Tim Thomas moved to the dense district of Flatbush, near the southeast border of Prospect Park, eleven years ago, following the siren call of affordable real estate. In May 2010, he launched his blog the The Q at Parkside, jauntily advertising “News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs.” Over time, the father of two has interviewed a range of neighbors, gotten involved in numerous local issues, and become alarmed at the epic gentrification he’s seeing. Along the way, he’s both allied with and clashed with some neighborhood representatives.
We sat down with Tim to discuss his passions’ origins, why his voice matters, and how his home is changing right in front of him.
You claim you’re not a journalist, but one reader called you “the CNN of our neighborhood.” So what are you then?
I was basically keeping a journal. Then people start to read it, and it takes on an air of authenticity or journalism. A lot of what I report is hearsay. I don’t feel like a journalist; I feel like a columnist.
There’s a whimsical feel to the blog, but there’s also serious stuff: you write about sanitation, the subway station, crime. And though you claim you’re not a journalist, there’s a tradition of more interpretive journalism, like the old Village Voice.
If you use a broad enough definition, I suppose. The Village Voice is something I read religiously even before I got to New York City; it was available at the newsstand about a week late in [Ames,] Iowa. That’s how I found out about music, how I found out about hip-hop. This was back in the early ’80s. And I read the articles, a lot them didn’t make any sense.
I went to Brown; I studied semiotics, now called modern culture and media. Basically super-lefty deconstructionist political theory. I also studied music composition. Right afterward, I went back to Iowa and detasseled corn for a while to save some money. My parents gave me a Mazda GLC, then I flipped a coin: L.A. or New York. It came up heads: New York. Now, by the sheer fact of living here long enough and being curious … I don’t think people realize that they’re going through the single biggest change in most people’s lifetime.
How did you get get to know the neighborhood?
It started with buying a house. Interestingly, from a Satmar Orthodox guy. The building itself was full of Caribbean Americans. The house was full of real people who were renting by the week. That was probably the first instinct I had that what I was involved in was not just the purchase of the house but also displacement. It didn’t really occur to me [at the time] what that meant, exactly.
I had a Sesame Street experience as a child. New York, Brooklyn in particular, always seemed like Sesame Street. I do blame Sesame Street. I wanted to meet all the shopkeepers, I wanted to meet Mr. Hooper, I wanted to meet Big Bird … I’m probably Big Bird. There were the people [in the houses] to the left and to the right: from Liberia and Guyana. And there were the folks who rented at 35 Clarkson, which was primary low-income, Section 8, and is now condos.
Some experiences, people [from 35 Clarkson] throwing trash out the windows and some landed in my backyard, were negative. Certain domestic squabbles with the windows open: negative. But then these primarily positive experiences: my wife working in the front garden, these Caribbean ladies coming over and talking about flowers, meeting shopkeepers, learning about the food.
How strange is it to see that 35 Clarkson is now condos?
It’s really strange. It’s not altogether unwelcome. For all of the decent people who are kicked out, they got rid of the worst customers. I think, ultimately, that’s the biggest problem. That we seem to be as a culture to be content with flushing the baby down with the bathwater.
As a friend says, pretty much everything is about race. Not necessarily the primary thing, but it’s always there. When I was just one of two that I know of white home-owning families [on the block], it felt very much like it was all OK. I was in a minority, but it didn’t seem weird. Then you watch it, you watch the price of your own house skyrocket. Then you start to put it together: I was a piece in the puzzle.
Unless you’re an owner, you will have no claim to anything. Businesses will come and go based on the demand. So, as long as there are clients for the hair shops and the Jamaican food places, they will stay in business, but word on the street, at least from the merchants’ association, is that a lot are feeling pressure, not only from rising rents, but also less demand. Our neighborhood in particular being somewhat unique in the sheer number of large apartment buildings which are rent-stabilized. I don’t think it’s going to be overnight. I think it will be slower in our neighborhood, but barring a major economic catastrophe... it’s dominos, it’s just building by building.
