Alyssa Cole’s New Thriller Looks At Gentrification In Brooklyn
In When No One Is Watching, a Brooklyn native suspects something more sinister than gentrification is driving Black residents out. Here's the first chapter.
History is fucking wild.
Last fall, on a night when my ass was getting well acquainted with the uncomfortable guest chair in Mommy’s hospital room, I’d numbly tapped and swiped my way to an article about a place called Black America. Not the label politicians use to place our concerns into a neat box full of worries they don’t have to attend to immediately or ever, but an actual, tangible place — a slavery theme park that’d opened in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.
Slavery. Fucking. Theme park.
Black America, the theme park, was billed as “an opportunity to become familiar with plantation life for those of the North who belong to a generation to which the word slavery has but an indefinite and hazy meaning.” This was, like, twenty years after slavery ended, mind you. I mean, I too get nostalgic when an eighties jam starts playing on the radio, but these motherfuckers really needed to reminisce about owning humans?
It was the “those of the North” part that really annoyed me. The North does not remember; in fact, the North has a super-selective fucking memory. As if slavery was something that happened down there, even though there were enslaved Africans building, planting, and harvesting in colonial Brooklyn alongside the Dutch. People bury the parts of history they don’t like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers. Nothing stays buried in this city, though.
Anyway: Black America.
White people came to Brooklyn to tour the “faithfully recreated plantation.” They sang along to Negro spirituals and took refreshment as they watched Black people, free Black people, pretend to be slaves.
After I stumbled onto that article, Brooklyn history became a refuge for me. It blotted out thoughts of my failed marriage and the persistent sense memory of restraints chafing my wrists. It was something to focus on besides my mother’s illness and the way everything was changing. Everything, no matter how much I wanted the world to stop spinning for just one goddamn minute.
I decided to pay for one of those expensive-ass “Historic Brooklyn Brownstones” tours. I’d lived in one of the beautiful old buildings for most of my life, apart from those few years in Seattle, but I needed a distraction, and maybe an outlet for my frustrations. A Groupon-discounted tour with a meeting point two blocks from my front door had been cheaper than therapy and a thousand times easier to get an appointment for.
I wanted to know what the tour guides said about us as they led crowds over the cracked blue slate sidewalks of Gifford Place. I wanted to know what the tourists were oohing and ahhing over when they clustered in front of our houses, looking through the present inhabitants in search of long-dead grandeur.
It was a day that actually felt like autumn — the weather cool enough to wear a cute blazer and the oak trees lining Gifford Place ablaze in gold and red. I was struck by how beautiful my neighborhood was, bathed in these warm hues that contrasted so well with the brick and brownstone exteriors, how beautiful it had always been despite decades of being ignored. Neglect had shielded us, in a way, and watching strangers stroll through in their comfortable sneakers, with Nikons hanging around their necks, felt like our walls had been breached and the horde was marching in.
People bury the parts of history they don’t like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers.
The tour guide, Zephyr, was pale with a brown bob and a British accent that gave her a sense of cheery authority, though
it seemed like she’d just memorized some Wikipedia facts. She didn’t know shit about my neighborhood, really, but she didn’t
need to. The tourists weren’t there to hear about Mommy’s community garden, or the time someone left a snake and some tarot
cards on Ms. Candace’s stoop when they thought she was talking shit about them. They didn’t want an anthropological deep dive into the relationship between bodega owner and lotto enthusiast, or an oral history of stoop usage.
Zephyr was just fine for them.
She pointed down the tree-lined street and asked us to imagine the Brooklyn of old. I stared at the spots where I’d skinned my knees Rollerblading and gotten tangled up in double-Dutch ropes, but Zephyr had meant old old. Cobblestone roads and horse-drawn carriages and homes owned by the elite of the elite old. It was probably easy to do for the people on the tour — the street was quiet and almost empty, as if my neighbors had sensed the approach of the interlopers and retreated into the safety of their homes.
