Why a writer doesn't want a quiet Brooklyn
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For writer Xochitl Gonzalez, growing up in Brooklyn was anything but quiet. In a recent essay in The Atlantic, she explains what that means, writing, quote, "New York in the summer is a noisy place, especially if you don't have money. The rich run off to the Hamptons or Maine. The bourgeoisie are safely shielded by the hum of their central air. But for the broke, summer means an open window through which the clatter of the city becomes the soundtrack to life - motorcycles revving, buses braking and music - ceaseless music."
But she says that her native Brooklyn is being silenced and not by choice. Gentrification is to blame. In her essay titled "Why Do Rich People Love Quiet?" she argues that the neighborhoods like the one she grew up in are being taken over by demands for quiet, and it has a lot to do with class and a sense of entitlement. When we spoke, she told me she noticed this when she left home to head to Brown University.
XOCHITL GONZALEZ: You're suddenly cohabitating with a bunch of people who had grown up in this culture of, like, you need concentration to be quiet. You know, music is a distraction. This is a distraction. That's a distraction. So the idea of protecting and preserving quiet on the campus because we're all meant to be there thinking just didn't seem to vibe with what I knew. And also, a lot of the time when people would sort of ask for quiet, it was just, you know, two or three friends over, you know, to your room because you're sharing space with new people. And your room is your living space. And suddenly laughing became sort of a distracting noise or, you know, like, how do I talk more quietly?
And so I think it started to feel like - living felt like a joyous thing, and at least a loud thing. But that wasn't quite welcome because it seemed to get in the way of what we were told we were meant to be doing there, which, you know, was sort of the silence of academic departments and sort of the hushed quiet of waiting for your professor and leafing through things in the stacks of the library. And I understood that that was for those spaces. But it was when it spilled into living space that it sort of started to feel like one aesthetic and preference was dominating another.
MARTIN: So was it the demand itself or the sense of entitlement? Like, it wasn't like, hey, guys, I'm a kindergarten teacher. I have to be at work at 7:30. Could you - is it any way you could tone it down?
GONZALEZ: Yes, that's right.
MARTIN: Or is it the sense of entitlement - like, this is the way it's supposed to be because I said so? Not because I want it to be. It's just supposed to be. So what is - you think?
GONZALEZ: It's the sense of entitlement. It's the sense of entitlement, and it's the sense that - the assumption that because there's a temporary discomfort for that person, that multiple people's, like, life at that moment should change for them. This idea of either being unwilling completely to moderate yourself or being unwilling to speak to people as human beings and equals, right? And the saying - oh, I'm a kindergarten teacher. It just really - it's a rough night for me. You know, like, to just come as a human being and give some room for conversation.
It's the edict-ness of it. And often, since that incident, it's the anonymity of it, right? And I think I wrote a lot about using 311 as a means - 301 and calling authorities as a means of imposing silence. And I - it's the idea that, like, you don't know your neighbors, which I think is another part of it. And there's just sort of people that are disrupting the way you want life to be.
MARTIN: What I - OK, here's where I push back a little bit.
MARTIN: You know, there is a concept in Jewish law called gezel sheina, which literally translate to theft of sleep. The Geneva Convention identifies ongoing sleep deprivation as a violation of human rights. I mean, it literally is used to torture people. So what do you say to people who argue that, you know, in dense environments, it is reasonable to take steps not to disturb others, particularly when they could be sleeping or should be sleeping? And that, in fact, if people live in certain environments where they have not been able to regulate their quiet or their sleep environment, it's indicative of their lack of power, not necessarily of an affirmative statement about their culture. What do you say to that?
GONZALEZ: No, I totally hear that. And I think there's a difference between theft of sleep, let's say, as a regular offense - right? - like, you have a neighbor who's absolutely obnoxious, and it's every night until 1 or 2, whatever it is - versus what normally, I think, happens, which is, like, a gathering or, like, there's - I have neighbors that have a party once or twice a summer down in their backyard, and it goes a bit late on a weekend. And it absolutely is theft of sleep because, like, it's so - like, it's like I'm at the party when I'm in my bedroom. But I'm like, it's not every night. It's not every week, you know what I mean? Like, and the music's OK. Like, I watch movies late - till late that night.
Like, I think it's the idea of not - no sense of working around people. Like, it's that there's one way of operating, and that it should be that way all the time and that living in a city, there isn't going to be some congestion or stepping on toes and that - how can we accommodate?
MARTIN: I imagine that you've gotten some reaction - wondering what kind of reaction you've gotten to the piece, and what do you make of it?
GONZALEZ: Well, it's been really fascinating because I got a lot of reaction from people of color and some people that grew up lower-income - like white people that grew up lower-income - that were like, thank you so much. I'd never been able to articulate this feeling of, you know, being shamed for just sort of being myself. And then I got a lot of people that kept repeating the point which I was countering, which is that quiet is superior and I'm not smart enough to understand that. And what I thought was fascinating about that and all of the people that came back to me with that sort of response was that no one acknowledged the sense of shame that is passed on to people - mainly people of color - as they are being told to quiet down. Like, what it feels like to be told - like, a group of grown adults, like, you know, completely capable of paying for their bill, that they need to quiet down or leave because there's another table of patrons with two people that's upset that these eight people are having a good time.
And I think I wasn't ever saying that quiet can't have its benefits. There was a whole string of people that went down the internet and said, she wrote an essay once where she talked about getting out of the city to write. And I was thinking, well, yeah, because if I want quiet, I'm not expecting to find it here (laughter). Like, that's my point. Like, I'm not expecting Brooklyn to capitulate to my set of needs to finish a book, you know? Like - it's like, I'll go somewhere else. So I think my sense is I feel like I know what my hometown is, I know what it tends to be. And it's a boisterous place. And I would never want to change it. And when I need something else, I go somewhere else. And when I don't need that anymore, I come home.
MARTIN: That is writer Xochitl Gonzalez. Her piece "Why Do Rich People Love Quiet?" is in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine. Xochitl Gonzalez, thank you so much for your time, and let's get loud.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Thank you, Michel. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.