Thursday, October 23, 2008

Barriers to Entry

Funny stuff, he should read Dan O'Flaherty's City Economics at least twice.

Confessions of a Radical White Gentrifier
By Andrew Lyubarsky

On paper, it seems like I’ve done everything right. I attend regular protests on 125th Street, I can cite Huey P. Newton, and I recite compellingly how American urban policy has ravaged communities of color since the halcyon days of Robert Moses. Marathon readings of Manhattanville documents are my idea of a fun time. But no matter how many man-hours I put in working for affordable housing, it is impossible to mask the obvious. If I decide to move to Harlem and be a white person in a non-white urban space, I cannot help but be an agent of gentrification.

The standard account of neighborhood change that has transformed New York City community by community is familiar by now. Young people with little money and a lot of creative energy move into an economically depressed area of the city. With an ideology that inclines toward cultural resistance against a mainstream concerned primarily with profit-making and an identification with the working-class population, a neighborhood that has been historically resource-starved and disadvantaged becomes “gritty” and “authentic.” A developing counter-cultural scene piques the interest of those outside the community, with the presence of white faces in a zone formerly coded as non-white leading to higher-end development. This eventually pushes up rents and leads to the displacement of both the working-class inhabitants and the bohemians that started the process. A process of “imperialist nostalgia” sets in where one begins to mourn the “lost soul” of the neighborhood, when it is the subculture’s presence that led to its own disappearance.

The alternative identity, which I share, can only be defined against a certain “other.” This is the mainstream yuppie, stereotyped as a culturally uninteresting consumerist who has no problems reproducing the existing social order. However, as Richard Lloyd argues in his book on the new bohemia in post-industrial cities, the class interests and tastes of supposedly “radical” and “subcultural” groups have more in common with the yuppie “class enemy” than with the people of color that embody “authenticity” in their imaginations. While many of the original residents do take advantage of new businesses and institutions archetypal of gentrifying neighborhoods, the scene constructed by the newcomers is usually far more successful at attracting more people from outside the community than forming genuine links within it.

In my experience, identification with locals can turn into an ideological illusion given the cultural divides between middle-class bohemians and working-class people of color. At worst, people of color can become exotic scenery in the bohemian imagination, in which case casual street interaction and commercial exchanges become stand-ins for a more profound integration. At best, there can be a genuine striving for authentic and well-intentioned engagement with the neighborhood, but even this does not remove the problematic nature of one’s structural role in the real estate market.

And that is the point—no matter how successful an individual is at bridging cultural barriers, forming friendships, and working for a good cause, his or her presence can still contribute to making a neighborhood less affordable. Consider West Philadelphia, an interesting case study of a primarily African-American community which, even during the era of disinvestment and neglect, always boasted a sizable community of progressive and radical white people. Groups of anarchists squatted in abandoned buildings, organized co-ops in houses that they owned, and operated several collective centers that housed political discussions and small action groups. Although their group was unusually politically conscious and made attempts to link up with community groups of color, its presence made the area more accessible for wealthier people seeking accommodations more spacious than what they could afford in the downtown. Although there might be a fierce conflict of ideology and lifestyle between them and the anarchists, the anarchists were not viewed as “dangerous” in the way that low-income people of color are in our racialized society. The road to Williamsburg, so to speak, is paved with good intentions.

As relatively privileged Columbia students, many of us find ourselves in this situation. But let’s stay away from the liberal guilt complex. It is unreasonable to place blame on individuals for what is functionally a structural problem in the free-market approach to urban planning. The answers to spiraling rents are economic and political and cannot be expected to come from some kids who, after all, are just trying to get by themselves.

Far from guilt, our responsibility is to become self-aware. We need to understand that we live bounded by class and race, and claims to alterity cannot transcend that. This self-awareness gives us a responsibility to make a critical intervention in this reality, lest we allow ourselves to be manipulated by forces larger than ourselves for ends that we oppose. The worst thing that we can do is to serve as uncritical cogs in the urban redevelopment machine that grinds people down—it is our duty to understand the processes that condition our existence and assert our own agency. This is why I’ve concerned myself with the ways that Columbia has exploited its economic power and political clout to push its narrow vision of expansion against the wishes of the surrounding communities. I, and most of my fellow activists, know that we do not come from this community, but we have listened to its many voices and paid heed to their wisdom.

Andrew Lyubarsky is a Columbia College senior majoring in Hispanic studies. Cliche Guevara runs alternate Thursdays.

TAGS: Activism, Gentrification, liberal guilt complex, racism