We started to walk, the leaves crunching beneath our shoes serving as the beat under Zephyr’s singsong voice.
“And this is the former Gifford Medical Center, originally the Vriesendaal Sanitarium, completed in 1830 and shuttered in 2005,” she said as we stepped into the street to bypass the chain-link fence surrounding the building where I was born. The architecture was still striking, even with the boarded-up windows, but I’d known it as “Murd-ical Center,” the hospital where either incompetence or ghosts would fuck you up, so I wasn’t impressed.
“This building has recently been the center of controversy, as it’s one of the proposed sites for the next VerenTech Pharmaceuticals campus,” Zephyr said. “There have been protests by community activists who don’t want the company here, despite the promise of hundreds of new jobs and a revitalization of the area. Those against the campus are also upset that an opioid research center is being placed in a community that they feel was overpoliced during their own drug epidemic.”
It was a bit more complicated than that — my best friend, Drea, worked for the city and had been keeping me and Mommy informed of what would happen if VerenTech chose our neighborhood, and none of it was good. Not for us.
“These people are never satisfied,” a white man with graying hair grumbled.
I glared at him, and so did a few other people, but he didn’t seem to care. Zephyr ignored him and ushered us on.
As we stopped in front of each brownstone, she’d carefully detail the lives of the rich white people who’d lived there a hundred years ago — what food they’d eaten, what kind of clothing they’d worn, the parties they’d thrown. That was all well and good, but as the tour pressed on, my frustration — my anger at being erased from my own life in so many ways I’d lost count — pushed my hand up into the air like the teacher’s bane I’d been long, long ago, before I’d learned curiosity killed the cat. Zephyr narrowed her gaze at me for just a second, perhaps sensing my petty intentions, before saying, “Yes?”
“So the stuff about the Vanderwhosits is cool, but the woman who lives here now was the first Black female head of an engineering firm,” I said peevishly.
“Oh? Thanks for that tidbit.” She waved the tour onward and I followed, smirking because annoying people with history they didn’t want to acknowledge was kind of fun.
We stopped in front of Mr. Joe’s house, and Zephyr talked about some architect named Frederick Langston.
“The current owner is a jazz musician who traveled all over the world, playing with some of the greats,” I cut in. “He gives music lessons to children now.”
“That’s cool. Who’d he tour with?” The question came from a tall, solidly built white guy with dirty-blond hair, a heavy brow, and ridiculous cheekbones; he asked quickly, as if purposely trying to get the question in before Zephyr could talk over me. His gaze was focused, and something about the way he waited intently for a response threw me off.
His girlfriend, a short, high-ponytailed Lululemon type, nudged him with her elbow. “Theo. Stop disrupting the tour,” she chided, as if he’d just dropped his pants to his ankles instead of asking a question, then looked in my direction as if her words also applied to me.
The I wish a motherfucker would simmered in my veins at the familiar condescension in her eyes. For a moment, Ponytail Lululemon’s face morphed into that of the nurse who’d looked me dead in the eye and said my mother didn’t need more pain meds, even as Mommy writhed and wailed in the bed beside us.
“I appreciate the bonus information. It’s quite helpful,” Zephyr cut in, her tone showing she didn’t appreciate it at all, “but this tour is about historically important people.”
“This is a historically Black neighborhood, but none of the important people you’ve mentioned thus far have been. What does that mean?”
Her face flushed but she hit me with a customer-service smile.
“Look... miss. I’m just doing my job. If you have a problem with this tour, you can send suggestions to the organizers. Or maybe you should, I don’t know, start your own?” she said cheerily, then smoothly returned to her script. ●
From When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole. Copyright © 2020 by Temple Hill Publishing. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Alyssa Cole is an award-winning author of historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance. Her contemporary rom-com A Princess in Theory was one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018, and her books have received critical acclaim from Library Journal, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime or wrangling her many pets.