Monday, August 06, 2012

Sarah Schulman: The Gentrification of the Mind

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I have a fascination with, and a repulsion by gentrification, while full well knowing that I am part of the process/problem. While not quite an "urban pioneer" as my boyfriend calls it, I do live "hood adjacent" as my sister calls it, and now that I've read "The Gentrification of the Mind," I can see that I'm guilty of a whole lot more than neighborhood-theft. In her glorious, strange, and thought-provoking stream-of-consciousness connecting the loss of a generation to AIDS to gentrification, Sarah Schulman both keeps the lost generation alive and clarifies just what gentrification means. One of the moments that hit me hardest was when she quotes a dead artist friend, David Feinberg, as saying "You can't wear a red ribbon if you're dead." (You can read this section of the book in a different form.) For almost thirty years, I've worn an AIDS bracelet, taking the "until there's a cure" message very literally, and refusing to take it off. This, Schulman has convinced me, is the epitome of gentrification: I wear the silver bobble on my wrist, claiming identification with a generation of death, as if I understand at all, as if I'm making a difference. (Interestingly, the bracelet fell off for the first time ever right before I started reading "The Gentrification of the Mind" and I haven't found it.)

Schulman starts with a definition of "gentrification" from British sociologist Ruth Glass: "the influx of middle-class people to cities and neighborhoods, displacing the lower-class worker residents." She dispels the myth of gay people as gentrifiers using the classic example of 1970s and 1980s New York: when the city was facing bankruptcy in the 70s, her neighborhood, the East Village consisted of "Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Eastern European and Italian immigrants, lesbians, noninstitutionalized artists, gay men, and other sexually adventurous and socially marginalized refugees from uncomprehending backgrounds living on economic margins." At the same time as tax breaks for developers and incentives for more wealthy tenants, AIDS came along and killed off a generation of her neighbors. Rather than a conspiracy, Schulman calls this a "tragic example of historic coincidence," and sets out to show how the new tenants were "'privileged' in that they did not have to be aware of their power or of the ways in which it was constructed. They instead saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order." Why shouldn't these neighborhoods be open to them? Why shouldn't those "others" leave?

As the gentrified neighborhoods become the norm, mainstream power centers reflect this: the "new" East Village is a center of cool, even as it becomes a center of banality. Movies, pop culture, fashion, magazines, etc, reflect the "new" culture. Gay people, rather than being able to live their lives in the cultural enclaves they have created, are expected to live in heteronormative spaces created for them, in private, and in culturally appropriate ways, such as in the fight for gay marriage. The arts also reflect this: Schulman spends a lot of time honoring artists that died of AIDS and have been forgotten and/or neglected.  She discusses Herbert Marcuse's idea of "repressive tolerance": communities become distorted and neutered by the dominant culture's containment of their realities through the noose of 'tolerance.' The dominant culture doesn't change how it views itself or how it operates, and power imbalances are not transformed. What happens is that the oppressed person's expression is overwhelmed by the dominant person's inflationary self-congratulation about how generous they are. The subordinate person learns quickly that they must curb their most expressive instincts in order to be worthy of this containment." In newly gentrified neighborhoods, the token gay people and outspoken artists are seen as attractions, reasons to move there, proof of "coolness," as they are driven out by high rents and ostracized for being "too" out there. Schulman tells the of the Amazon "glitch" (which I hadn't even heard) which categorized gay/lesbian literature as "pornography" and thus took it all off of the virtual shelves, thus rendering it invisible. The dominant culture doesn't change or acknowledge the power imbalance: the co opt the subordinate, and expect change from below.

Schulman is optimistic that gentrification is a thing of the past, or at least hopes it is. This is the most difficult part of her book for me to reconcile, especially when combined with some of the most powerful parts. She powerfully calls out queer activists and the "decline of revolutionary thinking," which stems from "the unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity." Gay marriage, she implores, is off the mark, for a variety of reasons, not least because "inherent in this assumption that everything else is great for gay people, and only marriage remains." I've never quite been able to put my finger on why fighting for gays being able to serve openly in the military or gay marriage felt like strange causes, but Schulman nails it: no nation-wide antidiscrimination laws, marginalization, and many other issues still exist, and focusing on these two mainstream issues is caving to cooptation. This book clarifies, without focusing on the failure of the movement, why there is so far to go, and how we got there. Even if AIDS isn't your thing, this book is a beautiful read. If you like neighborhoods, or queers, or history, or AIDS, read it.