Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Conversation With Gowanus-Based Writer Jenna Leigh Evans

Writer Jenna Leigh Evans

I first met writer Jenna Leigh Evans over a glass of rosé at Black Mountain Wine Bar on Union Street. She had contacted me a few days before to introduce herself and her work, and after exchanging just a few emails, I knew that I wanted to meet her in person. So, early one evening not so long ago, we sat together and talked about her writing, Gowanus, gentrification, and the future of the neighborhood.

Evans was born in Manhattan, but her parents, both actors, moved the family to Hollywood, California, where she spent all of her childhood.  She spent her twenties in San Fransisco, where she worked in Hayes Valley, a mostly African-American neighborhood which then was home to many artists and a large trans-gender community. Evans witnessed the beginning of the area's gentrification after the Hayes Valley Public Housing development was torn down in the 1990s. Though half of the subsidized  apartments would later be re-built in a new complex, the demolition forced many, including artists, out of the neighborhood as real estate prices and rents shot up overnight.

Priced out of San Francisco herself, Evans moved East to New England and eventually to Brooklyn.  She has been living in Gowanus,"this weird hinterland close to Boerum Hill", since 2011. Her current apartment is just steps away from the Gowanus Canal and its pumping station and just half a block from the Gowanus NYCHA buildings.

New York, its people and its cadence inspires her "more than anything else," Evans told me.
Her many short stories and essays have appeared on The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, Autostraddle, The Billfold, and The American, among others. Her debut novel "Prosperity" was the winner of the 2016 North Street Book Prize.

Much of her work focuses on the "economically marginalized populations, especially in proximity to the gentry." In 'Prosperity', Percy Rue, a homeless drifter,  finds herself in the Prosper facility, a debtor's prison housed in a former shopping mall.  Forced to work off their outstanding balance at minimum-wage jobs, Percy and her fellow debtors get themselves into deeper trouble as they are tempted to purchase personal items at over-priced company-run stores.

The novel is a biting social commentary about the ever-growing divide between rich and poor,  the loss of certain rights and privileges of the individual in a world ruled by large corporations.
Many would classify 'Prosperity' as science fiction, but when I spoke to Evans about the scenario depicted in her book, she told me: "I don't see anything speculative about my novel. The exact details have not occurred in this specific way yet, but we already detain people without specific charges."

Evans' short story "The Last Stand of Ms. Betty J. Washington", which appeared in The American, is set on Butler Street, across from the Gowanus Houses and was inspired by a neighbor in Evans' apartment building. Here too, the theme is keeping one's sense of self and dignity while homeless.

Evans sees many similarities between the gentrification of  her former neighborhood of Hayes Valley back in the late 90s and in the rapid changes happening in Gowanus.  For those barely making an adequate living, these changes will of course mean displacement from the area.
"There is a big sense of déjà vu", she tells me. "I know the scenario of sudden homelessness."

Yet, Evans does not lose sight of 'the humor of life'.  She is working on a new story about "that new 700-unit apartment building on Bond Street," she told me. "It imagines our neighborhood in the aftermath of the super-storm to end all super-storms!"
On a recent walk together across the Carroll Street Bridge, Evans and I imagined how the new residents will cope with living in Gowanus, right next to a polluted canal that emits the foulest smells.
"They don't get it," she says shaking her head. Looking down over the bridge's railing into the fetid water, she adds: "How are they going to handle this?"

To learn more about Jenna Leigh Evans and her writing, please visit her web site here.


Anonymous said...

That view from little Carroll street bridge in that photo makes me very very sad. And to answer the writers question on how will the new people cope? They won't. They won't even care. Whole foods is the other direction.

Anonymous said...

I lve how you are accessible to creative people in our community, Katia. Interesting to read about Jenna and her work. And I agree with anon 3:35, the people moving into Lightstone will likely just be happy to be in hep Gowanus.