The Violence of Gentrification in American Cities
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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.