You wrote that no one has a plan or vision for the Flabenue [aka Flatbush Avenue]. Has that changed?
No. I used to complain about it. But the chaos is now starting to be appealing to me because I’m starting to realize it’s ephemeral: it’ll be gone pretty soon. The little ma-and-pa shops that barely have any traffic. A lot of the hair salons will probably go, but some will stay. Desmond from Dr. Cuts [the new president of the Flatbush Merchants Association] is convinced that the current tactic of giving short-term leases only, like two years tops, means that lots of folks will be packing up.
This past April, you wrote, “This is NOT the new normal. Anytime you hear someone say that you know we’re in a time of berserkness.” And you recently wrote that “black Brooklyn is being gutted.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t think people realize that they’re going through the single biggest change in most people’s lifetime. The two worlds [mostly white, better-off Brooklyn and poorer black Brooklyn] are living on top of each other. One is gaining supremacy, and the other feels it’s being colonized. That’s real. I can’t tell you how many white people will tell me, “That’s just capitalism.” Or, “Well, y’know, the Dutch, blah blah blah, from the Indians.” They want to make this story about the long history of New York City. Which tells an interesting story, but that’s not the story that people live. I tried one time, very ineffectively, to draw the comparison to what it would be like to be colonized.
The New York Times has just declared that Prospect-Lefferts Gardens is “on the map,” in an article which quoted you. How do you think the media treats the neighborhood?
I don’t think they care. They don’t write about us, really; they write about real estate. It’s like a spectator sport. It’s like, “Woo, look how much this went for,” or, “Here’s an up-and-coming neighborhood.” That’s not the experience of a neighborhood. It’s such a gaping hole.
One of the conversations you seem to be having with yourself, publicly, is: what does it mean to be a good gentrifier?
It starts psychologically: yes, you can say hello to neighbors, patronize local businesses. It requires a certain amount of self-knowledge. So what I’m about to suggest is probably not going to happen. Examine yourself: how did you get what you got in this world? I made the leap from “Well, everything I got because I earned it” [to] “Well, that’s not exactly true.” I think it’s recognizing the degree that money and cultural capital allows you to move to move through whatever is in your life with a hell of a lot less effort.
60 Clarkson became fodder for an article headlined “The Scandal Down the Block,” in which you took to task not only “crooked slumlord” Barry Hers, but also the nonprofit CAMBA [Church Avenue Merchants Block Association], which runs the homeless shelter there. How did you get to know the property?
I started, or as it turns out, restarted the long-quiet block association. The idea was to do a block party so all the kids at 60 Clarkson could have a fun day and all the homeowners could get to know their apartment-dwelling neighbors. At the very first meeting, a ton of people showed up to talk about gangs, drugs, and crime. And the shitty conditions of 60 Clarkson. From there I met Melvina, who’s in the WNYC piece [that Thomas helped instigate]. She and I have stayed close. She’s connected to everyone on the block, but as an actual tenant at 60 Clarkson, she has a window into the relationship with the landlord. I’ve also become close with Janice, who lives at 80 Clarkson. She was the block president way back, and she let me know that I wasn’t recreating the wheel! Anyway, she knows all the drug dealers and their mothers and grandmothers. Between the three of us, and the many people involved in neighborhood politics at 40 Clarkson (mostly co-op), we have a nice coalition. I’ve met a zillion folks through them.
I had a conversation with DHS [Department of Homeless Services]. I said, “You guys know this guy is horrible.” They’re like, “Yes, we know, we’re too run ragged.” I was like, “If you can sleep at night, the rest of the people on the block have to deal with the damage, well, fine. I guess you just told me what I needed to know.”
At 60 Clarkson, you say, you get all your “best information about how the other half lives.” What do you mean by that?
