Thursday, July 12, 2012

a new kind of sameness

So I've been trying to figure out why I get a little bothered at the whole gentrification new urbanista movement people, because yeah, cities that actually work with viable transportation options and relatively safe streets and whatnot are good things, but the general attitude sometimes gets a little grating, kind of the secular reverse of the people I grew up with who somehow thought they were more virtuous because they lived in the country because that's where real life and the good people were.

I shouldn't be so hard on them, because I had my time when youthful idealism was tempered by the realities of the occasional driveby shooting, the hookers on the corner, getting hollered at from every other front porch and having invasive comments made about the color of my lady parts, having to pick routes to places based on which corners were sketchy.

Even if the neighborhood is walkable and there's lots of places where people go out to eat, the population has never been dense enough that I felt safe walking alone after sunset. There were vast swaths of dead zones between one area of development and another, and enough robberies and rapes within a few blocks of me, and a drive-by shooting two doors down that it only cemented a fortress mentality on my part that I'm only beginning to shake myself free of. It's what happens when you live alone and you get accosted for bunga-bunga when you're in your driveway and it's painfully obvious that there's no one looking out for you.

In conversation the other night with some friends who still live over there, we were wrestling with the implications raised by a block club meeting one of them attended where the local folks and the development corporation locked horns over what to do with a stretch of streetscape. I've always kind of liked the way it looked, with the handpainted signage and the little enterprises that go in and out, the dilapidated 19th century facades and such... antique stores and all-night diners, ethnic grocery stores and auto parts shops and so on, though others see it differently and would rather supplant the barbershops and used car lots with art studios and other such enterprises.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but come on now, young white people.There are a lot of vacant storefronts, but that area is one of the few stretches that does have small locally owned businesses that serve the surrounding area. And here's the thing, barbershops and hair braiding salons  may not cater to you, but it's a regular thing for other people. As is the Vietnamese market, and the Puerto Rican bakeries, the Lebanese social clubs and the auto parts shops. Most people can't afford Priuses so they stop at the used car lot. Some people have kids and can't ride their bikes everywhere.

If you're going on about "food deserts" because there's no Trader Joe's or food co-op down there, you obviously haven't been inside any of the ethnic markets down there that sell rice and beans and fresh vegetables very cheaply and sell the kind of things that you'd pay dearly for at World Market or Whole Foods but it's within walking distance. I know most of you haven't been there because the people who work there ask why I, as a white person, shop there, because either few or none do.

But this is the thing that gets me. All these people talk about how they want to live in the city because there's life there and it's not bland and generic and cookie-cutter like the cracker suburbias they grew up in. But what I see a lot of these people doing is just trying to impose a different kind of sameness in their new neighborhoods, it has to be the right kind of people into the right kind of things. Instead of big box stores, it's little boutiques or whatever, instead of Dairy Queen, it's yuppie ice cream. But every "art district" or "restaurant district" pretty much looks exactly the same. Maybe the period of the architecture is different, but it's the same aesthetic repeated over and over again everywhere.

For all of its "funkiness" and "uniqueness" and "localness" every single gentrified urban area looks like this, at least from what I've seen in DC, Buffalo, Boston, Columbus.Any semblance of local culture is ultimately co-opted and wiped out, maintaining only a patina of grit to make it seem authentic, when it's just as much a manufactured culture as what its acolytes rail against. Not only that, but it's damn expensive for even us arty white folks who don't have swank jobs. If your dream is to sell organic cupcakes to the masses, that's cool and go you, but remember that there's a whole rest of the world out there that can't afford such things or may not care that they exist.



  2. Know who buys used cars? Bus People.