PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Danny Hoch

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Danny Hoch With his new show, Taking Over, performance artist Danny Hoch is back where his career first took off, The Public Theater, and talking about the subject he knows best: New York and New Yorkers.
Danny Hoch
Danny Hoch Photo by Shirley Miranda-Rodriguez

Hoch first won attention in 1994 with his solo show Some People, in which he impersonated a wide variety of Gothamites. New York has changed a lot in the ensuing 14 years, and Hoch illustrates that in Taking Over, where the theme is urban gentrification and the place his native Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where development has occurred at a faster pace than anywhere else in the city. In the piece, he takes on the voice and opinions of developers, realtors, residents, interlopers and hipsters. Hoch, who spends eight months of every year touring, talked to Playbill.com about the city four generations of his family have called home.

Playbill.com: How long have you lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn?
Danny Hoch: 18 years.

Playbill.com: That's a good long time. So you've really seen it change. And your new show is about how it's changed?
DH: Well, it's about gentrification in New York City. And really about gentrification anywhere. Williamsburg has become the blueprint for how gentrification is going to take place in the rest of the country.

Playbill.com: Do you think this is primarily a corrosive trend?
DH: Corrosive, I think, is the wrong word. There's a huge backlash against people who complain about gentrification, because there's a whole lot of support of gentrification, in that the spaces are cleaner and greener and there's more police presence, more options to eat and better shopping. But none of those things would have existed if it were not for the Americans who came and displaced people with their collective economic power. So gentrification is good if the people who were originally living in the neighborhood don't have to leave.

Playbill.com: But gentrification always forces those people out.
DH: Yeah, that's how it happens. I wouldn't call that corrosive. I'd call it criminal. Playbill.com: Criminal! A worse word!
DH: Yeah. I mean, look: when you have stayed in this city through the various blights that this city has had — most recently, going back to the '70s, the heroine epidemic, the crack epidemic, the gun epidemic, the AIDS epidemic — and you've chosen to stay, and invest in your community — asking for 30 years for better schools, asking for 20 years for a hospital, asking for 10 years for a traffic light at an intersection where three young people from the community have been killed — and you don't get anything. Then new people come into the neighborhood and, within two weeks of asking for a bike lane, they get a bike lane. It's criminal.

Playbill.com: Right. They've got the muscle. They've got the influence.
DH: It's not even the muscle. It's the cachet. Because the people who are asking for the bike lane are not rich. And this is where gentrification gets complicated. There's a whole bunch of people moving to Brooklyn from Manhattan who feel like they're victims, that they got gentrified out of Manhattan. But we all participate in this process somehow.

Playbill.com: The people in your show, are they people that you know?
DH: I'm not really an Anna Deavere Smith man. I don't interview people. It's not like my characters are based on one person. I make composites. So each character is based on me, actually, in addition to five to ten people.

Playbill.com: Can you tell me about the viewpoints of these people? Are we getting a wide range, from pro- to anti-gentrification?
DH: Yeah, there're pro-gentrification people.

Danny Hoch
photo by Shirley Miranda-Rodriguez

Playbill.com: I guess the French realtor selling luxury condos would be pro.
DH: (Laughs) Yeah. The real estate developer is pro. There're really just one or two dissenting voices against gentrification. And then everybody else is kind of living with it. I think what's happened is that everybody seems to love the show, but there's a discomfort in the audience among a fair amount of new people to the city who feel that the show singles them out. They feel a culpability that they're not happy about feeling. Playbill.com: And maybe get a little resentful.
DH: Yeah, yeah. I've definitely experienced that. I get letters. People have e-mailed me. They've come up to me after the show. I think it's good. It gets people to think about these things.

Playbill.com: You've performed this show around the city before you came to the Public Theater. What kind of reactions did you get?
DH: The borough reactions were out of control. People lost their mind watching this show. It's really volatile and provocative. The references are so local, also.

Playbill.com: A lot of this gentrification has occurred under Mayor Bloomberg. What do you think of him?
DH: Well, he's a really savvy businessman, but his policies — which are an extension of Giuliani, which in effect are kind of an extension of Koch — these are Republican ideas, that if you make a safe environment for others to bring money in, then you will move the economy. Giuliani initiated that and Bloomberg has expanded on it, with rezoning. The majority of mom and pop businesses that were the New York cultural establishment have been erased from New York City, and they've been replaced by chain stores. Then there were the laws that were changed to allow large-scale development and wipe out entire neighborhoods, and create new ones. And the housing there was created for Americans and Europeans who were coming in with money — not for New Yorkers.

Playbill.com: You're a theatre artist. How have you managed to hold on and remain in New York?
DH: I talk about it in my show, actually. I'm a fourth-generation New Yorker. I'm the first one in my family to own my home. However, if I stayed making my work in New York, I would not own my home. I've spent the last eight-to-ten months each year traveling, playing New Yorkers for people in Florida and Wisconsin. If I were to perform New York characters and New York stories in New York City, I would make no money.

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