I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY just after New Year's Day of 2007. Shortly before I arrived, I began to notice a word new to me that my New York friends kept saying: gentrification. A young queer person we knew paid more, she said, than she could really afford to live in a part of the city that was already gentrified, so she wouldn't be contributing to the ongoing displacement of low-income and black and Hispanic New Yorkers from neighborhoods that had long been their homes. I'd never encountered that particular brand of counter-capitalist capitalism before.
For scores of New Yorkers like me, who move to the city as adults — artists, interns, graduate students, non-profits workers, young people just a year or two into a full-time job — the choice of where to live often becomes political. This largely (though by no means exclusively) white cohort often grew up middle class, even if earning modestly now. And our inability to afford anything more than (relatively) low rent, combined with a desire for the pleasures and conveniences that have become synonymous with urban life, pose a problem for the long-term residents of the areas we move into. Forty-seven percent of New York City residents were white in 1988, a share that grew to 57 percent by 2009. When I moved, I came for a barely-paid internship, to sublet a room in an apartment on a subway stop where I was often the only white person exiting the train. The building I lived in was renovating apartments one by one. I never peered into other tenants' apartments, but I can only assume it was the renovated ones that housed the building's few white residents.
Sarah Schulman's provocative new book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, reckons with the intellectual and spiritual consequences of this displacement, with an eye to its impact on queer politics and queer communities in the wake of the AIDS crisis. "Gentrification," Schulman said recently in an interview on WNYC, "was not caused by individuals. It was the process of city policy." A moratorium on construction of low-income housing and tax incentives for luxury developers combined to create severely class-stratified neighborhoods where anyone with less than significant wealth has limited options for where to live. For white newcomers to the city who can't afford much, that often means renting an apartment in a neighborhood that doesn't have many people who look like you.
But in Schulman's telling, the struggle over real estate is only the most obvious side of the story. As gentrification reshapes people's understanding of the urban experience, the damage goes deeper; the mind itself, she argues, becomes gentrified. "Spiritually," she writes, "gentrification is the removal of the dynamic mix that defines urbanity — the familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together." That lost mix was once the fuel for new art and new politics. Gentrification restricts the availability and viability of new and inventive forms of thought, art, and politics. Now that paying rent in New York City requires a decently-paid, full-time job, or indulgent parents, "conventional bourgeois behavior," Schulman writes, "becomes a requirement for [artists] surviving socially, developing professionally, earning a living . . . By necessity, their goals are altered." Schulman tells us that in the East Village, the neighborh...read more