Where Brooklyn At? The Rise of Gentrification and the Fall of Hip-Hop

by Banna Desta

Banna Desta
Banna is a recent Virginia Tech graduate interested in the intersection between art and social justice. She enjoys music, particularly hip-hop, in all its evolving forms.
The new Brooklyn is different. It’s a place people come to, not a place people come from
Photo by Chris Ford

The image of modern-day Brooklyn is often viewed as a haven for hipsters and the middle and upper middle class, with boutique shops, gyms, a giant arena, cafes, and structured parks. Brooklyn has become a face of gentrification in the U.S., but despite its vast economic growth and seemingly integrated neighborhoods, its history as a diverse hub for immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos has not yet been forgotten.((DeSena, J. 2012. The world in Brooklyn: Gentrification, immigration, and ethnic politics in a global city. Lanham: Lexington Books.)) The original characteristics of the borough were produced from struggle, hard work, and the hope for a better life in the heart of the city.

‘Culture’ and ‘character’ are important, yet difficult-to-define concepts related deeply to gentrification. One major component of urban culture, and especially in New York City and Brooklyn, is hip-hop music. Rap music has been known for its ability to provide insight into the socioeconomic conditions of blacks and Latinos in the U.S.  Born from the streets of the Bronx, hip-hop is deeply-rooted in the streets of urban centers. Scholar and cultural critic Tricia Rose states, “Rap music, more than any other contemporary form of black cultural expression, articulates the chasm between black urban lived experience and dominant, ‘legitimate’ ideologies regarding equal opportunity and racial inequality.”((Rose, T. 1994. Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.))

Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one. Representing BK to the fullest tweet


Brooklyn, especially, is home to some of the most notorious MCs, who hold tight to their hometowns, representing and paying homage to the borough and its various neighborhoods in song. Artists like Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. gave audiences an explicit look into the daily life and culture in Brooklyn’s streets. Gentrification((Just what exactly is gentrification? Here it is the process of renewing and renovating neighborhoods in cities that were segregated and largely occupied by minority groups. This process takes urban areas that were isolated and considered slums or ghettoes and redevelops them into desirable city landmarks that attract mostly high-income residents. The process generally starts with sales of large plots of real estate and redevelopment of low-end to high-end real estate, expensive recreation, and a variety of private business.)) is at odds with the concepts of authenticity and history embedded in the roots of hip-hop, and Brooklyn appears far different than the lyrics heard in “Brooklyn” by Mos Def or the visual image portrayed in films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The familiar faces of the working class and the comfort of local businesses have been driven out by the increase in property value, and Brooklyn’s founding culture has gone along with them. Through song lyrics, historical events, and opinions from rappers themselves, explaining the relationship between hip-hop and gentrification is made clear, and unveils how gentrification continues to damage the culture of hip-hop’s Mecca.

During_World_War_I_there_was_a_great_migration_north_by_southern_Negroes_-_NARA_-_559091When Blacks journeyed to the North as a part of the Great Migration((For a good resource on this, check out The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson)), they experienced intense segregation in the housing market. Racism remained rampant in the U.S. and as cities grew, property owners made attempts to keep Blacks out of certain neighborhoods by raising rent, redlining, and flat-out closing off housing markets. Though Harlem was the initial destination, the Ellis Island for Black Americans who migrated to New York City in the early 20th century, the creation of the A train subway from Harlem to Brooklyn in 1936 encouraged black people and new immigrants to flee to cheaper housing and better job opportunities. This development also shifted a great portion of New York City’s economy to Brooklyn. During this time Brooklyn’s industry (based mostly in trade from ports) was doing well and the cost of living was incredibly cheap in comparison to Manhattan, which encouraged many black and Latino immigrants to settle.

The borough was economically stable during this time, which accommodated a relatively diverse socioeconomic population. However, in the early to mid 1950s, Brooklyn’s industry began to decline, and ”white flight” mirroring white suburban migrations in the rest of America changed the landscape. The residents who could not afford to move remained and were forced to navigate a new landscape. This occurrence resulted in lower property values, cheap rent prices, and the loss of big business. Though some Brooklyn neighborhoods maintained their middle-class population (such as Brooklyn Heights) most suffered severe economic loss.

