Recently, author DW Gibson stopped by OHMA to discuss his book, The Edge Becomes The Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, in which he documents the lives and stories of Brooklynites and others who have an opinion on the increased development in Brooklyn, New York. In this post, Fanny Garcia (2016) reflects on his presentation.
In an interview for The Paris Review, DW Gibson explains that in order to excavate and uncover the humanity in the disconnection and excision caused by gentrification, he needed to use oral history methods. According to him, whether or not a person’s position on gentrification is popular or not, oral history allows for anyone willing to enter into conversation to have a space to do so.
Gibson’s interviews and research merely facilitated the exchange. His oral history methods consisted of recorded conversations he conducted with tenants, landlords, real estate agents, developers, and community leaders in Brooklyn. After each of them agreed to an interview, he arrived with his recorder turned on and just visited with them, allowing each person to lead the conversation, only occasionally asking a question. Later, he transcribed and edited the interviews.
Gibson is an affable fellow, and most in the audience during his presentation to OHMA seemed to agree with him—oral history is inclusive and open to all willing to participate in dialogue. Alessandro Portelli (one of the founding fathers of the field) describes the exchanges, collaborations and dialogic methodologies of oral history and sources as:
Co-created by the historian. They would not exist in this form without the presence, and stimulation, the active role of the historian in the field interview. Oral sources are generated in a dialogic exchange—an interview—literally a looking at each other, an exchange of gazes. In this exchange questions and answers do not necessarily go in one direction only. The historian’s agenda must meet the agenda of the narrator; what the historian wishes to know may not necessarily coincide with what the narrator wishes to tell. As a consequence, the whole agenda of the research may be radically revised.
Portelli argues that both historian and narrator are guiding the interview together, but that the narrator sets the tone and presents the information to be discussed. The historian’s job then is to listen and receive the information and adjust according to the narrator’s agenda. However, this deference to the narrator is complex. What happens when the narrator is not exactly forthcoming with all aspects of his persona and/or experiences?
Such is the case we encountered with one mTkalla, a primary narrator in Gibson’s book. mTkalla is a real estate agent and former poet who grew up in Brooklyn and vows to stay and give back to the neighborhood. “This place is part of my story,” he says. The narrative he provides is rooted in his entrepreneurship and his devotion to the place where he grew up, and where his parents were one of the few African Americans to own property.
One of the members of the audience during Gibson’s Q&A shared her experiences with mTkalla. Apparently, besides working as a real estate agent in Brooklyn, he was also her landlord for several years and she expressed her concern with how he’s depicted in Gibson’s book because during the time that mTkalla was her landlord, she had an extremely difficult time trying to get him to make repairs to the apartment she rented from him. She mentioned going two winters without heating and that sewage flooded the basement of the building several times.
As the interviewer, Gibson allows the narrator to take the lead in the narrative he wants to present. As such, because it is the narrator at the helm and setting the tone, key aspects of his narrative may be missing. Furthermore, the book does not provide the questions Gibson asked mTkalla during his interview and the full interviews are not archived, so we don’t know if he provided a platform where mTkalla could speak of his experiences as a landlord.
Further complicating the role of historian and narrator in this interview in Gibson’s book is that it is a work of journalism using oral history methods. “I needed to make a hybrid of oral history and reportage,” says Gibson in his Paris Review interview. And while he sees oral history as the backbone of his book, a bit more journalistic investigation might have uncovered a more complex view of mTkalla’s narrative—one that could possibly shed light on internal and external forces fueling resentment about gentrification in Brooklyn and in many other cities across the United States.
Fanny García is a graduate student in the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University. She is OHMA’s 2016 Merit Scholarship Award recipient and winner of the Columbia Oral History Alumni Association’s 2016 Student Recorder Fund. Her research will examine detention center documents and asylum testimonies in comparison with oral history interviews. In her analysis of these different texts, she aims to shed light on the traumatizing impact of detention center procedures and asylum application process on Central American refugees. Check out a short clip from Fanny’s Memorias Perdidas, Mejor Pulidas project.