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On stage, the gentrification of Williamsburg: one actor, compelling characters, and some gaps

The prodigiously talented Danny Hoch, he of the one-man, multi-character shows “Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop” and “Some People,” turns to his home neighborhood of Williamsburg in “Taking Over,” a deftly portrayed and thoroughly absorbing--yet at times frustrating--look at gentrification.

I saw “Taking Over” the other night at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City as part of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. There will be free performances tonight and tomorrow at LaGuardia, and Saturday in Williamsburg, before the show moves to the Public Theater in November. (Warning: The profanity is not suitable for young children.)

It’s admirable that Hoch pushed for free shows in the boroughs, and it’s worth paying good money to see him, a kinetic Jewish guy from Queens who's steeped in hip-hop.

More than a mimic, he inhabits an array of characters, both gentrifiers and the gentrified, capturing the details that mark the tense transition from drug-ravaged 'hood to condo paradise, the loss of New York’s soul that got further attention since the first Jane Jacobs panel last year.

Message: Wake up

Hoch leaves us with some arresting images and the message, at least, to wake up, and to be willing to look your neighbor in the eye.

I joined in the enthusiastic applause at the end of the show but hope that, as the show develops, Hoch might flesh it out more, the same way documentary theater artist Anna Deavere Smith deepened the show Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by adding more ambiguity.

“We asked for better schools and affordable housing,” one character, a DJ, in "Taking Over" pronounces. “They gave us muffins.” And shopping is the main signifier in the show, with Hoch’s working-class characters not immune to the pleasures of consumption.

However, gentrification is generally presented as an abstract, inevitable phenomenon, not influenced by political decisions that helped transform an aging and polluted waterfront industrial zone into a real estate magnet.

(I wonder if The Civilians, the not-quite-documentary theater troupe working on a project inspired by Atlantic Yards, will capture the layers involved in the AY saga.)

An opening rant

“Taking Over” show has no set and minimal props; photos of Williamsburg—tenements and condos—are projected as a backdrop.

It opens with Robert, a half-Polish, half-Puerto Rican son of Williamsburg, a grad student with a not-so-academic mien, welcoming a diverse array to a Williamsburg Community Day. His message is yes to the homies, yes to the Hispanics, yes to the Hasids, and yes even to the white ethnics, but no, no, no to everyone else.

“I really just want all you crackers to get the fuck out of my neighborhood,” he rants, offering an expansive enough definition of "cracker" to encompass not just white folks from “America,” but also the Asian and Latino and black hipsters colonizing the 'burg. “Did it ever occur to you to ask who lives here?”

Fundamental lament

The fundamental lament expressed by Hoch’s long-time Williamsburgers is not unfamiliar and not illegitimate, that enduring hard times—and in Williamsburg, the drug trade was fearsome—confers a claim on neighborhood benefits as it becomes safer and spiffier.

Some benefits (hardly mentioned in the show) may accrue to property owners and also those in rent-regulated buildings; the rest, as characters in the show suggest, are vulnerable to expulsion as landlords follow the market and raise rents. (See the discussion of the issues raised in Lance Freeman’s book There Goes the Hood) “We’re not allowed to be here anymore,” Robert proclaims.

Comic moments

Though “Taking Over” is not fundamentally a comedy, it is funny--it played the “Just for Laughs” festival in Montreal.

Hoch’s first foil is a pretentious French real estate agent, who explains to would-be condo buyers the benefits of the new building, the 24-hour concierge and the water-taxi stop that was so very hard to get approved.

An adjacent building with low- to middle-income housing is “completely separate,” he assures his customers, a barrier to the street, no access to the waterfront, “They are happy for the changes,” he says dismissively of the locals, noting they can get building maintenance jobs.

When the buyers step out, we hear the agent on the phone to a compatriot, in French (translation via supertitles), telling his friend that Williamsburg is over, the new frontier is elsewhere: Bushwick, Prospect Heights, even Queens. (Ah, Prospect Heights, the would-be home of Atlantic Yards.)

