This is an older piece (August 1, 2022) from The Atlantic’s One Story to Read Today newsletter. In this incisive article, Xochitl Gonzalez, a Brooklynite who often explores the varied cultural understandings of a New Yorker steeped in the experiences of her Puerto Rican and Mexican-American family, explores silence, “the sound of gentrification.” Here are excerpts:
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, their petite cousins by the roar of their window units. But for the broke—the have-littles and have-nots—summer means an open window, through which the clatter of the city becomes the soundtrack to life: motorcycles revving, buses braking, couples squabbling, children summoning one another out to play, and music. Ceaseless music.
I remember, the summer before I left for college, lying close to my bedroom box fan, taking it all in. Thanks to a partial scholarship (and a ton of loans), I was on my way to an Ivy League college. I was counting down the days, eager to ditch the concrete sidewalks and my family’s cramped railroad apartment and to start living life on my own terms, against a backdrop of lush, manicured lawns and stately architecture.
I didn’t yet know that you don’t live on an Ivy League campus. You reside on one. Living is loud and messy, but residing? Residing is quiet business.
I first arrived on campus for the minority-student orientation. The welcome event had the feel of a block party, Blahzay Blahzay blasting on a boom box. (It was the ’90s.) We spent those first few nights convening in one another’s rooms, gossiping and dancing until late. We were learning to find some comfort in this new place, and with one another.
Then the other students arrived—the white students. The first day of classes was marked by such gloriously WASPy pomp that it made my young, aspirational heart leap. Professors in academic regalia gave speeches about centuries-old traditions and how wonderful and unique we were—“the best class yet.” Kids sang a cappella and paraded with a marching band. I’d spent my high-school years sneaking out at night to drink 40s on the beach and scheming my way into clubs. I understood that what was happening around me wasn’t exactly cool, but it was special. And I was a part of it.
I just hadn’t counted on everything that followed being so quiet. The hush crept up on me at first. I would be hanging out with my friends from orientation when one of our new roommates would start ostentatiously readying themselves for bed at a surprisingly early hour. Hints would be taken, eyes would be rolled, and we’d call it a night. One day, when I accidentally sat down to study in the library’s Absolutely Quiet Room, fellow students Shhh-ed me into shame for putting on my Discman. With rare exceptions—like Saturday nights during rush—silence blanketed the campus.
I soon realized that silence was more than the absence of noise; it was an aesthetic to be revered. Yet it was an aesthetic at odds with who I was. Who a lot of us were.
Within a few weeks, the comfort that I and many of my fellow minority students had felt during those early cacophonous days had been eroded, one chastisement at a time. The passive-aggressive signals to wind our gatherings down were replaced by point-blank requests to make less noise, have less fun, do our living somewhere else, even though these rooms belonged to us, too. A boisterous conversation would lead to a classmate knocking on the door with a “Please quiet down.” A laugh that went a bit too loud or long in a computer cluster would be met with an admonishment.
In those moments, I felt hot with shame and anger, yet unable to articulate why. It took me years to understand that, in demanding my friends and I quiet down, these students were implying that their comfort superseded our joy. And in acquiescing, I accepted that. [. . .]
When I moved back to Brooklyn after college, I found that the place had changed. Neighborhoods that had been Polish and Puerto Rican and Black were suddenly peppered with people who looked better-suited to my college campus than to my working-class home turf. Many of them needed the affordable rents because they had opted into glamorous but poorly paying white-collar jobs. Alas, these newcomers hadn’t moved here to live alongside us; they’d come to reside.
The first time it happened was the night before Thanksgiving. Three or four of us—all people of color—were eating takeout in my best friend’s studio apartment. The radio was playing, and we were debating, as we often did, who was the best rapper alive. There was a knock at the door and when we opened it, my friend’s neighbor, a 20-something woman new to Brooklyn, was standing there, exasperated. “Did your mothers not teach you the difference between inside voice and outside voice?” [. . .]
[. . .] The upper east side of Manhattan, which runs from 59th Street to 96th Street, is one of the borough’s quietest neighborhoods. Save for trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I didn’t spend a lot of time there growing up. In fact, my first real foray uptown came that summer before college. The woman who’d endowed my scholarship wanted to meet me. I stepped out of the elevator of her Fifth Avenue apartment building in my Sunday best, and was promptly greeted by a maid—another Latina. I waited, very quietly, for my benefactor—a pleasant older woman in a Chanel suit—to join me for tea. For an hour I pretended to be a meek, muted version of myself. No one had told me to do this. I instinctively understood that, in this unfamiliar environment, the proper way to express my gratitude was to hush myself. [. . .]
In June, after a two-year COVID hiatus, the 65th Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade marched up Fifth Avenue. I had the honor of being an ambassador for arts and culture, which meant I got to ride in the back of a red convertible. The event is a big party, or more accurately, a thousand different parties all celebrating the same thing: being Puerto Rican in the greatest city in the world. Every float, every car, every delegation was playing reggaeton, salsa, merengue, boleros, and Bad Bunny. Everywhere you went you heard Bad Bunny. People were dancing bomba and plena and bachata. There were chants of “Puerto Rico!” and “¡No se vende!” I waved at all the beautiful people, and when we passed the apartment building where my former benefactor lived all those years ago, I shouted out an extra-loud “¡Wepa!”
For 35 blocks, we were as loud as we wanted to be, and nobody could tell us nothing. And then we got to the end of the route. The crowd thinned out and the blockades ended, and we were met with a giant traffic sign illuminated with the words quiet please.
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Read full article at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/09/let-brooklyn-be-loud/670600/