Chelsea Elliott: Occupying Greenpoint
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Chelsea Elliott wishes that her move to the front lines of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests had been under better circumstances. On Saturday, September 24th, she was herded into an orange mesh barricade and subsequently assaulted with pepper spray by an NYPD officer whose name and rank has been published elsewhere. The videos depicting this event have become a touchstone for the protest and a source of anger for those watching the events unfold. It’s hard to guess what the thoughts of the officer behind that canister may have been, and Chelsea hinted that he may have been acting more as an individual rather than as part of a coherent strategic enforcement method. Whatever the motive, the effects of his actions are going beyond what he would have expected.
The simple facts of this incident aren’t what drove me to contact Chelsea. I knew other writers would be calling for her version of the events and indeed there was a pad and paper ready to take her story the moment she opened her eyes. It was a comment on the Greenpointer’s Facebook wall, when we mentioned our neighbors were among the women assaulted in this incident, which perked my interest. A reader wrote that these girls, she guessed were “Not lifelong Greenpointers…” Was this true? Did it matter? I decided to find out how Chelsea fits into our neighborhood, and how our neighborhood fits into events that make these questions important now.
As we chatted at Black Rabbit I learned that Chelsea is not a lifelong Greenpointer. As her story unfolded I found we cannot call her a lifelong resident of any place as she’s moved at least once every five years throughout her life. This has taken her from her birthplace in Arkansas to Georgia, Montana, and Florida before landing in New York. Like many of us, she moved here for work. Her ascent through New York is a familiar story, from the first bedbug-infested Harlem apartment to couch surfing the Upper West Side to being chased out of LES by rats before finally arriving in Greenpoint. First on Kent St and now by McGolrick, Chelsea says, “I felt for the first time since I’ve lived in New York that this is my neighborhood. I didn’t even feel that in most of the places I grew up in. I just loved it.”
This is a common feeling among those who try different places in New York before settling here. We know that the simple comfort of being here is one of the reasons why Greenpoint works so well as home. This is a function not only of the place itself but of the people here, old and new, who continue to build and develop it.
“It’s really important for me… to be around older people and to be around family. I’m far away from my family and it’s so important to interact with people who are different and have a different perspective.” In short, the feeling of home, of belonging, is contagious, and helps to define livable space.
She detailed her relationships with the septo- and octogenarians with whom she shares her building. Living downstairs is Frank, whom she met originally when he complained about her dog, but soon their relationship progressed to sharing his “amazing movie collection” and having lunch dates.
Her neighborhood integration isn’t limited to her building. Chelsea grew up in a religious family, and “is still figuring out where that falls in [her] life.” She found a source of community in the Church of the Ascension. “Father John… [is a] very bright man. I’ve never been particularly religious, but his sermons were… what’s the right word… you would go into the history, he’d break down the words, the syntax, the translations, and his sermons weren’t fluffy. It was very educational.” Finding community, a place to explore spirituality, and intellectual stimulation prompted her to return the favor, and she found herself cooking community dinners among a diverse group of neighbors at the church.
We spoke about the sentiments some raise concerning newcomers to the neighborhood and Chelsea raises a legitimate question: “who are you to claim it?” Chelsea herself admits that she may not stay for life – “who wants to stay someplace forever?” she asks, but she presents a great example of someone who has come to a new place, engaged with and added to it.
Concerning the protests on Wall Street, she mentioned the distinct blue-collar qualities that have historically defined Greenpoint and how the feelings at this rally are a modern expression of the loss of those ways of life, which are associated with manufacturing, building, and designing real things. This anger and confusion towards the global finance system parallels the same local sentiment towards the incoming class of people. However, the primary complaints about gentrification – the loss of neighborhood character, a generational gap, being priced – can be seen in places without a large incoming population.
Before living in Greenpoint, I spent a year or two in Housatonic, Massachusetts. There, older neighbors lament years of change, but it can’t be simply chalked up to newcomers since there largely weren’t any. Instead, it was the same problems against which the protestors on Wall street chant and raise signs: global economic conditions shifted, causing the well-paid blue collar jobs to disappear as the paper mills closed. What remains is a vacuum of cheap rent and the inevitable vacancies created by an aging population, into which newcomers can either move (gentrification) or not (stagnation.) In this way, newcomers are a symptom and not a cause, and the cure has more to do with rebuilding the local economic base through encouraging local production than raising walls against newcomers like Chelsea. It’s important to note that this protest is, for many, as much about listening and learning about the forces against which many of us feel opposed as it is about being heard.
Chelsea’s energy and spirit are not diminished by the week’s events despite a slew of interviews with everyone from the New York Times to yours truly. She’s glad to lend her voice and, to a lesser extent, her mucous membranes to this cause just as she has been glad to lend her time, care, and attention to Greenpoint. While she’s “not a lifelong Greenpointer,” I’m not the only one who’s glad she’s here.