the Beauty in the Boogie Down: Self- Gentrification in the South Bronx
Majora Carter shakes her head "no" and flashes me a warm smile when I bluntly ask her if "The Boogie Down Grind Cafe," a coffee shop she co-owns in the Hunts Point area in the Bronx, might be contributing to the gentrification of the South Bronx. Gentrification is a real estate disease that results in the displacement of brown bodies. Most recently an article in the New York Times insulted thousands of South Bronx natives by referring to the South Bronx as "SoBro," and including them on a fancy list of places one should visit. What may have seemed like a compliment, to many Bronx natives it was a smoke signal to the colonizers and a warning to all South Bronx residents: they are coming. I reminded Majora that first the coffee shops arrive and then BOOM! your rent is too damn high. Right? She kindly disagreed.
Majora, who has been publicly recognized for her work in urban development and advocating for environmental equality, is mostly known at the shop for her vibrant smile, her contagious laugh, and the genuine way she greets everyone. She's a local. She only hires locals at the shop. She's a hugger. She welcomes you with open arms and makes you feel at home unlike any other coffee shop. Majora exudes an effortless confidence only a woman with her life experiences can make look so easy. She's a fast talker but speaks calmly, sure of every single word. So it's no surprise she has thought about gentrification in the South Bronx, and in many ways has been forced to as the shop and her business philosophy continue to be critiqued by fellow South Bronx skeptics. But she stands her ground: her coffee shop is NOT a sign of gentrification, I repeat: it is NOT a sign of gentrification.
She cooly responds that gentrification doesn't begin with the coffee shops or the white people moving into black and brown communities bringing with them many of the things our communities have classified as "white," and inherently not for us. But why can't it be for us? And why can't it be by us? Majora firmly states that gentrification "... happens when you start telling those black and brown kids from years ago that they need to measure success by how far they get from their communities." For many of us, this is true. If you grow up Black or Latino and poor (as Majora did while the Bronx burned during the 70's and 80's) and you've miraculously escaped and went off to college (as she also did), you're supposed to LEAVE for GOOD. You may return if your family is still there but you should never have intentions of staying. This, according to Majora, is when gentrification begins.
Majora admits that like so many of us who flee our economically impoverished neighborhoods (we are rich in culture, often appropriated by the wealthy) once we've earned our college degrees, she didn't intend on settling in the South Bronx. But she saw raw beauty in her hood despite so many of her neighbors and friends fleeing the flames that consumed the Bronx in the 80's. And she's still promoting this beauty so many of us are still taught doesn't exist. Teaching our children not to value this beauty and invest in our own communities makes neighborhoods like Hunts Point vulnerable to property vultures, those who lurk in the outskirts (in this case a few stops away on the 6 train) seeking to conquer and colonize, and YES also raise your rent. But Majora is from the South Bronx. And the beauty she sees in the place she grew up is reflected in the locals who work at the shop, and the "regulars," so many of them locals who use the shop not only as a stop for a good latte but also as a place to work, read, write, feel inspired, and have a stimulating discussion. Majora's eyes glisten as she speaks about this beauty, about her creation of what she calls a "third space," a place locals can "do" community. She believes community is an activity not just a place; community is dynamic, a verb, and must be done in a place that exists outside of our home and workplace. So no, Majora doesn't think her coffee shop is gentrifying the South Bronx. She believes The Boogie Down Grind is a well deserved "third space" for the Hunts Point community, a beautiful thing to call their own. And based on the stimulating conversations I've had at the shop, I agree.
"If we found value in our communities it would be harder for folks coming from the outside to see the value that we have been led to believe does not exist here." It's clear that Majora sees the value in the South Bronx and although she sadly admits that there is little we can do to stop others from coming in and consequentially pushing some of us out, there is much we can do to ensure we have a stake in our own communities. Simply put: if we don't want people coming from the outside and buying up property, well, why don't we? This idea may seem out of reach for so many of us especially in a low-income neighborhood like Hunts Point but she's calling out to all those who have roots in the Bronx and in their pursuit of "success" have left. Her shop calls out to those who have measured their success by how far they have gone from home, those who seek "nicer" things in neighboring boroughs. The Boogie Down Grind is a Public Service Announcement reminding us all that we should love, value, and invest in our neighborhoods. Majora believes in self-gentrification.
Using the term "self-gentrification" to describe her business philosophy has been met with angry criticism from some Bronx natives, some even refusing to work with her. Majora shrugs her shoulders and laughs, "haters are gonna hate." She acknowledges that harsh criticism from her own community sometimes hurts, but that many are simply misunderstanding her motives and philosophy. "Self-gentrification," is a relatively new term, a way for us to reclaim the word and reclaim our neighborhoods. Self-gentrification is about keeping and using your talents in your hood instead of taking them elsewhere. It is about finally making our neighborhoods nice for ourselves instead of waiting for a Starbucks to appear. We like coffee shops. We like book stores. We like nice restaurants. But why do we need to wait for others to infiltrate or leave our neighborhoods to enjoy these things? We should not have to take our money to Manhattan to enjoy a decent espresso, or have a quiet place that isn't a public library, to study in, or as Majora would say "to do community" in. So although Majora is mostly known for her years advocating for Environmental Equality, nowadays she's also advocating for Economic Equality, making jobs and reclaiming what's rightfully hers, and ours, in the South Bronx.