Welcome to Brooklyn, Everywhere—a newsletter from Xochitl Gonzalez about gentrification of places and people. You can read what this is all about here. If you did, consider sending to a friend or two. And if you have thoughts, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a free edition of the newsletter but Atlantic subscribers get access to all posts. Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That... Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America's Inside Voice.
Growing up, a thing we used to do was give strangers in the neighborhood nicknames—often ones that they might not have known about or even, frankly, appreciated. They were almost always reductive and also not terribly creative. Stray Cat Lady fed stray cats. Boom Box rode around the neighborhood with a big boom box. Turtleneck Guy always wore a turtleneck, even in the summer. I’m sure that in the rest of their lives, they led deep, full, rich existences, but the parts that we could see—on the block, near the subway—were defined by their more extreme and publicly aired quirks. They were our neighborhood characters.
And so—a couple of weeks back, while recounting a conversation I’d had with my next-door neighbor—my childhood friend Alex stopped me mid-sentence and declared, “You’re the neighborhood Rat Lady.” It hit me like a slap in the face. He was not wrong, I realized: Over the past year, what had begun for me as a legitimate concern with New York’s burgeoning rat populace had descended into obsession. If you ever have had a passing wonder as to what I’m doing when I’m not writing this weekly missive or ceaselessly promoting my novel on social media, I will tell you: Chances are high that I’m somewhere out in Brooklyn talking to anyone who will listen about rats. About having seen them, about how we can control them, about how we can avoid them, and, frankly, even how we can murder them.
Until recently, I was like most normal New Yorkers: I thought about rats only when confronted with their unwanted appearances in my life. A sighting on a subway platform here, a scurry across a sidewalk there. About a year ago, two major events precipitated my descent into Rat Lady–dom. First, I moved into a ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn with a lovely little backyard. Second, the city’s pandemic-pumped rat population began to boldly roam the streets as New Yorkers consumed more food and drink out in the streets.
Shortly after I moved into my apartment, a construction crew began work in the lot next door to mine. I was the last person to move into my small building, and we held a Zoom for me to meet the other residents. Everyone asked me if I was settling in okay, at which point, I felt it was the perfect time to ask what I thought was a totally reasonable question—what, if any, plan did we have to deal with rats drawn by the new construction? I was shocked to be met with blank stares—and scandalized when one of my neighbors replied, “There aren’t rats in Brooklyn. That’s a Manhattan problem.”
This egregiously wrong statement actually felt like a slight to me as a Native Brooklynite (as it surely would to what I know to be my numerous rat neighbors). What in the name of marketing black magic had been done to cast Brooklyn—rat capital of New York—as a place “too good” for rats? Where did these people think they had moved to? I said as much and was then asked, directly and with not a small amount of condescension, “Well, have you seen any rats since you moved in?” The truth was, at that moment in time, no. But I knew that could not possibly hold.
I decided that it was my duty—my job, really—to correct my neighbors’ wrong perceptions of Brooklyn and its rats. So, really, it was an educational effort that started me down the path to Rat Lady. I began to mentally log each and every rat sighting, and, when I would see one of my neighbors taking out the trash or heading out to coffee, I would offer—uninvited—an update about the “state of rats” in our area. Indeed, I will admit a strange sense of smug satisfaction as the weeks went by, the weather warmed, and I realized I could barely keep track of the rat sightings. As if each disgusting rodent scurrying across a street, or against my back fence, was a middle finger to New Brooklyn.
But then there was what I can only call “the incident.” A moment so horrific, I will admit to you that I have been forever changed. I was out for a walk with my dog, Hectah Lavoe, searching for a place to dispose of my little “doggy bag,” when I spotted a line of trash cans outside of an apartment building. I went to lift a lid and toss my bag inside—just as one of my fuzzy neighbors was looking to make his escape—and…well, dear reader, we made hand-to-paw contact. After 44 years on this earth, nearly all of them spent in Brooklyn, one of my Top Five New York Fears came to pass: I had touched a rat.
I am ashamed to admit that one of my first thoughts was that I wished I lived in this other, fictitional, New Brooklyn that my neighbor believed in: the one without rats. But that isn’t where I live. Old or New, Brooklyn is part of New York, and New York has rodents. I couldn’t become one of these people who wants to live here only if we clean the city out of the experience. And yet…I had touched a rat. All at once, I hated the rats, and I hated myself for hating them. Why, I kept wondering, could I not just “accept them”? They, too, are New Yorkers.
That was the turning point—when my understanding of the city’s rat population moved from anecdotal to obsessively fact-based. It was as if, by reading every article about the state of the New York rodent population, I would somehow make peace with the matter. I have not. Instead, I have simply talked about them. All the time.
I was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times for a profile piece in the arts section, timed to the release of my novel. Amazing opportunity, right? Fantastic chance to discuss the inspiration behind my novel Olga Dies Dreaming, taking up writing after 40, dreams coming true…any number of wonderful things that have happened in my life in the past two years. Instead, I talked about…rats. Not to my neighbors. Not to my friends. Not even to my exterminator (who is very patient with all of my concerns). To the Los Angeles Times.
After the article ran, I got a text from my friend Alex: “You are DEFINITELY Rat Lady now.”