborhood haunts and the use of hyper-local slang. The other day, G-Unit's Tony Yayo even co-signed the show on Twitter, calling it the New York equivalent of The Wire.

By contrast with the SNL skit, the 24 episodes that have run thus far immerse us in a Brooklyn that's rich with its own cultural particularities, collective history, and hierarchies, one where there's nary a trace of Bushwick-style gentrification to be found. Money & Violence makes a convincing case for those who would see the city's rising rents and draconian policing practices as proof that post-Bloomberg New York is in the process of fissuring into two New Yorks: the one a playground for the ultra-wealthy, the other a crime-ridden purgatory for those whose social and economic situation bars them from it. "You know, with everything that's going on with BK, everybody keeps calling it the new Brooklyn, because of the gentrification," Moe explained in that same video interview. "But the truth is, nothing has changed. You put up a whole bunch of nice pretty buildings, but in the midst of all of that, all of this other stuff is still going on." Maybe the real reason "Bushwick, Brooklyn" makes us laugh is that because by insisting that the one New York is naturally merging with the other, it brings out their disturbing incongruity, a sense of the ever-widening gulf between them.

Will there be a point in our lifetime when the idea of two cultures coexisting in New York City ceases to hold any water as a joke?

Still, this narrative of a gentrifying Brooklyn isn't the only narrative there is. Last Black History Month, Spike Lee went on a much-publicized rant about the gentrification of his native Fort Greene. It ended up sparking a public dialogue about the phenomenon's actually quite complicated relation to race, including the existence of so-called "black gentrification" in neighborhoods—like Fort Greene, Harlem, and parts of Bed-Stuy—with rising middle-class African-American populations. On the website for the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Bed Stuy-based community organizing group focused on improving the lives of New Yorkers residing in that neighborhood and Crown Heights, a 2013 blog post frames the idea as an ideal to actively strive for: "This article seeks to […] place Black people in a more active position within the discourse. The question facing many community organizers attempting to do anti-gentrification work is how to better their community without attracting gentrifiers that will eventually make it difficult for them to live there." The article goes on to outline a series of steps whereby middle and upper income African Americans can help reverse the negative effects of gentrification in historically black neighborhoods investing back into the communities where they grew up, and recruiting additional higher-income blacks to live there "without promoting the displacement of current low income residents."

It's a potentially game-changing idea, and it's one that I've been seeing popping up more in The FADER universe these days, from the Bed-Stuy-centric entrepreneurial ethos of Tompkins Avenue boutique Sincerely, Tommy to a recent art exhibition at that neighborhood's Weeksville Heritage Center, which explored the area's present in light of its long history as a site of black self-determination. At the same time, whether we're talking about one form of gentrification or another, we're still talking about a process that has the potential to be exclusionary—if not along lines of race, then inevitability, given the explosive nature of the real estate market in New York, along lines of purchasing power and class. Is it possible to imagine a gentrification that doesn't involve pushing others to the side? Or better yet, is it possible to imagine a New York where the many New Yorks that comprise it can co-exist on the same stretch of turf, the particularities of the one neither outshining nor overriding the particularities of the other? Will there be a point in our lifetime when the very idea of two cultures coexisting in New York City ceases to hold any water as a joke?

Maybe, though I definitely can't see that happening as long as the cost of living (and renting) continues to rise and the American class system continues to get more and more stratified. That said, back when I was living in Bushwick, there was the odd moment when the neighborhood still seemed to hold a kind of utopian promise. There was the beautiful, post-apocalyptic quality to the landscape, like anything could happen there. And though I was pretty scared of leaving my apartment for the most part, there were times when I would risk walking alone—and even all the way down Evergreen—just to go to this place called the Wreck Room. It wasn't all that much to look at—just a filthy, dimly lit dive bar, with stolen car parts decorating the walls. But Wreck Room always played good music, and I think it remains the only bar I've ever been to in North Brooklyn where people from all over the area—black and white and every other color you could imagine, gay and straight, low-income and trust-funded—would come to dance and drink and wile out together. As is probably inevitable in a place like Bushwick, Wreck Room shut down at the end of last year, priced out of the very neighborhood where it had become an institution. Still, if it happened once, then maybe it can happen again.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: What SNL’s Bushwick Skit Gets Wrong About Gentrification