The Violence of Gentrification in American Cities
A few years back, when I was still a paramedic, we picked up a white guy who had been pistol whipped during a home invasion in Williamsburg. “I can’t believe this happened to me,” he moaned, applying the ice pack I’d given him to a small laceration on his temple. “It’s like a movie!”
While film narratives of white folks in low-income neighborhoods tend to focus on how endangered they are by a gangland black or brown menace, this patient was singular in that he was literally the only victim of black on white violence I encountered in my entire 10-year career as a medic.
“What is distinctively ‘American’ is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history,” Richard Slotkin writes, “but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent, and the political uses to which we put that symbolism.” Slotkin was talking about the American frontier as a symbolic reference point for justifying expansionist violence throughout history. Today, we can see the mytho-political uses of symbolic violence in mainstream media portrayals of the “hood.”
It’s easy to fixate on physical violence. Movies sexualize it, broadcasters shake their heads as another fancy graphic whirs past sensationalizing it, politicians build careers decrying it with one side of their mouths and justifying it with the other. But institutionalized violence moves in far more insidious and wide-reaching patterns. “Gentrification,” Suey Park and Dr. David J. Leonard wrote in a recent post at Model View Culture, “represents a socio-historic process where rising housing costs, public policy, persistent segregation, and racial animus facilitates the influx of wealthier, mostly white, residents into a particular neighborhood. Celebrated as ‘renewal’ and an effort to ‘beautify’ these communities, gentrification results in the displacement of residents.”
Gentrification is violence. Couched in white supremacy, it is a systemic, intentional process of uprooting communities. It’s been on the rise, increasing at a frantic rate in the last 20 years, but the roots stretch back to the disenfranchisement that resulted from white flight and segregationist policies. Real estate agents dub changing neighborhoods with new, gentrifier-friendly titles that designate their proximity to even safer areas: Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, parts of Flatbush are now Prospect Park South. Politicians manipulate zoning laws to allow massive developments with only token nods at mixed-income housing.
Beyond these political and economic maneuvers, though, the thrust of gentrification takes place in our mythologies of the hood. It is a result, as Park and Leonard explain, of a “discourse that imagines neighborhoods of color as pathological and criminal, necessitating outside intervention for the good of all.” Here’s where my pistol-whipped patient’s revelation about his cinematic experience kicks in. The dominant narrative of the endangered white person barely making it out of the hood alive is, of course, a myth. No one is safer in communities of color than white folks. White privilege provides an invisible force field around them, powered by the historically grounded assurance that the state and media will prosecute any untoward event they may face.
With gentrification, the central act of violence is one of erasure. Accordingly, when the discourse of gentrification isn’t pathologizing communities of color, it’s erasing them. “Girls,” for example, reimagines today’s Brooklyn as an entirely white community. Here’s a show that places itself in the epicenter of a gentrifying city with gentrifiers for characters – it is essentially a show about gentrification that refuses to address gentrification. After critics lambasted Season 1 for its lack of diversity, the show brought in Donald Glover to play a black Republican and still managed to avoid the more pressing and relevant question of displacement and racial disparity that the characters are, despite their self-absorption, deeply complicit with. What’s especially frustrating about “Girls” not only dodging the topic entirely but pushing back – often with snark and defensiveness against calls for more diversity – is that it’s a show that seems to want to bring a more nuanced take on the complexities of modern life.
In an appallingly overwritten New York magazine article with the (I guess) provocative title “Is Gentrification All Bad?,” Justin Davidson imagines a first wave of gentrifiers much the way I’ve heard it described again and again: “A trickle of impecunious artists hungry for space and light.” This is the standard, “first it was the artists” narrative of gentrification, albeit a little spruced up, and the unspoken but the understood word here is “white.” Because, really, there have always been artists in the hood. They aren’t necessarily recognized by the academy or using trust funds supplementing coffee shop tips to fund their artistic careers, but they are still, in fact, artists. The presumptive, unspoken “white” in the first round of artists gentrification narrative is itself an erasure of these artists of color.
