Living in Maslow’s Basement
The Hierarchy of Needs in the Golden Age of Gentrification
Note: This story is about living in San Francisco during a rental housing shortage and is part of a series about my own fight to keep my apartment. If nothing changes, we’re losing our home on May 22.
If you took a psychology class in high school or college, you ran across Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs, which is among other things a way of explaining why people who are poor often can’t get shit done like achieving enlightenment or running for president. The basic principle is that some needs are more pressing than others, and that it’s difficult to achieve one’s ideals if you’re struggling to eat, to survive, to find community, to be seen for who you are, or at all.
Or maybe the easiest way to put it is: If you haven’t eaten all day or you really have to pee, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. What if that was your life.
The Hierarchy of Needs is laid out for easy understanding like a pyramid, with the bottom level being basic physiological needs (eating, sleeping, shitting, fucking) and the next one up being safety needs. One illustration I found enumerates these as security of the body, of employment, of resources, of morality, of the family, of health, and of property.
In other words, the base needs of sleep and shelter, and of feeling like you have a home you’ll be able to live in, must be satisfied before you can give much attention to, say, the big questions, like “What is San Francisco turning into” and “Why am I fighting to live in a city that’s pushing me out” and “How come men feel entitled to my attention but don’t feel it’s necessary to return my texts?”
It’s not the case that you have to have all your base needs satisfied to approach the higher levels of engagement with life. You can engage in romantic and family and community relationships while living on the street; you can struggle with serious illness and have a vibrant artistic practice; you can be living paycheck to paycheck and commune with the divine in whatever way feels real. You can have a pretty good life, and be obsessed with how many people like your Facebook status. You can finish your PhD and wonder where all your friends went.
However, this pyramid as a mnemonic of what life requires from us, and what we require from life, is good to keep in mind when you’re struggling with something.
It’s good to keep in mind that your writer’s block or your constant rage are understandable when a demon with dollar signs for eyes and no conscience is coming to get your house.
I’ve also been advised not to apologize for my class rage.
The leisure class
The patron class
The investor class
High net worth individuals
The lawn-ed gentry
— Maslow’s Basement (@tarintowers) April 20, 2015
My therapist and I have talked about Maslow’s pyramid from time to time; at once point, he reminded me of it when talking about how I was getting more creative work done since a capricious roommate had moved out who was always making noises about how she could ask me to move out if she wanted to; the friction I’d given her was largely around asking her to stop eating my food.
I was reminded again a couple weeks ago about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when a person in my acquaintance asked me why my creative practice had to center around gentrification. There were other things to talk about, they pointed out, and I felt like pointing out to them in return that I could also talk about how economic privilege makes one blind to the plight of others, and that people who can afford to pay the egregious rents being charged in our town can also afford to shut the hell up and take a seat.
I didn’t say that. I was in a context where I had to play nice, but I did ask a friend who’d been in the room why the person in question was so insensitive, or conversely, why I was so outraged by this person who was probably not intending to work my last nerve. She looked at me and said, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” and it fell into place. My safety needs are compromised by having a scythe shaped like an eviction notice looming over my head. Theirs were apparently satisfied so long ago that they forgot what it’s like to struggle.
Gentrification isn’t just restaurants changing hands and dudes wearing $200 jeans talking about valuations in your neighborhood coffee shop. For some of us, those of us who have designed our lives of art and activism around affordable housing, it can be losing not just an apartment, but the ability to live in San Francisco at all.
What the pyramid doesn’t address, though, and what I found myself thinking about in the days after this encounter, was why people stop before they interact with the top of the pyramid, which was Maslow’s real area of interest, what he called self-actualization.
Maslow was interested in the stage of life or of self-development where people no longer seek simple validation or psychological stability; he was interested in studying people who are altruistic and creative and engaged in pursuit of their highest potential. I’m curious about people who have achieved satisfaction and plant their flag in contentment. When people are basically taking care of themselves, basically stable, basically engaged in healthy social interaction, basically doing things at work they are acknowledged for: Why do they stop there?
I’m not talking about people who beat themselves up about not being artists and activists because they’re exhausted after having to work long hours at unfulfilling jobs just to be able to make ends meet.
I’m talking about people who have gamed the system in one way or another, whether by making a bundle or being born with one, so that life isn’t a constant struggle to keep well and housed and sane. Why aren’t the people who could afford to make a difference, making a difference? Why are so many rich people interested in making more money when they already have more than most of us will earn in a lifetime?
It’s not just the rich that I’m curious about, though. It’s people who stall themselves out and then barricade themselves behind a wall of apathy.
Why don’t these people work on cultivating empathy? Why don’t they perform acts of service (which are a great source of compassion and perspective)? Why do they watch TV all night? Where did their big ideas go? Why aren’t they doing that creative thing they bitch about never having time to do? Why aren’t they concerned about what is happening in the world? Where is their moral sense? Where are there ideals? Where is their head, at all? This isn’t a question of judgment so much as perplexity, or perhaps it’s just another critique of capital. Why do we hold ourselves back?
A wealthy friend of mine once told me that “the capital controls the capitalist,” but if that’s the case, that it’s the money’s fault, why not then get rid of the money?
I suppose the ones who trouble me even more are those like the person I mentioned earlier, the one who was pretty sure I should focus my energy on something other than losing my fucking home. This person has friends, and a creative practice, and yet is completely out of tune with the fact that people in this town are getting harmed on a daily basis by having their homes threatened, and that many of the creative people who made San Francisco the city everyone loves have had to move a great distance away to be able to achieve the safety needs, the physiological needs.
The need for shelter goes beyond having a roof (or a yurt) over your head tonight. It has to do with knowing you have the option of sleeping under the same roof tomorrow, and the next day.
Having a place to sleep doesn’t satisfy your safety needs if that place will be out of your hands within a month or two. And in San Francisco, even if you have seen no concrete signs of succumbing to the eviction epidemic, you still might not feel secure.
If you think that your place might double in price, or get sold to a developer, or that your landlord might die, or if you run worst case scenarios over in your head about what would happen to your residency in San Francisco if you broke up with your live-in partner or had a falling-out with your master tenant — if that level of the pyramid is shaky, the fulfillment of the upper needs, belonging and esteem and creativity and the rest, might be out of reach.
I have felt recently that pursuing anything other than an overturned eviction is out of my reach. And now that in turn is out of my reach.
My life is a big question mark from here on out. But I’m doing my best to conjure all the feelings of security that I can muster — through my friends and my community — so that I can work on feeling emotionally stable enough, morally secure enough, and altruistically creative enough to say, “You know what? If you don’t feel threatened personally by the changes in San Francisco? Congratulations. Now count your blessings, and cut the rest of us some slack.”
I’ll say that as gently as possible, dear reader. Let’s be kind to one another so we can feel safe.