The meeting at John Jay concerning the incoming homeless shelters coming to 535 and 555 Fourth Avenue was a disheartening affair all round. There was a predominantly negative response to the shelters, but the nature of the opposition was a tangled, complicated business. It was hard to separate the business of the shelters themselves from the buildings that will house them, and a Fourth Ave. corridor that has changed almost beyond recognition.
The avenue has been the victim of relentless construction for over a decade, a result of rezoning that failed to mandate inclusionary housing. As a plethora of new, substandard, market-rate buildings rose along Fourth, displacement radiating out from Fourth accelerated. This SW area of Park Slope (bordering Gowanus and Sunset Park), was the last part of Park Slope to gentrify, and though its diversity today is much depleted, it is still more economically and racially mixed than most of the Slope. It also appears to be the most expendable to the brownstone-heavy powers-that-be of CB6. Demolition & new construction are the norm here. Its blue-collar history is lightly valued, but long-time residents remember its working class roots, its good and its difficult times in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and its affordability.
Both newer and older area residents spoke out at the meeting. It was especially hard to listen to a couple of long-time residents on the brink of tears as they described the structural damage developers had inflicted on their home.
It was equally sad to hear the numbers of people, new or old, who avowed great sympathy for the homeless in an abstract sense but recoiled at the idea of homeless families coming to live anywhere near them. Nothing new here; sadly, location compromises many a noble sentiment. Many of us are guiltier than we'd like to admit. Specifically expressed fears involved the size of the two adjacent shelters, and the prospect of increased crime, declining property values, and the impact on the zoned school, PS 124, nearby. Were other fears at play here? Supporters of the shelters, though vocal, were in the minority.
The meeting confirmed a general sense of how poorly served we are by our public officials, and how powerless we feel. We New Yorkers are pretty cynical when it comes to City Hall. With good reason. Our Council & Assembly speakers spoke well, as did the DHS & WIN officials, but the discrepancy between their oral statements & the printed handouts we received (eg as concerned numbers of security staff at the shelters/ percentage of kids attending local schools) was so marked as to be ridiculous. Not a good look for any of them. The audience response was disquieting too. Cutting deals with local developers is a sleazy business, but at the same time the expressions of concern re construction at 535 and 555, and thus their suitability as shelters, often felt less than altruistic.
Perhaps those who are against the homeless shelters will mount a successful campaign to keep them out. More likely the shelters will open anyway, and then it will be time to support the new families as neighbors, as individuals, and not as some stereotyped demographic. When the shelters open here, it will be time for welcome. It galls me that here in Park Slope problems of housing, affordability and homelessness get conveniently shoved to the edge of the neighborhood, but truthfully, we have a lot of heart down this end, & would never trade places. Let's put a couple of the new buildings on Fourth to some good use. Let's do this thing right.