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Stolen Hood: Danny Hoch Talks Gentrification
Danny Hoch's one-man show, "Taking Over," is hilarious and crushing at the same time. Hoch humorously interprets a wide variety of characters from Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, illustrating how gentrification affects American cities today. Entire working-class and minority communities, from West Oakland to Uptown Harlem, are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. "Taking Over" provides an unflinching portrait of the people behind the complex issues of gentrification.
Gentrification is a controversial issue, and for Hoch, it's hard to assess the "good" that privileged progressives may do in a community when the simple fact of their presence can transform the urban landscape, uprooting, as it does, those who have lived there for generations. Hoch sat down with WireTap to discuss his show and the quagmire that is gentrification in America.
WireTap: I know that you have performed "Taking Over" at venues throughout the country. Does it mean a lot to finally do the show in New York?
Danny Hoch: Usually, I'm not at home when I cash my checks, so what's the point? And also, what's the point of telling these stories to people who aren't in my community? Not to say that when I travel people don't get the message, or don't empathize or learn anything. But I wrote it for New York. The irony is that I can't even do it in New York because I won't make any money.
Do you feel the feedback you get in New York is different from elsewhere?
DH: Well, for instance, the Robert character that starts and ends the show: People in Berkeley were scared of him, and it made them very uncomfortable. But in Brooklyn, that character is a hero because he's got the courage to tell people to go the fuck home. It's something that's on a lot of people's minds in the city but nobody really says [anything] because they are afraid to.
How do you define gentrification?
DH: It['s] no different than colonialism. I think it's actually an excuse not to say, "colonialism." Americans don't like to say the word "colonialism" to describe what's happening because [it] sounds ugly, and gentrification just sounds complicated. Also, people don't believe that a land that has already been colonized can be colonized again -- especially if we are supposed to be living in a free society.
The majority of the gentrifiers are on the political left; the last thing that they see themselves as is missionaries or colonizers. But to me, that's what it is. It may not be your intention, but you come in, and because of who you are and what your economic footprint is, you displace people. That's colonialism. Gentrification is just a pretty way to say it.
How do race, socioeconomics and geography play into gentrification?
DH: I think it's class before it's race. That's why the Robert character doesn't just call out the white folks, he also calls out black folks, Asian folks and Latino folks that are coming from other parts of America. No matter how low on the ladder you think you are, you're still an American, and you bring class privilege with you. And then, if you're white, you also bring white privilege.
Immigrants, on the other hand, come to this country with no money and they bring sweat equity. Americans move to the big cities and bring money and very little sweat equity. Americans don't move to New York City because they're going to work in construction. They don't move to New York City to wash dishes, clean the sewers or to be maids in hotels. Immigrant neighborhoods will always turnover, but that's not gentrification, neither is it colonialism.
It's colonialism when people who have an economic, social and privileged advantage collectively change the face of a neighborhood. I think a lot of young lefty people are pissed off because they feel implicated, particularly in my show. They feel like, Hey I'm not rich, I'm just struggling like everybody else. But, collectively, they're causing the problem. They're only thinking about themselves -- I'm doing good, I volunteer, I got my Obama button on.
After the show I heard a lot of folks exempting themselves of responsibility by saying, "I'm not white," or "I'm not an artist." From the feedback you've gotten, are most people shirking their responsibility?
DH: It's interesting how resistant folks have been -- particularly gentrifiers -- to hearing a lot of the indictments in the show. It's like they refuse to feel uncomfortable. Did they think they were going to come to the show and laugh at a bunch of hipsters? We're all responsible. I got fuckin' almond milk in my fridge. And if I got almond milk in my fridge and you got almond or soy or rice milk in your fridge, between you and me and just ten of our homies that's like $150 worth of alternative milks per week. So you do the math of the economic footprint that makes. If we do that then we are consenting to this change.
Is there a way to achieve community development without letting gentrification redefine an area?
