As a resident who was born and raised in this neighborhood, I am interested in researching Flatbush’s history, what future lays ahead for it, and what role I can play in documenting it’s recent developments. Therefore, for this ethnography project I am going to investigate how some residents in Flatbush are responding to the recently revitalized Kings Theatre. The owners of this theatre see this as an opportunity to uplift the community, but the voices of the community have gone mostly unheard. This project will examine how residents are responding to this new development, highlighting its effect on the surrounding community as well as local businesses and incoming transplants. Through an in-depth research of its history and interviews with local residents, I am aiming to answer the questions: is Kings Theatre really ‘fit for a king’, fit for Flatbush, and fit for Kings county? Does revitalization always serve the communities where it takes place?
Flatbush is an urban neighborhood located in Brooklyn, NY. The neighborhood has seen many changes in its ethnic demographics. Circa 1935, Flatbush was predominately made up of Jewish immigrants (Warf 1990:84), however, between 1940 and 1980, neighborhoods across Brooklyn saw an economic decline with the massive exodus of White residents to suburbia and an influx of Black residents into the inner city, which resulted in Flatbush having a predominately Black population circa 1965 (Warf 1990:86). By the 1980s, over half a million Caribbean expats emigrating from Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad, and other islands settled in Flatbush, making it the largest West Indian city in the world (Warf 1990:90). Many of these immigrants live in the tenements that housed Irish textile workers in the 1880s and Italian laborers in the 1920s (Warf 1990:91). The concentration of Caribbean immigrants in Flatbush could be attributed to the fact that other sections of the city are “socially inaccessible” to them, as the Caribbean community has “a distinct set of cultural and ideological practices which are sharply different from those of US blacks, and which often incorporate symbolic and political icons from their national cultures (for example, the Caribbean Day parade, the world's largest street festival)” (ibid). Although a majority of the residents are low-income, making a median household income of $44,924 (City Data), the community has survived through a network of bodegas, hair salons, discount stores and family owned restaurants. One interesting spatial fact about this neighborhood is that it is located in two community districts: both the 14th and 17th districts (NYC Planning). As of 2010, the 14th district is 35.4% Black/African American and 37.1% White, with smaller percentages of Asians and Hispanics (Census Bureau 2011:26). This is a striking contrast to the 17th district, which is 88.4% Black/African American and 1.4% White (Census Bureau 2011:29). Perhaps this overlap in districts has made the neighborhood prime grounds for the revitalization of Kings Theatre, which is located nearly right in between the two districts in the northeast of the 14th district.
Walking along Flatbush Avenue at the intersection of Cortelyou Road, one can notice several contradictions in the atmosphere of the area. This is the main avenue where commercial enterprise takes place, yet many of the stores seem to be inactive or vacant. On one side of the street, there are at least three storefronts with metal shutters pulled down, ‘FOR LEASE’ and ‘STORE FOR RENT’ signs plastered over their decrepit exteriors; this phenomenon continues as you go further away from Downtown. Despite this, Flatbush has been called the next hot neighborhood (Higgins 2016) and the blocks leading towards Downtown tell a different story. Scaffoldings surround the construction site for a shiny new development; there is a Gap Outlet store, which few people seem to shop in; and then, there is Kings Theatre. On March 14, 2016, my first visit for the field report, I took a historical tour of the theatre along with a little over a dozen other people, which comprised of: an elderly White couple; an elderly Black couple; two single middle-aged women, one black and one white; a single young White man and woman, who both seemed to be bloggers or photographers as they took many photos; and a group of disabled young adults who were supervised by chaperones. We showed our tickets, were searched by a security guard, and finally entered the empty theatre, where three employees greeted us.