Hip-hop was born in the streets of the Bronx, around the same time as the major demographic shifts in Brooklyn. In the mid 1950s, urban planner Robert Mosley developed the Cross Bronx Expressway (CBE); a six-lane highway that cut through several Bronx neighborhoods, displacing 60,000 people and resulting in the loss of nearly 600,000 jobs. “Few roads in America have histories as tortured as the Cross Bronx Expressway. The master builder Robert Moses gouged the highway through crowded neighborhoods, displacing tens of thousands of people and, critics say, helping set the stage for the arson and crime that ravaged the borough for a generation.” This itself is an early example of development-based displacement common to gentrification. However, the turmoil created by the development of the CBE sparked inspiration in young people to find solitude amidst despair. In the early 1970s, hip-hop emerged from the depths of this chaos.

Bronx natives (many of whom were West-Indian immigrants) used lampposts to plug in their sound systems and experiment with turntables. Clive Campbell, commonly known as DJ Kool Herc, was the first of many popular hip-hop DJs to test sounds and energize the Bronx at public gatherings during the nascence of hip-hop. “Working two turntables, he switched between duplicate vinyl to keep the instrumental breaks playing and the dancing going indefinitely, and break dancers, shout-outs, MCs, and DJ rivalries all became part of the Kool Herc legacy.”((Jeff Chang. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation)) The popularity of hip-hop gained momentum as it began to spread throughout the borough. Hip-hop’s beginnings started off as a community art form. It was a way in which local neighborhoods could come together and relieve themselves of the pressure of daily life.

You crazy, think your little bit of rhymes can play me? I’m from Marcy, I’m varsity, chump, you JV tweet

The rising popularity of hip-hop in the Bronx sparked city-wide fascination. Utilizing public space and supported by their neighbors, MCs and DJs began popping up throughout the city, including Brooklyn. The genre took on a certain admiration and style in Brooklyn as it quickly produced some of the most infamous MCs.

The 1980s and 90s were an especially important time for Brooklyn hip-hop, as artists like Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Notorious B.I.G. and MC Lyte emerged and became prominent figures in the genre. These artists dedicated lines and even whole songs to the streets of Brooklyn, giving credit to the neighborhoods that brought them up and provided imagery to outsiders of what life in Bed-Stuy or Fort Greene might look like. In the 1984 single, “Do Or Die, Bed-Stuy,” the MCs of Divine Sounds used their song title to signify the neighborhood that, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, experienced extreme violence. The phrase, “Do or Die, Bed-Stuy” became a popular reference to the Bedford-Stuyvensant neighborhood known for brawls, gang violence, and its largely black and Latino immigrant population; a strong juxtaposition to today’s brownstones and million-dollar real estate. These descriptions of everyday life in Brooklyn were common themes in artists’ music, as their upbringing created inspiration for their personal narratives.

While Brooklyn had a great deal of issues with crime and poverty, hip-hop provided a platform for artists to discuss the problems their neighborhoods and families faced on a larger scale. Mainstream music and the rising popularity of hip-hop allowed for these important discussions about race and class to be broadcast. For example, the Brownesville neighborhood in East New York had a reputation for delinquency. In songs like “Welcome to Brownesville” rap duo, M.O.P publicized their experience living in the crime-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood. These lyrics were important for the outside world to hear, not for criminalizing blacks, but in shedding light on problems that plagued urban communities. But was the message received? The instinct now seems to be to remove the negative images that native rappers like M.O.P discussed in their music—by removing the people afflicted by them.

Gentrification is a system that transforms the disposition of an urban space, generally towards one of white-dominated middle or upper-class-ness. Sharon Zukin, an urban sociologist, describes gentrification in a similar manner stating, “the conversion of socially marginal and working class areas of the central city to middle [and elite] residential use.”((Zukin, S. 2010. Naked city the death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)) Gentrification affects numerous aspects of a neighborhood, some that are easily repaired and some that are not. Rent prices rise significantly as the value of living in gentrified neighborhoods increase, driving out low-income residents who can no longer afford the cost of living. Brooklyn has a unique energy that is heavily inspired by art and multiculturalism. However, gentrification uproots the minorities, artists, local business owners and groups of people that contributed to the making of an authentic urban space and community.

Photo by Timothy Krause https://www.flickr.com/photos/timothykrause/9490016509/

Photo by Timothy Krause

Hip-hop is an integral part of urban culture and an indicator of the changes in it, including gentrification. This change in community disposition when outwardly disregarding a neighborhood’s current residents is harmful. Sensitivity to a city or neighborhood’s culture is important to its history and future, and hip-hop music is a large contributor to Brooklyn’s organic spirit. And if there’s one thing that is very clear about hip-hop, origin and history, where you’re from, they matter.

