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America's Best Cities Are Being Lobotomized

Cities exist to promote culture. But gentrification is destroying this vital role.

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Nato Thompson: Gentrification is a topic you have written about quite extensively in regard to that city on the Bay, San Francisco. It’s also a strange word in that it hints at not only a spatial transformation, but a cultural one as well (in terms of race and class). How do you see that mutable thing called culture playing out in cities and what value does it possess?

Rebecca Solnit: Culture is not only economically beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense, it’s what cities are for. A city without poets, painters and photographers is sterile—it’s a suburb. It doesn’t contain the mirrors of its own inner workings, in the form of creativity, criticism or cultural memory. It’s undergone a lobotomy.

It’s important to add that the people who blame artists for gentrification imagine artists as white middle-class newcomers to neighborhoods; but there are long-term culture-makers from the underclass that matter. Art comes in all colors: think of the Mission District’s muralists, the gospel choirs of the Fillmore or hip-hop in the South Bronx, just for starters.

Most politicians, businessmen and economists, and many urban theorists, present cities as machines of capital, now that industrial production has been shipped off to the Third World, or sometimes American exurbs and suburbs. But cities, for me, are the brain of a society. They’re made for dreaming and imagining in ways that might not be so viable, or might just be lonely, in towns or villages. Big cities become refugee centers for people who are weird and innovative.

The reversal of postwar white flight ultimately led to the suburbanization of the city. Look at downtown San Diego, which has supposedly been “reinvigorated” (to use a bit of urbanist jargon)—it’s dominated by chain stores and condos that are often second homes for the rich. There’s another problem. Cities used to provide poor people with a place—even if it was just a tenement. Now if you fall below the middle class, you won’t find the working-class boarding houses of the 1930s. Instead, you’ll fall into homelessness. There’s this novel phenomenon of homeless people who are employed, sometimes even in white-collar jobs.

NT: I work in New York City and live in Philadelphia because it’s more affordable. I commute by train, and it’s a nice, meditative form of transportation, but it also represents this space-time continuum that is deeply related to gentrification. Many of us cannot afford to live in a city like New York, and have to live on the periphery, which means a longer commute—time we’re not compensated for and time in which we could be doing other things.

RS: I have a cousin who works as a firefighter in Manhattan and lives in a rent-controlled apartment within the borough. People think he has a trust fund because every other firefighter lives in the suburbs. But people who carry out essential community functions like teaching, running daycares or putting out fires should live in the places they serve. Otherwise, you get the resort culture you see in places like Aspen, Colorado, where kids who work as baristas or gas station attendants camp out in their trucks because there’s no affordable housing, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which can be deadly for workers to drive to from more affordable towns in nearby Idaho.

I don’t want to live in a community that only consists of white people working white-collar jobs. To us in California, “Manhattanization” used to mean that high rises were coming in, but for me it now means that low-income people are being pushed out. Just like biodiversity in the natural world, it is important to have social diversity in our communities—something New York still has on its streets and subways, as people commute to and from work. That is an advantage over car-based cities like Los Angeles, where there is little public space to mingle.

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