First, we were shown a video which gave a detailed description of the architectural process of rebuilding the theatre, rather than discussing its historical significance. Kings Theatre was built in 1929, and its architectural style was modeled after French Baroque architecture and specifically the Palace of Versailles, courtesy of Rapp & Rapp. The theatre started out as a vaudeville house, but as the Great Depression hit, it transformed into a one-movie theatre and exclusively did MGM showings. However, this didn’t last for a long time either; as people began going to multiplexes and widespread deregulation in the 1950s prohibited corporations like MGM from being exclusively involved with theatres, the theatre was officially closed in 1974, and the city took it over for back taxes four years later (Gray 2007). It wasn’t until 2013 under Mayor Bloomberg that the theatre was restored, who envisioned the theatre to be the “Radio City Music Hall of Brooklyn” (Bakija 2013). In a $95 million renovation─half of which apparently came from the city (ibid)─the marble, curtains, walnut wood, and chandelier were all original restorations, while other parts such as the carpets were refurbished from decades of decay and mold. The men and women's smoking lounges were also kept for aesthetic purposes. The grandeur design of this theatre was meant to make common people feel like royalty, as if they were in a palace. The number of seats was reduced from 2700 to 2300, but this made for more personal space. In the past, it was more expensive to sit high levels, as this was the best view for watching a movie, but now that the theatre exclusively hosted concerts and other performances, the lower levels costed the most. Sound, video, and lighting infrastructure was also upgraded to meet the requirements of modern performances.
The three employees who guided us were hired by Ace Theatrical Group (ATG), a private entertainment company and profit organization, different from non-for profit performing arts theatres. They informed us that the theatre was city owned but privately managed by ATG, who received tax credits for investing in the theatre, along with the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group. It was unclear whether local residents had any say in this development. Eisinger reminds us that “most entertainment projects are highly profitable to their investors, at least eventually, and many could be—indeed, would be—built without much public support at all […] most of these projects provide quite low economic returns to the city in the way of jobs and tax revenues” (2000:331). This seemed to be more like a case of mayoral achievement; most mayors like Bloomberg and de Blasio strongly believe in “economic revival by bringing the middle class back into the cities from which it fled long ago, not as resident taxpayers but at least as free-spending visitors” (Eisinger 2000:317). To appeal to those with ethical concerns, the employees made sure to note that the workforce was recruited directly from Flatbush by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). However, this was comprised of 70+ ushers and supervisors, rather than the managerial positions that these employees from ATG held. One employee joked that these employees were ideal because they lived in the neighborhood, and therefore they always 'get [there] on time'. Speaking for these employees, he assures us that there is a strong sense of community pride and that they were happy to be there.
Once we were allowed to ask questions and comments, one person asked where else the architecture company had done work. One employee responded that they have always participated in the revitalization of the Hippodrome in Baltimore, the Sanger in New Orleans (which was destroyed post-Katrina), and the Boston Opera House. What these cities also have in common, however, is that they tell a tale of two-cities: “a city of developers, suburban professionals, and ‘back to the city’ gentry . . . and a city of impoverished blacks and displaced manufacturing workers, who continue to suffer from shrinking economic opportunities, declining public services and neighborhood distress” (Eisinger 2000:330). Yet overall, the people on my tour were enthusiastic about the theatre. The white couple recalled coming to Kings Theatre for graduations almost four decades ago, and they were happy that it was active again. Others were excited about the diverse lineup, the theatre’s executive director Matthew Wolf lists some of the upcoming events: “It is the Moscow Ballet. It’s the Broadway touring shows. The Live Nations. The Orthodox Jewish promoters. The small reggae and SoCa shows” (Surico 2015). Mostly everyone was impressed at the fact that 700 parking spaces had been made available at the nearby Sears and Stop & Shop, and a hotel was being built right across from the theatre, as visitors could go from their shows straight to their rooms and spend the night. In fact, as Eisinger notes, these are some of the hallmarks of every tourists’ desires: “easy transportation access to the city, but once there, they must at least have parking or mass-transit access to the city’s attractions, police protection, clean and well-lit streets in tourist districts, sanitary restaurants, honest taxi service, and fireproof hotels” (Eisinger 2000:323). Never mind the fact that the theatre was demapped, and East 22nd Street needed to be closed for extra space. How much more public space would this theatre impinge upon until Flatbush was completely unrecognizable? At the end of the one-hour tour, we were all given complimentary folders filled with fliers for upcoming events. I stepped outside and boarded an overcrowded bus to attend my next class. The promise that seemed to be flourishing back there diminished, as I remembered that CUNY has been facing a fiscal crisis for the past several years. If this theatre was indeed publicly funded, couldn’t those funds have gone towards more important things, like public welfare and education?
