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Gentrification and Justification

We want to consume the traditional values of our neighborhoods precisely at the moment that we have become the sorts of selves who can't exist in traditional settings.

Historian Claude Fischer makes some interesting points about gentrification in this post, a response to a review essay from the Atlantic by Benjamin Schwarz, on books about Greenwich Village. Both critique the sentimental idea that certain urban neighborhoods once were really authentic and "had soul" but now have been yuppified with the wrong sort of gentrification that hasn't respected the neighborhoods' special uniqueness and have instead imported suburbanized blandness -- chain stores, class homogeneity, a rigid separation from the world of manufacturing, and so on. It's a version of the golden-age fallacy that posits a time just at the horizon of memory when things were the way they should be, everything and everyone in their proper place. It's not an especially dynamic vision; it regards change as inherently corrupting, even though nothing could be more natural than for neighborhoods to evolve over time.

Not to impugn the motives of preservationists, who don't always seem to be acting in bad faith, but neighborhood-preservation efforts are often attempts to entrench power relations, enhance property values, and widen the gap between well-to-do and struggling areas of the city instead of allowing a more egalitarian equilibrium to emerge -- or at least acknowledging dynamism in urban development. There is no platonic ideal of, say, Greenwich Village, just contested ideas that represent competing visions and interests. Fischer describes how authenticity becomes a stalking horse for less lofty concerns:

Struggles over gentrification, even if rooted in matters like rents and loft space, also entail ideological battle. Spokespersons for the current residents invoke local color; they seek to preserve this moment by investing it with historical authenticity; we, they say, are the traditional people of the neighborhood. (One generation’s “traditional” residents are, of course, usually an earlier generation’s outside “invaders.”) The developers, merchants, and middle-class newcomers may be bringing change, but they also often invoke history, a history that looks back before the current residents. One tactic is to use Historical Preservation, to protect the original architecture of a neighborhood, that is the styles that preceded the current residents, for example, the single-family Victorian gingerbread houses, not the stuccoed-over Victorians divided into three flats for immigrant families.

Schwarz deplores the proposition that "the state should create the conditions necessary for favored groups—be they designers, craftspeople, small-batch distillers, researchers, the proprietors of mom-and-pop stores—to live in expensive and fashionable neighborhoods or boroughs. That effort would ultimately be an aesthetic endeavor to ensure that the affluent, well-educated denizens of said neighborhoods be provided with the stage props and scenery necessary for what Jacobs and her heirs define as an enriching urban experience." In other words, it's a way of using aesthetics to disguise a conservative politics, even, perhaps, from the purveyors themselves.

Preservationists, Schwarz argues, try to freeze a particular transitional moment when the gritty aspects of neighborhood have only just begun to give way to revitalization. Fischer points out that struggles over the evolution of a neighborhood often involve competing static visions of its "real" character, all of which should be regarded skeptically. Fischer writes:

Schwartz suggests that this balance of working-class grit and a cleaned-up bohemia was attained only in a few places – the Village most famously – and for just a brief moment before the neighborhoods tipped over into “inauthentic” yuppiedom. (In the Village, that moment came around 1960, just about when Bob Dylan showed up.) Schwartz is impatient with those who, in slamming gentrification, imagine that those thrilling moments could be preserved in “amber.”

These moments shouldn't be privileged over other moments in a neighborhood's life cycle, in part because they can't be artificially constructed -- they are cherished for their organic juxtapositions of unlikely elements. Remove the spontaneity, and these become contrived Urban Outfitters moments.

Gentrification nowadays is more readily experienced and lamented by a broader group of people because, as Schwarz argues, neighborhoods evolve much more quickly than they did when Jane Jacobs was making the case for preserving their organic character. "Indeed, what has changed since Jacobs’s day ... is the speed of the transition of districts from quasi dereliction to artsy to urban shopping mall. This acceleration results from the ways consumption has become the dominant means of self-expression ... and from—relatedly, ultimately—the acceleration of the global economy."

That acceleration reflects consumerist capitalism's permanent imperative to increase our cultural-consumption throughput, which is achieved on a number of fronts. Digitization and mobile communications make it easier for us to be always consuming and producing new consumer meanings that invalidate the old ones and intensify the need to consume more. More-thorough mediatization makes for faster fashion cycles. Retail outlets start to come and go as if they were art installations. People delay in starting families, extending the period of fashion-conscious adolescence and the period in which they want to live among strangers in an urban environment displaying and "discovering" themselves. And so on.

How does consumption become the "dominant means of self-expression"? The division of labor in modern society is partly responsible, removing the meaningfulness from work. That meaningfulness crops up instead in consumption, the symbolic resonance of what we buy, display, and use. Along with that change, identity becomes provisional and open-ended rather than constrained by traditional limits. Rather than having an identity assigned by the conditions of our birth, we become responsible for creating a series of roles for ourselves. The self becomes a goal we never can quite reach but are always moving toward through various experiments with lifestyles and purchases and attitudes. We seek distinction through the pursuit of novelty and originality, which fill the void left by retreating traditional values (which are ushered out by the creative destruction of capitalism).

And therein lies a contradiction: we want to consume the traditional values of our neighborhoods precisely at the moment that we have become the sorts of selves who can't exist in traditional settings. Just as the authenticity of our identity has become something we feel required or anxious to establish over and over again through careful outward displays, so our neighborhoods begin to be held to the same standards, as they are transformed primarily into settings for our personal narratives expected to reflect our self-image. But at the same time, to cater to our identity needs on a practical level (food, clothes, cafes, bars, tchotchke shops, etc.), neighborhoods lose the local color that supports the idea that we are somehow on the urban frontier, pursuing an edgy lifestyle distinct from the safe, boring, blah lives of our parents who fled cities.

Anyway, it's quite possibly better that gentrification tends to temper the edge of contemporary bohemia in America. Otherwise we might have in the U.S. the "alcoholic agoras" of England that Dragan Klaic mentions in this article -- "where young people get drunk by 10:00 pm, vomit in the streets, get into fights and are taken away by ambulances and police or totter into taxis to get back home. This is the daily reality of the creative city pipe dream."

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