*Post written by Libel’s lead singer Gavin Dunaway.
Once before Libel played “Migration Patterns” at a concert, I yelled into the mic, “This song is about gentrification – and we’re winning!” The statement was met with silence and shocked looks.
I was aiming to provoke both with that sardonic banter and the song in general. Not just a description of the ridiculous and perpetual nature of gentrification (“Raze the tenements to make space / For luxury condos”), Migration Patterns also satirizes the callousness of the gentrifiers (“A new playground for the young and moneyed”) and their halfhearted sympathy for the locals sent into exodus (“Our hearts go out to those displaced / It’s a disgrace / You don’t know how bad we feel”).
In the first verse, the gentrifiers compare themselves to pilgrims - who were the original American gentrifiers anyway. When you’ve been right in the middle of it - and honestly a part of it - it’s hard not to see the absurdity in “discount stores on every block / replaced by yoga studios and cheese shops” and “AmEx stamped over WIC.”
“Migration Patterns” is my attempt to come to terms with watching lifelong residents flee Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the wake of skyrocketing rent and cost of living, while in moved the bars, restaurants and boutique stores that signal “urban renewal.” At the same time, I also wanted to note how the ugly cycle of gentrification keeps repeating because it’s a symptom of larger societal issues.
A little ambitious for a subfive minute song, but hey – I’m a fan of biting off more than I can chew.
My background, for what it’s worth – I am so white as to be considered translucent (the sun and my skin are not good friends, thank you Irish/Eastern European heritage). I was raised middletoupper–middleclass in Northern Virginia, the son of civil servants (until my father left the Treasury Department to work for the International Monetary Fund). Long after attending public schools (NoVA is considered one of the best systems in the country) and a state university, I moved to New York to both further my career in publishing and join a vibrant rock scene. The latter is why I specifically wanted to live in Brooklyn.
When my fiancée moved to New York from Italy (yes, I’m so hipster that I had a European girlfriend IN EUROPE), we wanted to stay in North Brooklyn for the simple reason that most of our friends were nearby. A quick Craigslist search showed that apartments near the Jefferson and DeKalb L stops were far more affordable than any Williamsburg equivalents.
On first appraisal of the neighborhood which was looking pretty beat up, but in that hip Bushwick way the future wife was a little freaked out. I told her, “In a couple of years, you’re not going to be able to recognize this place. Things are about to change real fast.” I still can’t believe how right I was.
I knew we were paying much more in rent for our freshly renovated apartment than the Puerto Rican family that had lived next door for more than 10 years in a decrepit railroad of the same size. (Within two years, they would be forced out by a rent hike; I’d learn the new going rate for their apartment was about 150% higher.) My rent was super cheap compared to what my friends were paying in Williamsburg, East Williamsburg and Greenpoint. As their rents kept escalating, I knew soon enough they were going to follow my lead – what an honor it is to be a trailblazer…
I found it impossible to ignore the tension between the perceivably lowerincome people that had lived in the neighborhood for years and the newer residents, who more resembled… Myself – from better financial backgrounds with college degrees and budding careers. It seemed many of them were happy to ignore the lingering existential dread, and instead complain about the lack of amenities and comforts typically associated with the suburbs.
(On a side note, race is casually referenced off the bat in “Migration Patterns” – “A great pale shadow casts down on the east” – because I wanted to focus on class issues. However, musically I wanted to joke on white appropriation of minority culture, which is kind of a cousin to gentrification. The beat and singsong “rap” sections are inspired by gogo music from Washington, DC, another city where I found myself in the middle of gentrification on the border of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.)
When we moved out four years later, I thought we might have been transported to the Lower East Side. When we arrived, we would occasionally be woken at 6 am by a car blasting ranchero music. When we left, we were being kept up every night by young’ens living it up on what was an increasingly busy scene.
The roots of gentrification are in income inequality, and stagnant wages as cost of living continually ramps up. It’s about too loosely regulated property markets and lack of affordable housing. But these are massive, obtuse issues, and fighting for regulatory change is akin to banging your head against a brick wall. It seems much more satisfying to sneer at another boutique coffee joint in Bushwick, or to hiss as chain stores focused on higher income sets put down roots.
No, I don’t have solutions, and would you really expect them in a pop song? I’m also not going to yell at you to stop gentrifying, but I do want to ask yourself: “Where and how does it stop?”
Don’t spill any tears for me, but I was priced out of Williamsburg, and I was about to be priced out Bushwick. The song is called “Migration Patterns” because this process keeps repeating and repeating. Is the ending refrain of “Pack it up / Move on down the line” a tasteless taunt to rooted residents getting forced out or the gentrifiers’ rallying cry for the next round?
In leaving Bushwick, my wife and I scrounged up enough scratch to put a down payment on a two bedroom apartment in Clinton Hill. It’s in an apartment complex that’s in the middle of changing from fixedincome rentals to coop. That same Bushwick tension lingers throughout the hallways – it seems I just can’t escape my gentrifying ways.