In her presentation “Endurance: A Novel: Gentrification and Its Effects in Washington Heights,” Emily Raboteau invited us into the process of writing her novel Endurance about life in an apartment building in the upper-Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Featuring Manny, a superintendent of Dominican descent, as its protagonist, Endurance depicts the lives of residents in a building on 180th Street. While Manny takes care of the never-ending job of building-maintenance, he simultaneously labors to raise his teenage son Angel who is diagnosed with autism. Confronted with gentrification and changing demographics of Washington Heights, the personal struggles of Endurance’s characters are bound up with social and economic forces that they seek to resist and navigate despite increasingly difficult conditions.
Describing her approach to writing as interdisciplinary, Raboteau explains her methodology to writing Endurance as a process of historical research and ethnographic observation, a methodology meant to capture the changing nature of a neighborhood. Practically, this has meant shadowing her building’s super on a regular basis to understand his job as well as volunteering with kids with autism to better depict Angel’s character. In terms of research, Raboteau studied immigration history and investigated the urban ethnography of Washington Heights.
Explaining how storytellers can bring to life the lived experience hidden behind our statistical knowledge of economic inequality, Raboteau describes a realist commitment to social justice. That is to say, realism’s job is to produce critical reflections on behalf of the reader by conveying the social conditions and conflicts of our shared reality. Thus, the critical question is: how do you capture a phenomenon like gentrification through literary representation? Raboteau’s suggestion is to make the economic forces of gentrification a dramatic driving component of the narrative, by placing Manny’s job at risk due to new management of the building. In turn, this instance of economic change similarly puts Angel’s future at risk.
At the same time, focusing on the life of and in a building—a sort of social microcosm mediating the urban structure at large—allows a novelist to activate gentrification through individual characters. Through this slice of social reality, depicting a group of people with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, large-scale conflicts of dispossession and displacement can be articulated in personal stories. This leads Raboteau to reflect on questions such as: what does it mean to be part of a community? What are our responsibilities toward our neighbors? And what is the role of public institutions in taking care of its most vulnerable citizens, here dramatized through Angel’s autism? Ultimately, asking the question, “to whom does an apartment building belong?” is to inquire about the right to the city.
In Henri Lefebvre’s classic rendering, the right to the city is a political practice in which we collectively transform ourselves by changing the city. I believe it’s fair to say that the same concern informs Raboteau’s literary writing on gentrification, the effect of which is precisely the dispossession of the collective, political claim to reshape the urban spaces we all share.
Written by Martin Aagaard Jensen