The book jacket synopsis of my new novel, “Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery (Ig Publishing, May, 2012) describes the story as “a stylish mystery set on the dawn of gentrification.” The dawn of gentrification — sounds portentous, looming. But it is more than that.
Gentrification is a term rife with dramatic tension since it inherently throws disparate groups of people into a collective scenario, where motivations are usually at odds, cultures can clash, and enormous matters — like home and identity and serious money — are in play. The setting of Clinton Hill/Fort Greene in the early 1990s worked perfectly for me since gentrification informed many of the novel’s major themes.
“Outerborough Blues” is a novel about race. The protagonist, Caesar Stiles, is a white man living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood “with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence.” This was certainly the neighborhood in the early ’90s, when white faces were scarce. Simple appearance can be the symbol of gentrification in the most visceral way, and the presence of the real life Caesar Stileses certainly raised eyebrows. That’s why I explored the manner in which established neighborhood entities react to an outside threat. This equation is only heightened when the aspect of race is a dominant factor, even more so when a black majority is being impeded upon by a white minority as this particular setting allows.
This is a novel about community. Clinton Hill/Fort Greene was (and still is) a close-knit area. Gentrification can be considered a threat, though some residents see it as progress. As a result, allegiances are tested; personal agendas conflict, and neighbor is pit against neighbor. For some members of the community — in real life and in my novel — gentrification is an opportunity for riches and advancement; for others, it is nothing short of an imminent threat to their established way of life, to be dealt with by any means necessary.
“Outerborough Blues” is a novel about identity. Caesar Stiles is on a mission to end his family’s curse, and the remedy rests within his ability to reconcile his past. Gentrification, specifically as it applies to the neighborhood of Clinton Hill/Fort Greene, creates a conflict within this quest. Caesar seeks a home, a place where he belongs. The innate resistance his regular neighbors have to him, specifically in the form of his much-desired tenant Angel, obliquely communicates the distance that is kept between a community and its interlopers. There might not be any overt rejection of Caesar amongst them, but it’s clear he is and will always be an outsider. Gentrification can happen rather quickly and without obstruction, but acceptance as one of the neighborhood’s own is a far more difficult accomplishment. This is true in both the real life area of Clinton Hill/Fort Greene and the one depicted in my novel.
Published on The New York Times: Even a Mystery Novel Is Ultimately About Gentrification