“Behind Every Jane Jacobs Comes Giuliani with his Nightstick.”
Gavin Mueller’s article in Jacobin, about gentrification and racism in DC and the nation at large, is so incensed it steamed up my monitor. Here are some of his choicest, most eyebrow-raising assertions:
+ One advantage to living in DC is that these liberal niceties are being quickly thrust aside: here the word “gentrification” has lost its pejorative sense, ceasing to scandalize the yuppies who proudly reclaim the term as they “reclaim” homes and neighborhoods from the communities who have lived here for decades. + We don’t have creatives. We have bureaucrats and IT workers with a few more years of beards and bong hits in them, and really, isn’t this what most “creatives” are? + Gentrification has always been a top-down affair, not a spontaneous hipster influx, orchestrated by the real estate developers and investors who pull the strings of city policy, with individual home-buyers deployed in mopping up operations. + Currently the area’s fortunes are managed by the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, a cabal of property-owning hacks who talk Jacobs-style beautification in the interest of pushing property values higher. + Behind every Jane Jacobs comes Rudy Giuliani with his nightstick.
Gee, mister, tell us how you really feel. The logic gets fuzzier as Mueller gets more heated. He talks about how gentrification creates racism, because once white people buy property in low-income areas, they loathe the pre-existing black people they see around them. He attributes some very specific, inflammatory thoughts to a guy he was at a BBQ with: the man himself doesn’t speak, but Mueller speaks, eloquently, for him, of the man’s deep-seated fear and rage. Moreover, Mueller says, gentrifiers act on that fear and rage: we call the cops. Constantly.
Smoking weed in the alley? Call the cops. A group of teenagers talking loudly? Call the cops. Litter? Call the cops, just whatever you do, don’t actually approach people! State repression is the solution to all problems. … “What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics. You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college. Sure, you may feel a bit of guilt, but when it comes down to it, you’re still calling the cops at the slightest provocation.
Mueller doesn’t mention whether he actually knows anyone who “has 911 on speed dial.” I’ve never heard of or encountered that phenomenon, though my experience is limited; and Spike Lee was understandably furious when something similar happened to his father:
motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
So, yeah, gentrification sucks, it’s an issue lots of good people are wrestling with, and Mueller, for all his foaming at the mouth, gets a lot of things right. But the situation is, though Mueller scorns the word, complicated. I grew up in Marion Barry’s DC where, post-riots, whole blocks still looked like they’d been through a war. For a while, we were told not to drink the water. The potholes were so big they could swallow your car.
I have friends who have moved to DC in its recent more gentrified incarnation. They are earnest, do-gooding, hippie types working in progressive politics and helping pass important legislation. They are not racist colonizers, though if you called them that they would instinctively beat their breasts and offer to bake you a kugel to apologize for the sins of their kind rather than tell you you’re painting with too broad a brush. Not so much a broad brush, even: a flamethrower.
Mueller also says nothing specific about where he lives, how he has managed to opt out of the “colonization” he describes, if he indeed has. And, really, how? Be rich enough to live only in gated communities or the suburbs? Lots of people of all colors want to be respectful, tax-paying citizens. “Development without Displacement” is a start, and certainly the ideal, but meanwhile what can an individual do? Besides being a good neighbor (not a cop-calling one), investing in local businesses, and so on?
One time I met a Mueller-type dude at a party who railed against the evils of gentrification for a while. “Where do you live?” he demanded of me. I told him that my boyfriend and I shared a tiny, rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn Heights. The neighborhood was born fancy, so we hadn’t displaced anyone. “And where do you live?” I asked him. A look of triumph in his eye, he told me, “I’ve got it all figured out. I won’t contribute to a corrupt system. I don’t rent, I squat.”
Clue gif courtesy of WiffleGif