Thursday, October 21, 2010

ANTI-ASSIMILATIONISTS. Megan McArdle talks about gentrification, which she is currently performing as a new homeowner in "what is euphemistically known as a 'mixed' neighborhood" in DC. Perhaps to get her cracker fans interested, early in the piece she presents an exciting new variation on that rightwing voice-of-the-people schtick Ideologically Sympathetic Cab driver -- the Id Symp Bus Rider:
Yesterday, I rode the bus for the first time from the stop near my house, and ended up chatting with a lifelong neighborhood resident who has just moved to Arizona, and was back visiting family. We talked about the vagaries of the city bus system, and then after a pause, he said, "You know, you may have heard us talking about you people, how we don't want you here. A lot of people are saying you all are taking the city from us. Way I feel is, you don't own a city." He paused and looked around the admittedly somewhat seedy street corner. "Besides, look what we did with it. We had it for forty years, and look what we did with it!"
In my many years of transitional living, I've never had a conversation like that. But then I probably don't have McArdle's winning ways with the locals.

McArdle says she and her husband "want to live in a place that's affordable, and economically and racially mixed." But, sigh, science says she can't, at least not for long. She quotes Benjamin Schwarz at great length on how gentrifying areas don't hold to that magical transitional stage for long, and that the new people inevitably squeeze out the old. McArdle is resigned and, it would seem, content: "I want the services, but I don't want this to price out all the people who already live there. Unfortunately, it's a package deal." It's natural selection!

The Schwarz quote is pretty snotty, but one passage especially leaps screaming from the page -- Schwartz mocks some other researchers who would prefer to see the new people and the old people coexist in harmony (which makes them "sentimental progressives" in his view); he describes their favored enclaves:
Such neighborhoods still contain a sprinkling of light industry and raffish characters, for urban grit, and a dash of what Zukin calls "people of color," for exotic diversity. Added to the mélange are lots and lots of experimental artists (for that boho frisson)...
As a longtime (and recently returned) city-dweller, I often reappraise my own view of city life to make sure I'm not just trying to wrap a Sesame Street bedsheet around reality. But though I have my own sentimental progressive side, I know I've never wished for "people of color" to supply "exotic diversity" to my experience. And if I appreciate "urban grit," it is not because I view people as mere ingredients in a cultural stew -- I guess I should say "ragout," to better conform to Schwarz's stereotype of prissy bohemianism -- but because I find places with some connection to their past healthier than those that have had their past wiped away. If someone wanted to live in proximity to their grandparents, would Schwarz accuse them of seeking "geriatic diversity" as some sort of effete seasoning?

And the changes are neither uniform nor inevitable. McArdle and Schwarz must know that while the East Village has been gentrified beyond recognition, and some waves of gentrification came quickly, there are still sections where old-time Puerto Rican and other settlers are still hanging in, thanks in part to city housing projects, and living in relative harmony with the newer people decades after they started arriving. Up in Harlem, gentrification is widely advertised -- sometimes with ludicrous aggressiveness -- but only really exists in slivers; up where I am, in Sugar Hill, gentrification basically means "some white people observed between subway and apartments." (The people I've talked to are nice, though, even if none of them have said that they foolishly destroyed their own neighborhood and are glad I am here to revitalize it.)

Despite their characterization, this is not Plymouth Rock and the originals aren't Indians. It is not absolutely necessary that, once honkies and money come to a previously disadvantaged neighborhood, all the poor people have to disappear. It has come to seem so, however, because policy and prejudice have conspired to make it so.

Schwarz himself notes the decline of manufacturing in the city; he sneers that the progressives are "wistful for the higgledy-piggledy way manufacturing was scattered throughout New York (diversity! mixed use!)" but are "compelled to make clear that they don’t miss the sweatshops and the exploitative, horrible life that went with them." But after social agitation and progressive legislation chased away much of the sweatshop trade, 20th Century New York developed enough thriving port and factory work to grant a middle-class life to hundreds of thousands of people who had no more than a high school education. In our current enlightened offshore economy, however, that type of person is now more than likely to be working poor -- heads of families laboring long hours at crap jobs with little opportunity for advancement. (Oh, and we still have sweatshops.)

This is not the result of white people liking old buildings, but of social policy. And it's going to get worse. Rent control's a thing of the past, rent stabilization is dying off, and I assume that, as everything gets even more rightwing than it already is, affordable housing schemes will pass into history. Life will get tougher, and the poor will be driven to an even greater extent into what used to be called ghettos. And writers at the Atlantic will tell you it was meant to be.

UPDATE. If McArdle's post doesn't disgust you enough, you might try her commenters; when you weed out the outright racists (a full day's work right there - "I think taller and blonder is generally nicer looking -- and if you watch Univision, you'll see that many 'Hispanics' seem to as well"), you're mostly left with glibertarian sophists ("Wanting to live in a racially mixed neighborhood is as racist as wanting to live in a neighborhood with no racial mix") and other species of asshole.

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