Halsey Street, a debut novel from Naima Coster, is a story about family, a story about art, and a story about gentrification; more specifically, it is a story about family splintering and evolving and art cracking and expanding under the pressures of gentrification.
Penelope Grand grew up in Brooklyn, in pre-gentrification Bed-Stuy. Her black father, Ralph, owned a record store that was a neighborhood icon; her Dominican mother, Mirella, resentfully cleaned houses. Both were committed to raising Penelope up, to giving her a better life than they had. But as Halsey Street opens, Penelope is returning to Bed-Stuy for the first time in five years, having dropped out of art school and made a failed go at becoming an artist.
Now, Penelope is working as a substitute art teacher, and the only place she can afford is a rented attic room in a wealthy white family’s Bed-Stuy brownstone. She’s back in town to take care of Ralph, who years ago was forced to give up his record store under pressure from rising rents. Mirella is long gone, having returned to the Dominican Republic to live lavishly on the money she made from 20 years of cleaning wealthy white people’s homes in New York City.
Over the course of the book, Coster pivots back and forth between Penelope’s perspective — furious with her mother, heartbroken for her father, ridden with guilt for failing to live up to both parents’ expectations, and deeply resentful of the white people who have changed her neighborhood — and that of Mirella, waiting hopefully in the Dominican Republic for Penelope to come and see that Mirella has made a good life for herself.
The result is a quiet and introspective book, never flashy and rarely shocking. Instead, Halsey Street pays careful, detailed attention to the ways family ties can splinter and fester and ache, and the way a neighborhood that used to be familiar but no longer is creates a feeling of isolation.
It’s in passages about Penelope’s artistic practice, and the slightly depressed dutifulness with which she undertakes it, that Coster shines most. Penelope is certain that her art is no good, and that it will never become good enough for her to make a living from it. Yet she is not particularly interested in improving, and she still draws every day. “The drawing was an exercise, as much a part of her routine as evening tea, morning runs, these sips of gin,” Coster writes, in a scene that will click with recognition for anyone who has made art without quite seeing the point. “The sketches kept her muscles working; they tempered her moods.”
Penelope returns again and again to her art, and gradually, it begins to resolve itself around pictures of Bed-Stuy, of the Dominican Republic, of the places where her family lives. To paraphrase Lady Bird, it begets a kind of attentiveness that looks like love.
And Halsey Street itself offers the same attentiveness to the changing landscape of Brooklyn, and to a Bed-Stuy that is rapidly becoming unrecognizable. It’s a detailed portrait that’s almost a love letter.