Monday, February 11, 2008

Considering a Gentrifying Something? Read This Essay First

Cold, windy Sunday afternoons are for reading. It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of our times is that few 25-year-old men are willing to say that. Or better yet, not enough parents of any age are willing to explain that to their children and then miss a football game to visit the library (or it's modern, yuppie equivalent - Barnes & Noble).

I spent over 5 awesome hours in Barnes & Noble, I only left because they were closing. I read The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, flipped through National Geographic, some sort of skeptic magazine, followed by (unintentional irony alert) a magazine called The Believer. I forget why I pulled The Believer off the shelf, but I want to draw your attention to a fantastic essay by Eula Biss: No-Man's-Land.

I highly recommend that you read the essay before continuing. But in case it's not cold and windy, I'll summarize quickly: It's a great essay, comparing the displacement of the Native Americans by white settlers as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder with the gentrification of neighborhoods in American cities. It doesn't make gentrification out to be entirely evil, which is nice, because I don't think I'm all that evil. The essay really hits its stride when it comes to being a "pioneer" of gentrification.

I can relate to having mixed feelings about being a pioneer of gentrification. I would estimate that the immediate area around my house is no more than 75% gentrified. There are still drug deals happening in the vicinity. I'm torn between feelings of guilt about pricing some families out of the neighborhood and desire for some sort of harm to befall drug dealers everywhere. I have a very Jermaine Clement (à la Flight of the Conchords) approach to dealing with drug dealers, I exact my revenge by thinking very mean thoughts about them.

Biss also brings up the fear that you are expected to maintain when you live in an urban area. About how your parents and friends and people you don't even know say "Isn't that kind of a dangerous?" when you talk about walking outside at night or going for bike ride.

For example, take this quote from the essay:
Gangs are real, but they are also conceptual. The word gang is frequently used to avoid using the word black in a way that might be offensive. For instance, by pairing it with a suggestion of fear.

It took me some time living in Baltimore (growing up and growing used to the city) before, as a senior at JHU, I finally started to notice the casual racism that surrounded the campus. That everyone casually used the word "ghetto" until it lost the significance of that word should car (the utter shame we should all feel for allowing such a thing to exist in America). Sure, for most upper-middle-class kids, ALL of Baltimore is a ghetto. It certainly doesn't look like where they grew up. It's all so poor, so crime-ridden, so... black.

Not that these students shouldn't be wary. There are muggings near campus, students can get hurt by crime, and if you have no idea how to tell a questionable neighborhood from a bad neighborhood it's no surprise that you're scared whenever you're out of sight of campus. That does not, however, excuse the remarks and actions that stereotype the vast majority of Baltimore's residents as being untrustworthy, drug-dealing or -using, and dangerous.

There is another passage in the essay that I found particularly striking.
We are afraid, my husband suggests, because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve.

That sentiment is hauntingly familiar to me. I've lived in this city long enough to feel like a real resident, but I still don't feel accepted by the city. Lately I've taken up distance running and as I've started to increase the length of my runs, I've started to push back the boundaries of my intimate exposure to Baltimore. Once I ran back towards south Baltimore from Patterson Park on Gough. Gough is legitimately crosses through what most people consider to be bad neighborhoods. There's even a four- or five-block stretch that passes through a housing project.

I didn't detour around the housing project, I just kept on trucking. For one thing, I was running, I had nothing on me but a key to my front door. I'm a tall man and although I don't think anyone considers me imposing, the world is a much more frightening place for a petite woman. So I ran right through the housing project.

As I ran through, I was struck with the familiar question: "Do you think these people hate me? Do they resent not only that I have so much more in material terms, but is it particularly offensive that I am even bringing my bourgeois hobby of running into their neighborhood?"

I'd like my running through their neighborhood to be interpreted in a positive way. Interpreted that I treat this housing project as just another city street and don't shun it just because it's residents are poor and predominantly (completely?) African-American. I'd like there to be some way to telegraph "I got a lot of what I have through hard work," but instead I'm sure just look like another rich, young asshole who can't wait to make them move further from my expensive coffee shops.

I feel this tremendous desire to help them by giving them good financial or educational advice or even personal advice. Heck, I'd love to explain to the kids why I'm running (Because it feels fucking great! Because it gets you in shape! Because it's about hard work and the sense of achievement that comes from completing something difficult! Because I don't want to end up with type II diabetes!).

There's no way for me to actually achieve any of this. The chasm that divides us socially is too much for me to bridge. I have to face that this sort of interaction is too far outside my comfort zone and if a conversation did happen, I would not be able to effectively communicate.

