Q&A: Thomas Heise on The Gentrification Plot

For decades, crime novelists have set their stories in New York City, a place long famed for decay, danger, and intrigue. What happens when the mean streets of the city are no longer quite so mean? In this Q&A, Thomas Heise, an assistant professor of English at Penn State (Abington) and the author of The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel, discusses two major interrelated transformations that have remade New York—the crime crash in the 1990s and the development boom in the 2000s and 2010s—and what their effects have been on the genre of crime fiction.

Q: What compelled you to write The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel?

Thomas Heise: The short answer is that I’ve loved reading crime fiction since I was a kid and I’ve loved (and felt saddened by and occasionally hated) New York City as an adult. When I was growing up, I devoured crime novels and noir films. Though I certainly wouldn’t have articulated it to myself this way at the time, I found appealing the way these novels and films would intensely aestheticize the world and purport to intellectually decode it, theorize it, and eventually solve it—or if not solve it, at least bring to light its subterfuge, its murky opacity, and its deeply cynical corruptions. As much as I wanted to write about crime fiction, I also wanted to write a book about New York City. I’ve lived most of my adult life in New York and have watched the city change so profoundly since I moved here in 1999 for graduate school that I felt the need to formalize my understanding of that change through research and writing. I needed to understand the New York that greeted me at the end of the revanchist Giuliani administration and that I watched turn into the playground of the global elite under three terms of a developer-friendly billionaire mayor who still maintained the racist “broken-windows” policing of his predecessor. The Gentrification Plot is a scholarly book, but it’s a personal one for me. The immediate “academic” problem I wanted to address in the book is a puzzling question about genre, a question that somewhat simplified is: What do contemporary crime writers write about when there isn’t much crime to write about anymore, when the city is no longer associated with the luridly sensationalistic violence and urban decline that defined New York in the 1970s and 1980s for many Americans?

Q: In the book, you note that by 2009 homicides in New York City had dropped 82 percent from their peak in 1990 and that they continued to fall for another decade. Other major crimes were down 70 to 80 percent too. In the meantime, almost 40 percent of the city was rezoned; 40,000 buildings were constructed; and 25,000 were razed. So given the crime crash and development bonanza, what is the new story of New York that crime writers are telling?

TH: In The Gentrification Plot, I explore two interlocking parts to the remaking of the city under Giuliani and Bloomberg. The first part was the unprecedented decline in crime—unprecedented both in depth and duration and caused by numerous forces, not just policing—that started in the early 1990s. The second part was an explosive development boom in the early 2000s. Together they radically altered the physical environment, demographics, and the culture of the city. Of course, crime didn’t disappear in New York with the implementation of broken-windows policing in the early 1990s and the gentrification that occurred concurrently or subsequently in neighborhoods that had been pacified and made ripe for development. There is still more than enough crime in New York to fill the pages of crime fiction. Arguably, what changed in the genre is the nature of the crime. As the writer Lee Child quipped, “The crime doesn’t happen when you step out of the bank. The crime happens while you’re in the bank.”

In the book, I turn to the work of a diverse set of crime writers—Richard Price, Henry Chang, Gabriel Cohen, Reggie Nadelson, Ivy Pochoda, Grace Edwards, Ernesto Quiñonez, Wil Medearis, and Brian Platzer—and what I argue is that in their novels crime, usually a murder, launches an investigation into what turns out to be the death of a place and the death of a way of life. This is what I call the “gentrification plot,” which I see as a major reorientation in the genre around recent crises of urban real-estate development and sociocultural upheaval. These crises are indicative of longer, slow-wave erosions of deindustrialization, the waning of the welfare state, and the insidious and by now completely hegemonic market logic that calls for the privatizing of everything.

As hot-button political topics, crime and gentrification tend to lead to starkly drawn lines and overly polarized stances in which the victims and victimizers, the innocent and the guilty, are clearly defined. For the contemporary crime writers I study, the situation is more complicated and a great deal messier. Their books take up the perspective of many different stakeholders, people with skin in the game who are complicit or compromised in one way or another in crime and gentrification. These novels tell the stories of cops whose policing gentrifies the neighborhoods they live in, making them more unaffordable for them and their families; they tell the stories of real-estate developers looking to make a killing (literally and financially) in so-called transitional neighborhoods. They tell the stories of residents of color who are typecast and profiled by the police; other residents who engage in criminal activity, funneling their money back into the neighborhood as a way of owning it and keeping outsiders at bay; and others still who benefit from cleaner, safer streets in neighborhoods that are increasingly beyond their means. And they tell the stories of creative-class gentrifiers, some who are cynically seeking to profit from gentrification and others who are well meaning in their efforts to protect the neighborhood that their mere presence changes.

