As modern as it may feel, the current all–too-trendy invective against the gentrification of certain New York neighborhoods is almost as old as the city itself.
E.B. White complained about it writing Here Is New York in the torpid summer of 1949. Be it in Harlem, Times Square, The Meat Packing District or the present source of disapprobation, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you can hear the escalating chatter of how things ain’t what they used to be, and how nice it would be if it could be like was when “I” (insert complainant’s name) first got here.
Off all the verbal offense one must tolerate, there’s nothing more banal than a barely seasoned liberal arts grad prognosticating the borough’s imminent demise while collecting signatures on a hemp clipboard at the Bedford L stop.
It begs several questions, the primary one being, who was here before you, kid? And why should we be any more sympathetic to your whiney plight than that of the pre-colonial Dutch (who named the borough) when the British moved in, or the Native Americans before them, or the squirrels prior to the Indians, who were displaced when the Redman first started pitching teepees?
“The ‘Burg is so over,” they say, with the exacting listlessness of a Sunset Blvd. supermodel. “No, no…” I rebut, whenever presented the opportunity, “You’re over. Pack your clove cigarettes, your Peruvian knit wool hat and Daft Punk EP’s and move further east, please. Those of us endorsing gentrification could use the square footage. And while you’re at it, why are you dating that dweeb? What is it about the thrift store chic of a dented fedora that makes these guys so attractive? Don’t you know that Hipsters have tiny dicks?”
Pardon the snark. Seismic demographic shifts like these embody some sincerely convoluted issues, but in the end, one truth remains: nothing stays the same, except that everything is always changing. Progress chugs relentlessly forward, sometimes for the worse, frequently for the better. It’s impossible to map before the trajectory is complete.
Those railing against change need a swift reminder that the very same promise that brought them here, brings everyone to New York. It’s the thrill of participating in the greatest capitalistic experiment in human history, and the desire to leave one’s provincial routine behind and, like Sinatra sang, “make it” here.
The perverse irony is that “making it” here, especially as an artist, is a myth propagated by the city to lure artists into underdeveloped neighborhoods for the very purpose of improving them. New York was one of several cities in the early 70’s that pursued “artist types” to occupy former industrial facilities, in this case, Soho’s textile buildings. It was an opportunity for artists and the city, and it worked… for a while. In a decade and a half, the South of Houston campaign had transformed once desolate blocks into a posh residential hotbed.
Painters unable to break into the formal scene displayed their work in makeshift galleries. Designers too small for national distributors sold their wears on sidewalks. Bands that never got signed opened cafes and bars, and writers committed to obscurity sat inside them and scribbled.
It wasn’t long before actors were producing their plays in basement theaters. Their collective presence is what made SoHo so enticing to visit. The neighborhood had bohemian authenticity. To imagine it would last forever is pure idealism. To petition to stop it is naive.
Since the dawn of industrialization, residents of New York have understood there was a price to pay for the privilege of living in a metropolis where anything is possible, including failure. At the very least, one was guaranteed the promise of the long tail of competition. Housing the poor would forever be subjugated to the maximization of profits. The embourgeoisment of low rent districts was, and still is, every slumlord’s and developer’s dream.
There’s scant satisfaction pointing this out to today’s cantankerous blogger. They’re too busy playing the part of splenetic do-gooder to grasp the irony that they are themselves part of the cycle. For these very petitioners floated into the neighborhood they’re so desperate to preserve on a previous wave of “gentrification”.
In the case of Williamsburg, it was one that ousted eastern European and Latin immigrants from decades of stabilized rents. Had these folks had a better command of the English language, had their children gone to law school, had they the time to petition and form committees instead of laboring at multiple jobs like constructing the Williamsburg bridge, had they felt more entitled, they might very well have succeeded in keeping you out.
But alas, there was not much more they could do than watch the spectacle of tight pants and craft beer unfold.
Richard Dawkins reduced it to a sentence in “The Selfish Gene.” There’s a Darwinian evolution to cultural memes. And just like in nature, the processes of variation, mutation, and competition can seem cold and unforgiving. To paraphrase Guy Debord, gentrification is the oil spill of commercialism. It’s part of a system we can’t overthrow, cause we’re too busy bathing in its benefits.
Keep it in mind when you’re trolling for recruits to wave the flag against Starbucks. The bitter truth is there are pros and cons to what both Starbucks and the local bodega offer in the bigger picture. Locals are preferred of course, they have less disdain for what they do, and their version of employment turnover is the inclusion of the next generation of family.
But not everyone is as upset as Alvie Singer’s mother was in Annie Hall that Brooklyn is in fact expanding. Wholefoods supplanting the family grocer may be painful to witness if you know the family, but it doesn’t lend a moral component to the argument that the old bodega deserves to stay.
I appreciate your rage against the machine. It’s an essential ingredient in post-graduate identity building, and what better mode to quote Das Capital in then righteous indignation? All that Marx should at least get you laid at loft parties.
But all the generic bitching you do would be far easier to stomach if a counter proposal were suggested, even if as a thought experiment.
What if the city preserved certain districts in Brooklyn as it did in mid-town where to be a resident in certain high rises, you must be declared an artist on your taxes to claim residency. (In Ireland, writers don’t pay income tax!) And what if some of Soho had been preserved? Landlords could own buildings, but under the stipulation that a percentage of rents remain amenable to artists. It might make some building owners walk, but preserving our cultural capital would be worth it.
Instead of Soho being the comically overpriced boutique shopping destination that it’s become, it could have been the great Soho Arts District; a place where tourists flocked to see the glory of an era.
Let’s not make the same blunder in the ‘Burg. Let’s petition for certain parts of Lorimer and 6th street to be declared Hipster Preservation Areas. Anyone wearing skinny jeans, a second-hand fedora and colored Chuck T’s gets to stay. Patchy beards and hand rolled cigarettes? You’re in. Tattoo’s, torn fishnets, army boots? Permanence. What a tragedy it would be to have it all that swept away…
There’s something deeper revealed in the chatter against gentrification. Unconsciously, we all desire sanctuary from the temporality of life. That we’re able to comprehend the concept of immortality and yet never come close to achieving it is what the entire cannon of western philosophy is attempting to reconcile. Knowing we’ll be replaced when we’re gone, whether you’re a president or poet king, is a dark abyss to stare into. But entropy is the law of nature.
Throughout the history of civilization, cities have been built on top of one another and you can bet there were protestors standing in the way of construction at every single one of them. Odds are high that tribes in pre-Socratic Athens liked the Acropolis just the way it was. Their ancestors had built it with their own hands. But socio-economics had something else to say. The Persians had been defeated once and for all at the Battle of Salamis and an influx of new wealth, along with the leisure time use it, drew interest in making conspicuous improvements.
A brash, egocentric military hero named Pericles was determined to leave his mark on the hill above the city, and the result would be among the world’s great Wonders. The Parthenon is an awesome tribute to human imagination and ingenuity, but it was no doubt constructed amidst a gaggle of toga’d dissenters, waving ivory-carved protest tablets, and railing at full volume (in linear a) against the evil of the drachma.
I can guess what will happen to property values around Plaka, they lamented over lamb chops and fomented grape juice. Rents will go through the roof. My grandmother will be forced to move further from the ocean, and you can bet she’ll be cursing how the Golden age isn’t nearly as good as the Bronze.