Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

High-brow & low-brow gentrification defenses …

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I happened to read both this review from the June issue of the Atlantic (“Gentrification and It’s Discontents”) and this op-ed on BushwickBK.com (“In Defense of ‘Hipsters’ and the Controversial Practice of Moving to a City Not of One’s Birth”) last weekend, and found the parallels kind of interesting & amusing.

Atlantic editor Benjamin Schwarz reviews two recent urban-ecology books—Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan and Sharon Zukin’s Naked Cityin what more or less amounts to a takedown of Jane Jacobs acolytes, and one that had me chuckling out loud a few times at that (which may be more of a reflection on my sense of humor than profound hilarity). Schwarz writes:

Even if Zukin and Sorkin bemoan the city’s deindustrialization and are wistful for the higgledy-piggledy way manufacturing was scattered throughout New York (diversity! mixed use!), they’re compelled to make clear that they don’t miss the sweatshops and the exploitative, horrible life that went with them. And recall that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in the heart of the Village on a block fronting Washington Square, burned in the second decade of the 20th century […] Which means that even hazy melancholy for the New York of regular Joes with lunch pails returning after a good day’s work to their neighborhoods of kids playing stickball and corner drugstores dispensing egg creams can only evoke scenes pretty much limited to the years of the LaGuardia administration.


Thanks to the profound influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities has exerted, the West Village circa 1960 has come to epitomize—really to be the blueprint for—the urban good life. But in its mix of the new and the left over, in its alchemy of authenticity, grit, seedy glamour, and intellectual and cultural sophistication, this was a neighborhood in a transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment.

He goes on to explain how the same cycle—industrial to bohemian to yuppie (or insert whatever adjectives make sense to you)—played out in SoHo, Tribeca and the East Village, and is currently playing out in parts of Brooklyn, and he mocks the authors’ romanticizing the precise moment on that spectrum that confers the most benefits on people like themselves:

… it’s clear that they pine for—and mistake as susceptible to preservation—the same sort of transitional moment Jacobs evokes in Death and Life, when an architecturally interesting enclave holds in ephemeral balance the emerging and the residual. 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) and a generous but not overwhelming portion of right-thinking designers, publishing types, architects, and academics, and the one-of-a kind boutiques and innovative restaurants that will give them places to shop and brunch.

Zukin declares that she “resent[s] everything Starbucks represents,” which really means that her urban ideal is the cool neighborhood at the moment before the first Starbucks moves in, an ever-more-fleeting moment.

Bushwick (a neighborhood in north Brooklyn butting up against both Williamsburg and Greenpoint, along with Bed Stuy and Ridgewood, Queens) is at that fleeting moment, or is at least as close to that fleeting moment as the city has right now, as far as I know (do any people in Queens or Harlem dispute me?); Greenpoint already has one Starbucks, and Williamsburg has just kind of lost the PR battle. In a column on BushwickBK.com, Barrett Brown complains:

… we have some great number of more irregular readers who really, really, enjoy our Bushwick Chic feature because they spend literally hours each week obsessing over “hipsters,” a catch-all term that has come to refer to anyone who moves to Brooklyn from somewhere other than Puerto Rico or some awful Balkan country. Most such commenters come to BushwickBK by way of Die Hipster, the increasingly popular website with an editorial stance to the effect that hipsters should strongly consider dying.

So, this article also made me chuckle out loud. But that’s not where the similarities end! Because Barrett also demonstrates how silly it is when “gentrification’s discontents” idealize any particular point in the urban neighborhood life-cycle:

Certainly there are some great number of douchebags, pseudo-intellectuals, and no-talent “artists” among the many over-educated young people who have moved to Bushwick over the past decade. Certainly there are a number of locals who are fine, capable people — but whatever that number is, it’s not so high that Bushwick natives are able to fill the various creative jobs that always need filling, which is why Bushwick, like all of New York, must continually import talent to fill them, even in such cases as nativity would provide a significant edge in the carrying out of such work.

In a subsequent response, Barrett defends himself against commenters who call him racist:

Although the stereotypical characteristics of the “hipster” don’t apply to many Puerto Ricans, the objections based on the simple of act of moving to Brooklyn from somewhere else and the real and imagined effects this has on those who already lived here would seem to apply, yet such objections are only made against a subset of those who move here: whites in general and youngish whites in particular. Somewhat related is the bizarre belief that non-whites are somehow more “genuine” than whites, and thereby entitled to live in certain places that whites are not. Ironically, many whites of the sort that the anti-hipster crowd like to mock — and rightfully so — also hold this belief, which is not only unfair to whites, but also patronizing of non-whites, who are regarded thereby as somehow above the criticism reserved for other “transplants.”

I think we all fall victim to our own skewed ideas about “authenticity” from time to time; everyone has their Jane Jacobs utopia in some form or other. A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who had grown up in Greenpoint. He mentioned that, at one point, there was talk the neighborhood was getting a Wal-Mart. Wouldn’t that have been terrible?, I immediately thought

“I was really excited,” he said. For a boy who’d grown up with “mom-&-pop” corner stores and cramped, catch-all home goods outlets run or staffed by the area’s Polish, Hispanic or Italian residents, the bright, cheap, convenient plasticity of a local Wal-Mart sounded like a good deal.


Written by Elizabeth

June 8, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Posted in City-Dwelling, Culture

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