“In the popular imagination, gentrification and displacement are virtually synonymous,” Davidson writes without giving any actual data to back up his claim. And, he adds, “a sense of grievance and shame permeates virtually all discussions of neighborhood change.” Davidson’s euphemistic, maybe-it’s-this-but-probably-it’s-that take on gentrification is precisely the type of reporting we hear on WNYC and other media outlets on a regular basis. The standard frame for a story on gentrification pits the upside of “urban renewal” against what’s painted as a necessary byproduct of this renewal: some folks have to move out. The underlying premise is, are these bakeries and coffee shops worth a few people having to move? And the underlying answer is, of course! The entirety of Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor was a continuous stream of bring-in-the-rich schemes, openly flaunted and always at the cost of New York’s poor. What’s missing from this analysis is that the forced displacement of peoples and dispersal of communities, whether through economic, political or cultural policies, is a long-term human rights violation.
For groups facing economic and cultural marginalization in the U.S., community means much more than just a residential area. In a country whose institutions historically fail or deliberately erase us, community constitutes a central pillar in surviving hetero-patriarchal white supremacy. Technology has brought new possibilities for collective action and resistance, but the centrality of physical community remains crucial. What becomes of community organizing, which is responsible for our continued survival here, when communities are increasingly uprooted and scattered?
The shifting power dynamics of today’s urban neighborhoods are reflected even in issues of food and nutrition. “Once-affordable ingredients have been discovered by trendy chefs,” cultural critic Mikki Kendall writes, “and have been transformed into haute cuisine. Food is facing gentrification that may well put traditional meals out of reach for those who created the recipes. Despite the hype, these ingredients have always been delicious, nutritious and no less healthy than other sources of protein.” Writing about this phenomenon at Bitch Media, Soleil Ho stated that food gentrification takes “the form of a curious kind of reacharound logic wherein economic and racial minorities are castigated for eating ‘primitively’ and ‘unhealthily’ while their traditional foods are cherry picked for use by the upper class as ‘exotic’ delicacies.”
“Even gentrifiers themselves are convinced they are doing something terrible,” Davidson continues. “Young professionals whose moving trucks keep pulling up to curbs in Bushwick and Astoria carry with them trunkfuls of guilt.” It’s an odd and eloquent assumption about the mind of a gentrifier, but really, it’s irrelevant what they think or what Davidson thinks they think. The gears are all already in place, the mechanisms of white supremacy and capitalism poised to make their moves. Davidson talks of a “sweet spot”: some mythical moment of racial, economic harmony where the neighborhood stays perfectly diverse and balanced. There is no “sweet spot,” as Andrew Padilla at El Barrio Tours points out in his excellent point-by-point takedown, just fleeting moments of harmony in the midst of an ongoing legacy of forced displacement.
Here’s a refrain you’ll hear a lot in conversations about gentrifications: “Well, it’s really a class issue.” Davidson’s piece manages to avoid any race analysis whatsoever. Of course economics plays a huge role in this. But race and class are inseparably entwined. Rising rents, along with institutionally racist policies like stop-and-frisk, have forced black people to leave New York and urban areas around the country at historic rates. And yes, there are many layers at play: When non-black people of color with class privilege, like myself, move into a historically black and lower-income neighborhood, the white imagination reads our presence as making the area a notch safer for them. The mythology of safety and racial coding regards our presence as a marker of change; the white imagination places higher value on anything it perceives as closer to itself, further from blackness. We become complicit in the scam; the cycle continues.
These power plays – cultural, political, economic, racial — are the mechanics of a city at war with itself. It is a slow, dirty war, steeped in American traditions of racism and capitalism. The participants are often wary, confused, doubtful. Macklemore summarized the attitudes of many young white wealthy newcomers in his fateful text to Kendrick Lamar on Grammy night: “It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” But as with Macklemore, being surprised about a system that has been in place for generations is useless. White supremacy is nothing if not predictable. To forge ahead, we require an outrageousness that sees beyond the tired tropes and easy outs that mass media provides. This path demands we organize with clarity about privilege and the shifting power dynamics of community. It requires foresight, discomfort and risk-taking. It will be on the Web and in the streets, in conversations, rants and marches.
We need a new mythology.