Let me tell you about one deli. You can buy anything you want there with your [food stamps] card. You can buy a wide-screen TV in the back. I have no interest in putting it out of business. They’re the friendliest guys; I shop there. There’s an economy that goes below the surface of what the average middle-class to upper middle-class renter or buyer sees. So the greatest aspect of the blog, for me, was illuminating my world. I basically did not understand African-American Brooklyn or Caribbean-American Brooklyn, at all. Now I have a little piece of it. People talk to me. The blog makes my world bigger, and it also makes me a target; it means people send me hate mail. My wife sometimes says I should shut up, especially if I talk about violence or gangs … I think I’m pretty drawn to conflict.
Speaking of conflict, you’ve gone after Council Member Mathieu Eugene in the past. What’s your relationship?
He hates me, and I love that. I love that I actually have a political enemy. I think I helped almost unseat him. I told the 2013 challenger, Saundra Thomas, “You need to take your gloves off.” She said, “I’m not that sort of person.” I’m like, “Well, I am.” To me, that was exciting. I thought I could help get a new person into office who might do something decent for the neighborhood.
And Alicia Boyd, the head of MTOPP? [MTOPP, or Movement to Protect the People, opposes a rezoning study pushed by Community Board 9 and any residential construction on Empire Boulevard, and its followers have shut down meetings of Community Board 9, which Thomas has joined.]
She thinks she’s doing the right thing; I am very envious of her passion. But there’s a basic premise to her argument that I don’t agree with. I do believe we should all be talking — the city, the borough president, and the Department of City Planning, and I don’t think anything is a done deal. Zoning is a blunt instrument. So what I want to know: what can that instrument do, and what can it not do? There’s a potential to decide where we would demand this, that, or the other other in terms of affordable housing.
When I moved to the neighborhood, it became clear to me: it was a huge waste to not build residential on Empire. I’m not a city planner. Any fool could tell you that. Unless you happen to live on Sterling Street or Sullivan Place and you like the fact there aren’t any apartment buildings on Empire. I’d prefer someone who’s NIMBY would focus on the NIMBY part of it, because I could empathize. If you focus on the other arguments, they’re somewhat disingenuous.
[Thomas has slammed Boyd, arguing that “the champion of the dispossessed, the crusader for no new development, has good reason to fear the jackhammers and loss of parking spaces” because she rents out her townhouse on Airbnb.]
One commenter observed that, while people think of Flatbush as a black neighborhood, it’s not a black-owned neighborhood. And you wrote about the companies owning many buildings with rent-stabilized units. What have you discovered?
It wasn’t until probably two years ago that I understood that there could be a plan [to displace residents and raise rents through a succession of vacancies], and wasn’t until one year ago that I understood large holding companies are buying up properties en masse. It’s why everyone should write a blog, because one thing leads to another. I didn’t understand that it was more than just the economics of one transaction. When it became clear to me from talking to housing advocates that this was unprecedented, then I started to realize, this process that we sort of think about as being organic really isn’t organic at all.
A few years back, you were appointed by former Borough President Marty Markowitz to Community Board 9. You also have projects separate from the CB. How has translating your aspirations into tangible policies been?
A lot of the things I’ve tried to do have ended in dismal failure. But at least I can honestly say, not for lack of trying. The fact is, it was a great place to live before I got here, and great things are happening that have nothing to do with me. I get the pleasure of writing about it all, good, bad, ridiculous. And a lot of times, I get to play a part.
The only thing I’m really excited to take credit for is when [artist] David Eppley finishes his piece on the Flatbush Trees [the dilapidated green metal sculptures at the northern gateway to the neighborhood]. That’ll happen in the spring. It’s called “Spring Comes to the Flatbush Trees.”
You have a full-time job as a fundraiser for an arts organization, and a family. What would you write about if you had more time?
Oh my God, it’s really clear to me. I just want to interview everybody who’s living in the neighborhood. [Thomas has written periodic “Know Thy Neighbor” articles.] I would probably put at the bottom of the list the newest people I meet at social functions: they’re the easiest to meet. I would just go building by building. If I took a month off from work, if somebody gave me some money and said, “Your job for the next to month is go and talk to people,” that would be heaven.
This interview has been edited and condensed.