I run on, and the next thought is, of course, why do I feel I need to try to spread happiness by forcing my middle-class values on poor people? I think this, of course, because I am running and when you are running you have a lot time to try to think about things that aren't how tired you feel or how far you have left to go.

The answer to this question definitely points back to Biss's (the essayist) point about the feeling of "having more than I deserve." I feel guilty for having more than I deserve, but more subtly, I probably feel the desire to pass these values on to people poorer than myself in hopes of justifying my beliefs. If they adopt my values and also find success, then perhaps I am not party to some terrible crime. I'm just a person who has played by the rules, and here's living proof that anyone can succeed with these rules, so clearly the game wasn't necessarily rigged in my favor.

But I can't escape the fact that the game is partly rigged in my favor, even if I don't actively try to take advantage of it, I'm still a white, middle-class man. So I run on. I cross Central Avenue, reach Little Italy. Back on familiar turf, back to a neighborhood where you can take a date and purchase over-priced Italian food, wine, and dessert. Probably not much more than 2 miles to go on this run, I'm almost done!

I guess that's the other reason to run; because you can make visible, evident progress and you're always moving forward.


Rich said...

The projects, especially those close to JHMI, which are in much better shape than most (scary thought), are really not inherently dangerous.

The 4x4, (
on the other hand, is really pretty terrible. Apparently its the de facto border between east baltimore and north east baltimore drug dealers. You know how that story ends.

If there's a point to this (other than that awful crime stat page), its that the gentrification around JHMI has pushed the 'bad' farther north, and into conflict in border areas like this. Unfortunately, we all know Hopkins couldn't care less.

Greg Eckenrode said...

I'll play this game. How would you like it if you got gentrified? What would happen if the next socio-economic class up from you decided that Federal Hill was a great place to move into, and suddenly, the same thing that happened to local Baltimorians in the late 90's happened to you?
Given that 39% of Baltimore households make less than $25K per year and that the average "yuppie" makes between $50k-$100k per year, we're talking about a large influx of people who're making about $400k-$700k per year.
First, housing prices jump from an affordable $300k-$500k to $2-$5 million. Not a problem if you already own your house, I guess, but then your house gets reappraised at $2.5 million and you property taxes go from $300/month to $2,500 a month. Not only that, but your recently refurbished brick front is suddenly looking pretty shabby in comparison to all of the ornate masonry work that the rich people love to put up.
Parking goes from unpleasant to impossible because, in addition to all of the massive Bentleys and Aston-Martins that are parked all over the place, you also have to park around the new resident's maids and personal assistants who are now working and parking in the area.
Most of the little yuppie restaurants that you used to like, with their $10-$15 entrees, are now jacket-and-tie places with entrees priced $50 and up. Also, the yuppie bars that you used to love are now high-society wine and martini establishments where the cheapest drink you can get runs about $35. Sure, there are still a few of the old bars around, but they're regularly invaded by rich kids who smell like Caswell-Massey and insist on playing classical music and talking about summer homes in Europe and look at you like you are not only covered in about an inch of dirt, but also that the imaginary dirt is about the most useful thing about you.
You can't seem to find any good places to play your yuppie sports like kickball and softball and ultimate frisbee anymore because all of those fields are being used by the richers to play polo and the horses tear up the fields like you wouldn't believe. Also, it seems like every time you try to throw a party on your roofdeck, the cops get called about an hour in about a "raucous disturbance."
But it's not like they all hate you, they just feel sorry for you. So imagine, one day, a senior banking executive takes you aside and explains that you're doing it all wrong.
"Son, working hard all day for a salary just so you can eke out a meager upper-middle class existence is no way to go through life," he tells you. He explains that the real secret is either to luck into an improbably large amount of money and invest it wisely, or sink the next 15 years of your life into advanced professional training. That's what you should be doing, not slaving away for some employer who's just using you to make themselves richer.
Seriously, as a former yuppie myself, I'm still all for gentrification and expensive little coffee shops and cute curio shacks on every corner, but don't pretend that you're doing the locals any favors.

ryanpvance said...

Bill Mill said...

stuffwhitepeoplelike is the best frigging blog on the planet. Seriously.

@greg: seriously, I'd cash out on my house and move. If I was renting, I'd just move. That's the way life is, and using political power to try and maintain a status quo against a market is insane and bound to fail.

Does it suck? Sure! But life sucks sometimes, and we can't wish that out of existance.