It may be my own resentment, but I would find it difficult to interview people who probably wonder whether my neighborhood is safe enough for them to walk through at night after an indie rock concert. However, one day as I was waiting on the bus to go to school, I noticed a familiar face. The community activist Imani Henry was placing stickers on street poles to publicize his organization ‘Before It’s Gone, Take It Back’, which highlights the negative effects of gentrification on local and incoming residents. So in mid-May, I conducted a phone interview with Imani Henry. He explained to me that BIGTIB is a campaign founded in 2013 that highlights gentrification, tenant harassment and organizing, and no eviction zones in eight neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. They are part of a larger network of activists called the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, which brings together community groups, supports local businesses, provides legal aid to people who are facing eviction, and promotes direct action through social media and other means. When asked about what changes he has noticed in Flatbush, he responded that there has been more police occupation, a greater effort to price out the poor and attract those with disposable income, and increased tension between tenants and landlords. He noted that gentrification puts this process ‘on steroids’, as landlords refuse to make repairs or provide basic services, and police are extra violent towards the community.
Henry feels that Kings Theatre is a major development that will directly contribute to the gentrification of Flatbush. Despite opening with Diana Ross, towards the fall of 2015 the theatre mostly catered to white and suburban audiences, and some urban/LGBT audiences. The artists who played there included White Snake, Ringo Starr, Josh Groban, Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, and other indie artists. The theatre has not made much of an effort to cater to the existing Black/Afro-Caribbean community. The one Jamaican artist who performed there was Shaggy; although he was born and raised in Flatbush, his music is mostly pop-oriented and does not appeal to the older generation of residents or even younger people. There have also been no hip hop shows, and only occasional R&B shows in 2016. Other artists like Erykah Badu attracted a mix of black and white people with more of an urban energy.
Henry has also noticed that the neighborhood is being rebranded as ‘Ditmas Park’ and signs are being put up to guide incoming visitors to and from the theatre. Meanwhile, as small businesses are losing their leases and store owners are getting kicked out, more FOR RENT/LEASE signs are beginning to appear as well. In the Sears parking lot, many police patrol the area and community members are not allowed to park there. Police line the streets from the theatre all the way to the train station so that visitors feel safe at night, especially on nights when white artists perform. He points out the hypocrisy of allowing droves of drunk white people to parade through a besieged black community at night, yet police are allowed to antagonize the homeless and use scare tactics to make visitors wary of the local people of color. The bands that are playing at the theatre also do not offer any progressive message or meaningful politics. Local residents don’t even have the privilege of attending these shows because tickets are too expensive, and the artists who are playing there hardly seem worth seeing. The people who can afford these tickets are students with disposable income, who are into bar culture and don't necessarily need to think about rent or providing for their kids.
Caribbean residents who immigrated to Flatbush in the 1980s might not have any nostalgia or personal ties to Kings Theatre, but does this justify displacing them to make room for incoming transplants and developments? On my separate excursions, I’ve noticed that most local residents seem to walk past the theatre. This lack of engagement is no different from the way things were before, this could be attributed to the fact that 23.1% of the population is below the poverty level (City Data) and so they barely have disposable income to spend on concert tickets; this has only been exacerbated by increasing property values and rent prices. The people who actually attend the shows seem to be from the more affluent parts of Brooklyn, or from outside of the borough entirely. This has led me to believe that revitalization does not serve the local community where it takes place, it simply varnishes once-decrepit areas for incoming residents and displaces the people who would have benefited from it the most.
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