“Resident tourists”

Despite his perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, Hoch ably uses body language and intonation to portray female characters, such as a stoop-sitting, 60something black woman. “I call them ‘resident tourists,’” she declares of the newcomers, while she also acknowledges piles of empty crack vials that filled her stoop in 1991.

(It’s an echo of the “you just visiting” line from Umar Jordan, the first neighborhood speaker to bring up street cred at the August 2006 Atlantic Yards hearing.)

A community protest led by some gentrifiers left her uneasy: “I wanted to protest the people that was protesting.”

Then again, she’s got her own contradictions. She loves the almond croissants at the trendy new café nearby, but doesn’t think they’re worth $4. So she swipes them, and the newcomers who look past her as though she's invisible let it happen.

Looking for work

One of the Hoch’s most compelling characters is Kiko, an ex-con just back from upstate, a victim (in part) of the Rockefeller drug laws, alternately imploring and threatening as he enters unfamiliar territory, seeking work from a crew shooting an indie film on his street.

His mom, says Kiko, is still scared to go outside, “from the 80s."

Still, there are a variety of jobs in Williamsburg, and the show would have been richer had a character acknowledged the neighborhood’s industrial decline. Why not add a non-union construction worker, Mexican or Polish, building the shiny new condos?

A self-absorbed developer

A hint of politics enters Hoch’s portrayal of Stuart, an overscheduled developer with 3000 apartments who slots a newspaper interview in the midst of his yoga/stretching session with a $350/hour trainer. “This is a resurgent neighborhood,” he tells his interviewer, explaining how he offers free rent to the right commercial tenants: “I need places to make outsiders feel welcome.”

He scoffs at “Artists Against Gentrification,” noting that artists are typically the vanguard for development. “Do you know how ridiculous they sound [as protesters]?”

A hint of politics emerges when the developer instructs his secretary to delay sending a proposal to the community board, and he puts off a call about a rezoning. Actually, the major rezoning already happened and its effects are quite mixed.

(Update: I should add that the rezoning ignored the community-based plan produced in collaboration with the community board and that one of the reasons Williamsburg was primed for private investment was the enormous public investment to rehab deteriorated housing.)

Still, Stuart airs an observation being made more often these days (by New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, for instance), that cities like New York are gentrifying so much that the ghetto will move to the suburbs, and New York will resemble cities in Europe.

Unmentioned is that the Bloomberg administration has fostered that—why else would so many developers back Bloomberg’s questionable bid for a third term?

Gained in translation

Probably Hoch’s most impressive achievement as an actor is his portrayal of a Dominican car service dispatcher, who, in rapid-fire Spanish (again translated via supertitles), teases and taunts the drivers, fellow Latinos from Puerto Rico and Mexico and elsewhere, before switching to solicitous English to accommodate drunk hipsters looking for a ride home.

This tour de force quickly captures both the complexities within the Latino community and their reaction to gentrification.

Still, the segment ultimately becomes repetitive. Perhaps a revised version of the show will cut the scene short to allow for another character.

“So much has changed”

Hoch treats another gentrifier satirically, as he dons a poncho and silly hat to become hippie-ish designer Caitlin, who sells ironic t-shirts on the sidewalk (and has a Dominican boyfriend).

In her sing-song voice (“Cool… rock on”), she gets to utter the “après nous, le deluge” statement made by so many new(er) New Yorkers: “I’ve been here almost three years but so much has changed. I liked it when it was grittier.”

“I helped start a petition to stop the developers,” she tells her interlocutor, but it’s played for laughs. Actually, local activists, some of them hipsters, have contributed to ongoing organizations like Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (formerly Neighbors Against Garbage).

A conflicted DJ

While DJ Launch Missiles Critical (“If you’re not reading Noam Chomsky, you’re not hip-hop”) appears to be a revolutionary, he faces the contradictions of performing at the hipster spot Galapagos (which, incidentally, has since been priced out of Williamsburg and relocated to DUMBO, lured by… a developer).

