I had gotten mugged in front of my rental apartment—on Christmas Eve, no less—and had posted the time and location of my mugging to the Park Slope Parents list, a generally helpful, crunchy, and supportive message board for people raising kids in that section of Brooklyn and beyond. Within an hour, my email inbox was filling with messages from concerned neighbors. Scratch that: angry neighbors.
They wanted to know exactly why I had posted the exact location where the mugging had taken place. Didn’t I realize what this could do to their property values? No, these folks had no immediate plans to sell their homes—yet they were still more considered with the short-term asset value of their real estate than they were the long-term experiential value of their neighborhood!
I had already begun my latest book, an alternative history of the development of corporations, in which I hoped to warn people about the precarious position of our economy and the society we had built according to its very tilted ideas about debt. But this episode changed my focus entirely: I became less concerned with the way corporations acted on us than the way we had come to act like corporations, ourselves.
The reaction of a handful of Park Slope residents to a crime in their neighborhood had less to do with eradicating crime than the episode’s ability to detract from the district’s precious brand. My effort to analyze the impact of gentrification and displacement on the relationship between rich and poor was swiftly reframed as the racist outrage of a weak-kneed liberal. Or, as New York magazine put it in their headline, “Are the writers leaving Brooklyn?”
Of course, none of this happened because Park Slope’s residents or the many who jumped on the bandwagon of outrage were bad people. This was the height of a speculative frenzy, remember, when overleveraged homeowners were depending on ever-increasing prices to refinance mortgages that they would otherwise be unable to pay. Like corporations, they were responding not to their real needs or their neighborhood’s but their debt structures. In such a situation, it was the only way for humans to respond. But it wasn’t the most human response.