'Complicating the narrative' (or attempting to) in Five Points

This post is part of a v. occasional series in which I try to open up about the journalistic process. If you have questions about local news/a specific story/the great city of Buffalo (I take all comers), send it in and I’ll address it later. 

I didn’t set out to write a story about gentrification. Sort of the opposite, in fact. Not long after moving to Buffalo, someone — one of the many people I took for coffee as part of my reorientation tour — told me a neighborhood called Five Points perfectly embodied Buffalo’s “comeback.”

Months later, I pitched that story to my editor. I got more coffees, this time with residents and business-owners in the suddenly trendy West Side neighborhood. And I observed, almost immediately, a very peculiar tick: People apologized for their role as “gentrifiers” without my raising the issue.

The community bulletin board at Five Points Bakery.

The community bulletin board at Five Points Bakery.

This complicated an otherwise straightforward, feel-good story — in a way that I find vastly more interesting, but that also makes my job more difficult. I realized early on that I needed to tell a story that simultaneously (a) celebrated a neighborhood’s revitalization in a city with few stories like it, and (b) captured the precariousness and alienation that exist on the underside of that. Those two phenomena don’t exist in stark opposition to each other, as you might expect, but they do coexist; and I was repeatedly confronted by well-intentioned people, on every side of the issue, muddling through these nuanced, ambiguous, and oft-contradictory tensions in both the community and their own consciences.

How to get those stories on the page, then? I tackled it first by speaking with lots of people — 32, in the end. This is far more people than I typically interview for a newspaper story, and I knew the majority of them wouldn’t make it in. But I wanted to get a diverse range of perspectives from business owners, residents, activists, realtors and community leaders, and I didn’t want to get any details wrong. I also tried to experience the neighborhood first-hand, just walking big loops around it to start — then taking yoga classes, going to wine tastings, and hanging out around the bodega off work hours. (I have consumed more cups of Remedy House coffee than I ever, ever wanted.)

I spent a lot of time with two very different pieces of writing, too: Karla Suárez’s essay “Havana,” which she read on Radio Ambulante earlier this year, and Amanda Ripley’s “Complicating the Narrative,” which ran last year on Medium. The Suárez piece is just a gorgeous bit of writing, in Spanish or English, and it so perfectly captures the feel of its place. I could never replicate it, but on the many, many afternoons I spent in Five Points, I pushed myself to notice the sorts of sounds, smells, and characters that cause Suárez’s Havana to leap off the page.

A mural of the Five Points neighborhood at Brayton and Vermont.

A mural of the Five Points neighborhood at Brayton and Vermont.

As for the Medium essay, it is long — looooong — but revelatory. The simplest reading of Ripley's thesis, as I understand it, is that mainstream media over-utilize conflict and division as story devices -- to the detriment of both their audiences and their craft, ultimately. Ripley suggests a number of strategies for “complicating” or “destabilizing” those easy narratives. I identified with one, in particular: her exhortation to include inconvenient information — details we might otherwise cut because they don't fit the sort of tidy narrative we’re taught to write in j-school. Here’s Ripley:

"There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.

The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”

Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice."

In fairness: this particular retelling of the editorial process risks simplifying things as well, I think (!). But I nevertheless kept it in mind as I worked through the many sides of Five Points’ story. I sought to maintain inconvenient details I might otherwise have cut, like the neighbor who is angry about rising property taxes but is also delighted his home value went up. Or the community activist who fought to raise real estate prices, but now feels guilty his work may have contributed to displacement.

People like this are essential to the community and the reality on the ground in Five Points, but they risk getting flattened in simple us-versus-them narratives. Those sorts of dynamics make for good stories, but poor representations of reality as communities experience it.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of a local progressive community group called PUSH, may have said it best among the folks I interviewed: “We try to hold all these complexities in our heads,” she said, because knee-jerk labels and conflict rarely address the real issues.

Anyway — this story represents my attempt to hold onto that complexity in just one Buffalo neighborhood. I’m super lucky to work at a paper that let me do that. And to be clear, I undoubtedly could have done some things more or less or better, but the cool thing about newspaper writing is that every story is another chance!

As always, thanks for reading and supporting your local paper, and feel free to reach out with comments/questions/rants/story ideas/reading recommendations.

‘Til next time,


P.S. One last note: I’ve tossed around the word “gentrification” in this post, but it doesn’t really appear in the story itself. That was very intentional: It became clear to me as I reported this out that there’s no agreement about what the term means, to the point that it’s both polarizing and … totally meaningless. In the interests of “destabilizing” the usual narrative around gentrification, I (a) used the word “displacement” when referring to physical movement in the neighborhood, and (b) described, rather than labeled, processes of cultural/social alienation.