itsct: On Public Space, Race, and Belonging

On Public Space, Race, and Belonging

by Kaila Philo

I’ll admit it: I had never been to Williamsburg or Greenpoint. I was born in Bedstuy to 19-year-old Caribbean immigrants, but I don’t recall ever stepping foot in those boroughs—that is, before 2016. Earlier this winter I visited some friends in New York with a friend named Morgan. I crashed with my college friend Dan in a loft holding four to five queer white men. Dan and Morgan spent the night exploring Manhattan as it was Morgan’s first time in the city, and I went to a poetry reading in a tiny bookshop in Greenpoint called Archestratus.
    Visiting the shop was a jarring experience at first: the shop was softly lit and glowed in earth tones reminiscent of a studyblr. It offered cookbooks exclusively, save for a loose bundle of pens up front. When I arrived, two white women were discussing “artisanal pens from Germany” in a coffee shop towards the back while a small child with sandy blonde coils roamed the shelves, screaming and hollering as he ran his hands against the binds. I arrived about an hour early to do some writing but forgot my pens in my suitcase, so I settled on buying a pen from the store. One of the women discussing artisanal pens also happened to be the owner; she greeted me with a smile as saccharine as a French vanilla candle.
    “We have a small assortment of pens for your choosing,” she said, waving her hand over a loose bundle in front of the register. “These,” she pointed to some black pens, “are $20.”
    “A pack?”
    “A pen.”
    I blinked. “Do you have anything cheaper?”
    She nodded, never shaking that imitation kindness so ingrained in wealthy Brooklynites. “These few over here are $5 a piece.” She was pointing to a couple of pastel pink pens and I settled on one. They must be high quality pens for that kind of money, I thought. Instead, the ink from my pen only hemorrhaged onto the page for about 45 minutes until it died right before the reading.
    I thought about my mother’s old one-bedroom in BedStuy only a short romp away. I thought about the Caribbean diaspora now long-missing from my old neighborhood.  Later, I texted my mother about these deluxe pens. “I hope you didn’t buy one,” she replied. I lied and said I didn’t.

    In my brief time at Archestratus, there was this miasmic sense that I didn’t belong in the shop no matter how sweetly the owner—let’s call her “Susan”—smiled and how welcoming the color scheme appeared. Despite how clearly she tried to create a non-threatening experience for customers, I kept thinking of how my mother’s old poorly-lit, barely-furnished studio was only a few minutes away. It was on the second floor of a brownstone with chipping paint lining the walls, situated in a neighborhood not too far from a young, struggling, pre-stardom Shawn Carter. It was slovenly and gruff, bringing forth the truest just like a home should be.

    The borders between boroughs are mapped on paper while the geographies of race and class are drawn by social exclusion; what stood between me and Susan was institutional, deeply-ingrained in what America had offered us. Susan had grown accustomed to German pens and a lifestyle reminiscent of Piper Chapman’s while I hadn’t grown accustomed to anything—life was too tumultuous, experiences were transient as my family bounced from city to city to state to country just because we didn’t have enough money to survive. Truth is, I just didn’t feel welcome in her establishment because it wasn’t designed with me in mind. I wouldn’t call this an impropriety, per se, considering she’d never met me before then. She didn’t know I existed then and she probably doesn’t think of me now. As Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space, she discovered her universe with “drawings [she’s] lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space.” One could argue this bookstore as a radical act of self-actualization, I guess. Nonetheless her interaction with me was brief but serves as a microcosm of a million interactions between the poor and black as the rich (and sometimes “broke) and white flood into their parishes.
    While stores like Susan’s may be off-putting to some Bedstuyvanites for its strange Kinfolk aesthetic, there are some shopkeepers who move into gentrified areas such as Brooklyn in an attempt to serve the people of color they’ve—arguably—displaced. In Baltimore, this place is Red Emma’s.
    Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeeshop is an anarchist establishment settled in Station North, an arts district that seats an underground nightclub and John Hopkins’ student theatre across the street from a row of abandoned buildings and a McDonald’s that smells like urine. It’s owned by a collective of small business owners and ex-art students who aimed to create a safe, affordable space for Baltimore residents of all races, genders, and socioeconomic classes to come together and work towards a better city. They provide quality vegan and vegetarian meals, including a daily special including one vegan entree for $5. Towards the back of the shop lies a wide, towering bookshelf carrying an array of books from contemporary fiction to critical texts from the African diaspora. In theory, this vision is noble, but as with most theories it begins to disintegrate when put into praxis.
    Every few months or so, the Red Emma’s Facebook group erupts in rapid-fire discourse when a patron, usually a person of color, complains about their prices. There are two I recall most clearly, though their remains have been stripped clear from Facebook.
    One such event occurred in late-November 2015, when a black woman posted a rant about the following: One day, she met up with a friend at the cafe with a container of her mother’s homemade fried chicken. I don’t recall why she hadn’t eaten it at home before or after she reached the shop, but nonetheless one of the cashiers approached her about it. Apparently the presence of meat disturbed the vegan guests and so they requested she put her food away or leave the restaurant. The woman in question went home and wrote a scathing diatribe against the restaurant, emphasizing her blackness as though the fried chicken was an extension of it. This garnered praise and criticism from fellow customers. Personally, I found the issue entirely avoidable. Eat at home, no? I also believe that vegans do deserve at least one meat-free space in public and it’s within an establishment’s right to provide this space for its patrons. That being said, the woman argued that Red Emma’s was, first and foremost, a safe space for poor people of color and, thus, she should be allowed to bring food from home considering she may be unable to afford the vegan dishes they served.
    In short, this woman felt unwelcome in a shop that was designed to welcome her. Despite how the establishment tried to create the Ultimate Safe Space, they couldn’t help but alienate their target audience, presumably by adopting a relatively-rigid set of philosophies too far removed from the West Baltimore community. Philosophies such as veganism, communism, and anarchism aren’t necessarily tied to institutions but remain academic terms and concepts that don’t resonate with marginalized people because it often requires more of these people than it does the theorists who postulate them as the solutions to their problems. This is the dissonance brought forth by gentrification at its purest form: When it doesn’t displace bodies, it displaces minds.
    In retrospect, I was quite lucky to leave Brooklyn when I did. I didn’t want to watch the surroundings that mold me no longer accommodate me. I didn’t want to feel unwelcome in my own home, and when I returned this winter it no longer resembled anything from my own personal reality. It looked alien, artificial, filtered through a wine-stained glass. I watched a small group of white men take photos of their cappuccinos with DSLRs. I saw a hypebeast up-close for the first time. There were small enclaves of people of color, but they were constantly interspliced with whiteness, Dior, and snapbacks as the scent of Counter Culture coffee wafted through the streets. The restaurants and coffee shops that were supposed to beautify these neighborhoods turned them into shiny, robotic attractions to draw visitors in and native dwellers out. Your home shouldn’t resemble Disney World. Brooklyn as I knew it is falling away into the periphery of what used to be a cultural hub for the marginalized.




Kaila Philo is a freelance writers and arts journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland, where she's also completing a Bachelor's degree in English Literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is an outreach assistant and editor for Purple is to Lavender, a literary and cultural zine that aims to bring women of color artists from the margin to the center. So far she has been published in Mask Magazine and Seven Scribes, with forthcoming work in Arts.Black, The Millions, and Revelist. Her academic work will be featured in a forthcoming book entitled Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature—Past and Present, to be released January 2017 by Salem Press. She intends on becoming a full-time writer but will probably end up a starving artist.

Dawn Wu