Thoughts on gentrification, globalization, and tech

Gentrification is a topic constantly in the back of my mind. I think it’s because it’s an expression of systemic forces that you can actually witness and track when you look for it. You see battle-lines in neighborhoods, where only a block separates new cafes that specialize in fair trade cold brews furnished with expertly tarnished wood stools full of only white people and older bakeries where no one reads from the menus and chat like they’ve known each other for some time now. There are two kinds of familiarity, the first being a sign of quality and the new global minimalist aesthetic, and the second, a sense from the places we grew up, a place where people exude belonging. The former is in a constant rate at erasing the latter, and I know I’m a part of that process.

Working through being a gentrifier is one of the most fraught acknowledgements I’ve faced, both with myself and other people. No one wants to purposefully displace local populations from their homes, but they are. Wrestling with how to stop or work against gentrification feels impossible, because you’ve likely already done the one thing that makes the strongest impact: moving from a suburb to a cheaper urban neighborhood. Of my peers who grew up in suburbs, very few wanted to stay there; instead, most wanted to move into a city where there’s a stronger sense of culture and the benefits that come along with that. But the rate of people moving from suburbs to cities isn’t matching the development of affordable housing, so original residents of cities get displaced.

My story: I grew up in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, one the major cities in South Florida. I struggled often with class and race issues when it came to geographical cultures, as my parents aren’t from the US and we lived in a poorer suburb next to the city I went to school in. From when I was young, I dreamed about moving to California, and when I started to learn more about queer advocacy, specifically San Francisco. Life felt boring in a place meant to be living spaces for 9-5 workers; I was to be an artist and be a part of radical communities and march in protests. All the things you imagine of an older San Francisco. This isn’t an unreasonable wish, especially for someone who is queer and wants to be closer to queer resources and safe spaces. But when I arrived in the bay area in 2012, when it became extremely apparently the world that the tech industry was becoming a dominant force again in our lives, I saw something painful. The diversity and advocacy for more radical politics San Francisco came to be known for was twisted, in an atmosphere that assumed oppression was well-fought or over, and the remaining work could be handled by technological solutions. Non-white and queer people were mostly hanging on by a thread in the east bay while affluent white people indulged in the hipster aesthetic that would emblemize gentrification for at least our country. I watched ending stages of gentrification in the Mission and a large push at Oakland. Now, I’m in Brooklyn, and it feels like deja vu. Except that I’m a part of it, and I can’t really not be unless I go back to Florida, back to my old neighborhood, where I never want to be ever again in my life.

My, and other’s, attraction to cities is of an imagined culture we wish to be a part of. We have national, global, ideas of San Francisco, ideas of New York, and its that we aim to live in an recreate once we move. But the people who already live here have their own local cultures that are not necessarily a part of this global imagining. I think gentrification, it’s creep, is a part of this globalization narrative emboldened by technology. Instead of being ‘isolated’ we are now global citizens and we share a larger, overarching culture, and physical location is something in the way, a continued disavowment of bodies by technodeterministic ideals. This relationship with design ideals and displacement is complicated, since a lot of the forces of gentrification just want things to be better; better for the neighborhood, better for the people, better for themselves. But the chosen aesthetic and methods echo colonial ideals of wanting to civilize savage lands, and it just happens that the original inhabitants can’t afford to live there anymore. Of all places, a review on Amazon about a publication I indulge in that caters to this aesthetic you see in gentrified places sums up what is going on:

“After thumbing through three-hundred-plus pages, it occurs to me that the Kinfolk cookbook is a variation on a single theme: the creation of a life lived in an Anthropologie catalog. It’s the reason why we get lost in blogs and the lives of strangers. We want to be happy, always. We want a life free of storms and sorrow. We want our linens, and bowls, and kitchens with reclaimed wood – and in this way, Kinfolk succeeds, for its America is rarefied and specific, rife with denizens who are preened to dishabille perfection and apply pretty filters to their photos[…] While escapism looks lovely on paper, in practice it’s difficult and expensive.”

Over lunch today I had a conversation with someone working in food security and justice about getting resources to food deserts. When we were discussing the strategies they employed in their line of work, a theme of compromised solutions with gentrifiers came up over and over again. Putting things like farmers’ markets makes the neighborhood more appetizing to people, as the markets in under-served neighborhoods are cheaper and the cost of living still relatively low. Any shows of local art or flea markets also attract gentrifiers and, at best, open up opportunities of exploitation and appropriation of local cultures. Worn architecture marked with the patina of people living there become trendy, inviting tours, especially when the first craft distillery opens up in a warehouse somewhere near enough the market. It’s almost like this global culture seeks to deny local cultures appreciating their own beauty. If it’s valuable, global culture feels like it should be ‘shared’ by all, or really, just the privileged.

When thinking on what to do, how to fight gentrification, my current place is trying to assimilate as much as I can into the local culture I arrived in without fooling myself that I’m a native. It means going to the bodegas and restaurants that don’t look new but have been neighborhood institutions. It’s been trying to patron places that have comparable demographics inside their establishment to the one on the street. It’s also figuring out how I can contribute to the neighborhood without making it into a tourist spot for potential gentrifiers. I definitely want to further understand more of what’s complicated about this and express it in my work. But if there’s something I know a lot of people could do, it’s talk about this more, make it a conversation that can come up more naturally and less defensively. Because looking for who is at fault isn’t really going to find our answer, rather challenging the values of our society and the dream of a globalized culture lead by the machinations of technology and its industries.

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