Q: Why write about gentrification and the city through the lens of crime and through the lens of crime fiction?

TH: To put it bluntly, gentrification requires cops. And crime fiction is the most relentlessly urban genre there is. The case can be made that the genre isn’t even really about crime so much as it is about space and place. I see crime fiction as an important site for thinking through how the often bewildering transformations of neoliberal urbanism—particularly gentrification—assume narrative form and how those narratives, in turn, construct our sense of the city. 

Q: You mentioned the diversity of the authors in The Gentrification Plot. Can you say more about it?

TH: I think about it in a couple of ways. For much of the twentieth century crime fiction was the territory of white, male authors. There are notable exceptions, of course, but by and large this is true. But the genre has become increasingly diverse in recent years. Any study of contemporary crime fiction has to begin with that fact. The genre has been enriched and enlivened by new, diverse voices. The male and female writers in The Gentrification Plot are African American, Latinx, Chinese American, and Jewish. I don’t advance any claims that they speak for their communities—and some of them explicitly resist this idea—but in reading their work it is obvious that their perspectives on crime and gentrification are informed by race, gender, and ethnicity.

I also think about diversity in terms of the genre of crime fiction. For good reasons, many readers associate crime fiction with the type of monologic, hardboiled detective novels that Hammett and Chandler made famous. Yet this is only one variant in a formally diverse genre that includes genteel, locked-room mysteries; detective novels; crime thrillers; true-crime stories; police procedurals; and literary crime novels. I wholeheartedly embrace the genre’s elasticity and fluidity. Some of the texts I write about might be labeled as police procedurals, detective novels, or thrillers, and others blur the edges between categories. Cops, detectives, and amateur sleuths in some instances play central roles, and in these texts the procedures of the formal criminal investigation drive the plot. But in other, more dialogic texts, the law’s perspective is marginalized, and what moves front and center are not “whodunit” kinds of questions but the much more interesting questions of the socioeconomic causes of crime and the social effects that crime and policing have on members of a community or residents of a criminalized neighborhood. Ultimately, I am less interested in policing the genre’s borders than I am in understanding how different kinds of texts deploy crime as a way of understanding the human costs of gentrification and the anxieties and precarities of neoliberal urbanism. To me, this is the fundamental question that contemporary crime fiction is now exploring.

Q: The neighborhood-focus of The Gentrification Plot is one of the distinctive aspects of the book. Why zero in with this level of geographical specificity?

TH: Gentrification is most viscerally felt at the local level. From the 30,000-foot view, we can understand that gentrification results from global and national transformations in labor and capital. And closer up, we can see how it is hastened and reinforced by policing, real estate development, tax policy, and zoning ordinances. But where we really experience it, where its affective dimension is located, is in the intimate space of the neighborhood.

I think of The Gentrification Plot as a work of microgeographical contextualizations. It analyzes how large-scale postindustrial changes are given form in literary narratives about particular neighborhoods, literary narratives that I read alongside urban-planning discourse, policing theory, and oral histories of gentrification. In the book, I map struggles over territory, culture, and identity in five iconic neighborhoods: the Lower East Side, Manhattan’s Chinatown, Red Hook, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. These neighborhoods have been of historical importance to working-class, ethnic, and African American life in New York and have since the 1990s been subjected to punitive broken-windows policing and have experienced extraordinary demographic turnover and physical redevelopment that has led to the displacement of long-term communities and the disappearance of cultures and histories. What kinds of behaviors are criminalized—drinking in public, playing music loudly, hanging out on the street, selling fruit and clothes on a table on the sidewalk—is a highly charged political issue that is shaped by class and race. This is something that contemporary crime fiction is keenly aware of. The cracking down on these “crimes” is a precursor to gentrification, which is also a kind of market-sanctioned violence of class struggle. Richard Price put it best when he called “real estate . . . the greatest crime fighter in the world” while also noting that “real estate is violence.”

Q. What do you see as the next chapter in crime fiction? How does it develop from here?

TH: That’s a difficult question. I think about it in terms of New York, which I can speak about best. During the pandemic it has experienced a spike in violent crime. The city isn’t back to where it was in the early 1990s, but the crime surge is the highest in a couple of decades. Personal safety is again on the minds of many New Yorkers, which is at least one major reason that Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, won the Democratic Party nomination for mayor, making him a shoo-in to win in November. There are also signs that gentrification is either slowing or reversing in some neighborhoods. It’s too early to know yet if this is a lasting phenomenon. If it is, the story of New York will change once again, and crime writers will certainly be there to write it.

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