DH: The improvement of a neighborhood is great, but not at the expense of the people who live there. And when a neighborhood improves only when a privileged group moves into the neighborhood, then that's injustice. This is happening in the Bay Area and in every major city in the country. You have people who have been asking for thirty years for a hospital and another school in their neighborhood, 15 to 20 years for a traffic light where multiple kids have been killed by cars, and they get none of that.
But a whole bunch of left-leaning, middle-class white folks move in and in two weeks they get a bike lane? That's fucked up. And that's not to say that having a bike lane is fucked up. That is to say that you are unaware of white privilege and class privilege if you are going to excuse yourself from being a part of gentrification by saying, "But you got a bike lane now."
One of your characters in the show is an older black woman who feels that she is invisible to these young, white hipster kids moving into her neighborhood. But there are also young, predominantly white, left-leaning youth who want to work with urban communities of color. Have you noticed this and was it a character type that you considered putting in the show?
DH: Yeah, it was in the show and I was asked to take it out because it was too alienating to the white folks who were going to come see the show. I see it as missionary work. That's one of the tools of colonialism -- to send your missionaries out to help the uneducated savages of the colonies. There is a saying; "You can't go work on the plantation if your own garden is dirty." What about the challenge of staying at home?
It's glamorous to go to the city and work in the 'hood and go work on the plantation and simulate the idea of struggle, but it's not real struggle. Real struggle is staying home in a swing state and trying to get muthafuckas to vote for Obama. Real struggle is staying home in Missouri and doing anti-racism work. But that's not glamorous.
Can New York's gentry be part of the solution? Is returning home the only solution, or can color and class privileges be harnessed to aid pre-existing causes in neighborhoods affected by gentrification?
DH: There are plenty of people who come up to me after shows and feel slighted because they are involved in their communities and talk to their neighbors and feel that they are being unjustly told they don't belong. I don't think the message of "Taking Over" is to go home. What I'm saying is that, no matter where a bunch of class and race privileged folks go, they are going to run over people in the street. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are because when a whole bunch of white and class privileged folks show up in a neighborhood where the police didn't give a fuck about people's interests before, suddenly the police show up to protect [the newcomers]. It's not [a gentrifier's] intention to make it hard for the local residents, but that's what happens. And none of those folks who move in want to take any responsibility for that.
There are housing activists in Williamsburg -- a whole group of them in a collective storefront. They represent 15 to 20 different states. None of them are from New York City, and the irony completely escapes them. We wouldn't need housing activism if it weren't for their presence!
Initially, I connected with you to discuss striking a balance between community development and gentrification, but now I'm feeling like that concept is part of my effort to justify my presence in New York.
DH: I appreciate you saying that because so many folks are not even aware; They just want to justify [their reasons for staying]. Here's what I always ask: Is it possible for you to measure how much you contribute to the city or neighborhood you come to, versus how much you take? A lot of people look at their contribution in terms of the money they spend. Like the guy who wrote me a letter saying, "Do you know how much money I've spent in this city? And you're going to tell me that I'm not a New Yorker?" And I'm saying, the money that you spend as an outsider takes from the city rather than contributes to it, because the money that outsiders spend drives up rent, and the price of coffee and milk.
Because people are willing to pay four dollars for an espresso, now all the sudden all the espressos are four dollars. So, I would ask, "What do you contribute versus what do you take and how do you measure that?" If you are contributing more than you're taking away, it doesn't justify you being here, but it lessens the number of people you run over. But you're still gonna kill someone.
The developer [character] in the play likens artists who are against gentrification to the US Army Rangers deciding that they are against the occupation of Iraq. But I have another Iraq analogy. I think that people on the left in the United States are similar to the soldiers who are in Iraq, because both groups feel that they are liberating people. When soldiers in Iraq go out, they drive around in Humvees and because of the size of their vehicle, they don't realize when they run over children. It's not their intention to run over children, it's their intention to liberate the country, but they can't see what they're doing. Progressive-minded folks who gentrify neighborhoods may go in with good intentions, but they don't see that they're running over people.
You can see Danny Hoch's dynamic one-man show, "Taking Over," at the Public Theater in New York from November 7 through December 14.