There are several ways to describe gentrification, both positive and negative.  It can be seen as an economic stimulant, revitalizing neighborhoods that were once run down or deemed “ghetto,” breathing life into dilapidated urban spaces. On the other hand, gentrification is often also a mechanism used to rid urban neighborhoods of low-income residents and wipe out long-standing communities. The complexity of gentrification cannot be reduced to either of these descriptions, but its impact on the culture of urban neighborhoods stands as one of its most potent effects. Gentrification has been an ongoing process throughout the history of urban spaces, yet certain boroughs in New York City, and in particular Brooklyn, have seen particularly intense rounds of gentrification in the last decade or so. Brooklyn’s local culture, including one of its cornerstones, hip-hop, has undergone sweeping changes. Hip-hop and regional identity have a long-term relationship, as most artists have always been quick to claim their hometown — Brooklyn is no exception.

Dr. Stacey Sutton, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia, explains the relationship between race and gentrification stating, “People say cities always change, they’re dynamic. Absolutely. But the question for gentrification and the problem . . .is the degree to which these changes continuously disadvantage the same groups of people. There were people, predominantly black and Latino people, that were relegated to the city when we saw white flight and suburbanization, and the city was demonized overall. Over time, the city has become increasingly desirable, so as people move back to the city the question is a more fundamental, ethical question. Should people with more capital be able to locate in areas as they see as more desirable although those areas are already being occupied or have been occupied by groups that have been marginalized?”

Photo Courtesy Martin: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ugod/5306076207

Photo Courtesy Martin: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ugod/5306076207

By juxtaposing images of Brooklyn from a Biggie song up against images of Brooklyn today, the demographic difference from then to now is made painfully obvious. “The new Brooklyn is different. It’s a place people come to, not a place people come from, and where residents don’t have a traditional, urban village way of life but are very proud of the ‘authenticity’ of the neighborhood where they chose to live.”((Zukin, S. 2010. Naked city the death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford: Oxford University Press.))

When gentrification meets with a long-standing urban structure like hip-hop, there necessarily comes with it a great deal of change; from the refurbishment of the neighborhoods and street corners where Brooklyn rappers grew up, to the transformation of styles and sounds people associate with their music. One example is the friction over the creation of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a project in which fellow rapper and Brooklyn native Jay Z played a huge role. Rapper Mos Def expressed his concerns over the development of the Barclays Center in a poem titled “On.center.stadium.status”:

“It’s simplerto kill/A stranger/Than it is/To slay/A/Neighbor/DECREE!/HAIL THE NO NATION BEAST!!/whose shadow alone/buries homes/And swallows streets/Pass gas then/Pick its teeth…” tweet

In an interview with Vulture, Mos Def expounded. “My concern is, none of those people who built that stadium know what it’s like to grow up in the projects. And the people in the neighborhood don’t yet benefit from the stadium’s presence in the community. I would love for Barclays and the NBA and whoever else to prove me wrong, by engaging in the community, not just on some [surface] level for the photo op. But to really be concerned with enriching the lives of people in that community.”

Hip-hop culture was bred from the streets of the Bronx, but has played an instrumental role in global culture; inspiring artists, fans, and subgenres across the world. The Golden Age of the late 80s and early 90s was filled with distinct beats, varying soul and jazz samples, West Indian-inspired sounds and renowned DJs and MCs, spawning a larger cultural wave that spread widely. Brooklyn rappers at the fore of mainstream hip-hop were key contributors to this era. Brooklyn’s sound was most known for its dark and gritty beats, with samples from various genres, from jazz to country and rock n’ roll. The drop of a drum loop is synonymous with golden age hip-hop, a beat so distinguishable that today’s generation of hip-hop listeners could easily associate the sound with the era; the hallmarks were songs like the 1992 single, “Who Got The Props?” by Black Moon or the 1994 single “Crooklyn” by the Crooklyn Dodgers. Smif-N-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Respect” were examples of the West Indian influence in Brooklyn hip-hop.

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Published by Banna Desta
Banna is a recent Virginia Tech graduate interested in the intersection between art and social justice. She enjoys music, particularly hip-hop, in all its evolving forms. View all posts by Banna Desta

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