As part of his gig, the DJ is required to announce the week’s lineup, so he gingerly recites events like “alternative burlesque” and a “Post-it Note literature series.” This drew big laughs. “Come on out for this shit,” the camouflage-clad DJ proclaims.

He and his peeps are moving to Montreal, where the life is better and cheaper, albeit in lower temperatures. He offers the line about schools and housing vs. muffins.

(Actually, better schools probably will come, given the dynamic in New York in which better-heeled parents exercise more clout and also contribute supplementary funds.)

As a recent study showed, inclusionary zoning—which provides increased development rights in exchange for including affordable housing—has worked well on waterfront parcels, but less so elsewhere. In an expanded show, Hoch might portray a supporter of the rezoning confronting the limits of the effort.

“The corollary to the neighbors’ disfranchisement is the absence of accountable authority,” wrote Zelda Bronstein in a thoughtful review of "Taking Over" earlier this year in the Berkeley Daily Planet, noting the failure to portray Brooklyn’s politics or industrial character.

Most reviews have been thoroughly positive, but one in the San Francisco Weekly called it simplistic, stating, "The play completely ignores any of the positive outcomes associated with the renaissance of formerly blighted neighborhoods, such as increased jobs, more green spaces, and safer sidewalks."

The thing is, Williamsburg is much safer, but the jobs for long-time residents are few and the green space, though increased, remains relatively scant.

[Update: here's some more recent criticism.]

Hoch on Hoch

The show goes off-track slightly when Hoch steps out of character to be himself and to respond to a sincere note from an artist protesting against the critical portrayals of his ilk, noting that he also teaches kids in the neighborhood. And Hoch complains —about how women use him to find themselves and how he has to rent out his apartment when he’s on the road—both of which seem a bit tangential.

Still, Hoch makes a memorable point in that he has to leave the city to make a living, to show New York to people in the heartland and abroad.

He gets laughs referring to “cage-free rice cakes” at the Whole Foods—there’s a Whole Foods in the Lower East Side, not Williamsburg, but give him artistic license.

The mixed blessing

At the store, he recounts, his memories crystallize, and he freezes, remembering a stabbing in the very same place--even as an entitled yuppie pushes past.

In that scene, he nudges toward romanticizing that grittier New York, where municipal services were slack and the streets were dangerous, but rents were low and few had to move.

It’s a delicate balancing act solved, in the ideal world, by judicious policy, including the addition of density as a trade-off for affordability or perhaps the investment in transit that would foster development. (Atlantic Yards purports to offer that trade-off, but it was privately negotiated, not subject to real oversight.)

It hearkens back to the very mixed blessing of prosperity evoked in the book New York Calling and the song "Back in the Old Days."

Cycling back

In its closing scene, "Taking Over" cycles back to the Community Day event; host Robert offers a monologue on how the local grocery now stocks soy milk but never did when he and his girlfriend requested it—a gripe that symbolizes but doesn’t quite capture the conundrum in “Taking Over.” (Is access to soy milk, then and now, the biggest issue?)

Still, the show ends with a lingering, ominous, powerful ambiguity, as Robert utters, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood—right?” It’s an echo not only of Mister Rogers but also Tom Waits’s melancholy song, “In the Neighborhood,” which closes the film “A Stadium Story.”

What next?

The show might expand. “It became clear as I was making the show, which is all true, that there’s so much I may have to do Part 2 and Part 3,” Hoch told an interviewer earlier this year.

Along with that non-union construction worker, why not add a Hasidic landlord? Or a representative of a community housing group? A gallery owner or shopkeeper? Someone who produces the slick advertising for new condos? The artists who put together the fake Riviera Real Estate?

How about a former worker at the Domino Sugar plant that's currently slated for a massive housing development known as The New Domino, which itself has generated polarization in the neighborhood?

Hoch is so good, we’ll follow him anywhere. Let’s hope he keeps digging deeper.