“Who lived here before?”: Brooklyn’s changing skyline

lakasby Sachi Feris

My daughter has picked up many a book (from my children’s book collection that preceded her birth) that was too long or complicated for her present age and insisted that I read it to her. One such book is Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel—a book about a young boy, Lakas, who helps his neighbors fight eviction—which I “read” to her in a modified way when she was two-years-old.

In the last two years, as my daughter grew from two-year-old to a four-year-old, the long-fought Atlantic Yards Project sprung up into the sky, literally, just blocks from our apartment, obstructing our view as we walk through our neighborhood. Before these buildings went up, and the Atlantic Yards was a huge construction pit, and I would often tell my daughter as we passed by:

“You see this block? Before it was a construction site, there were people who lived here and who had businesses here and they were basically forced to leave their homes and businesses. It’s like in the book, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel—and even though lots of people stood up and said, ‘This isn’t fair, we don’t want to leave our homes,” they were forced to leave anyway. So when I walk by this block, I think about the people who lived here before.”

Having talked about this on so many walks, my daughter often comments when going by any construction site for a new building (not just the Atlantic Yards), “I hope they didn’t have to kick people out of their homes to build this new building.”

Or the other night, at dinner in downtown Brooklyn, we were overlooking different, new towers that are changing the Brooklyn skyline, and I commented, “Look at that huge tower, how terrible!”

“Well,” my daughter replied in resignation, “they already built it.”

“Do you like it?” I asked. “What would you rather be looking at, that tall building or the open sky?”

“The sky,” she replied.

“Me too,” I agreed. “But what I really don’t like about it isn’t just how it looks—I don’t like how it changes our neighborhood. These tall building make our neighborhood more and more crowded and also, the new people who come to live in these buildings sometimes have a lot of money…and when they come live here, it makes the neighborhood more expensive to live in. So sometimes, the people who have already lived here a long time don’t have enough money to stay here. And that makes me really sad.”

Oftentimes, this line of conversation leads to my daughter voicing a fear that someone could “kick us out of our apartment”—in our case, I have the class privilege to reassure her that this will not happen.

In another post about gentrification, I wrote about my daughter’s role as a White person in a building whose oldest and most long-standing residents are Black:

“Did you know that before you were born, most of the people who lived in our neighborhood were Black? And now, more and more White people live in our neighborhood…When more and more White people move in to a neighborhood, it often gets more expensive to live there…and that can mean that the Black people who lived in that neighborhood before, can no longer afford to live there.”

I have yet to define the word “gentrification” for my daughter which feels complicated (for a four-year-old). And on this particular day, when I am in the middle of watching “The Big Short” a movie about the collapse of the housing market, I am feeling rather depressed about my personal power to change anything.

But what I do know is that I want my daughter to question what and who was in a particular place prior to the people and buildings she sees before her eyes.

I was recently flipping through the table of contents and index of a huge coffee table book about Central Park which has no mention of Seneca Village, the neighborhood that existed within the present-day footprint of the park—a neighborhood which happened to have had the highest level of land-owning African Americans in New York City at the time—and which was destroyed by the park’s construction.

The myth of Central Park is that nothing was there prior to its construction—but this is a color blind story. I want to raise my daughter to be a race conscious child, who will ask,

“Who lived here before this building/park/stadium/fill in the blank was built?”

How else will she be an ally to and advocate for the fair treatment of people who happen to be “there” before change displaces them?

Post Script:

In light of this post’s theme and my post-The Big Short depression, I once “shared” a very concrete and easy-to-understand post on my personal Facebook page about the 1%’s role in profiting off foreclosures in the housing market. This post later mysteriously disappeared from my Facebook feed and I could not re-locate the article. If anyone has come across a similar resource, please share in the Comments section below.

Also, a neighbor recently shared with me that in visiting the municipal buildings in downtown Manhattan to check on her family’s property, she encountered people who are paid full-time by high net worth individuals to scan municipal records day in and day out, looking for “opportunities” in the housing market. Although this reality was not surprising, the concreteness of a person’s “job” being to scan these records (which despite their being public records, sounds mildly illegal) was not something I was aware of—and like it would be a good “story” for someone who writes about this type of thing. Just putting it out into the world and hoping someone will write this story.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.