JUNE 8, 2012
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 neighborhood where she lived since 1979, a thriving art and theater scene has turned into little more than “Muzak” for tourists and visitors.
Gentrification of the mind has exacted a particularly high cost on queer communities. Though the conventional wisdom is that gay men are gentrification’s “shock troops” — moving into distressed areas and cleaning them up, preparing them for wealthier, straight residents — Schulman complicates this by reminding us that living in an enclave of relative safety was (and still is) a premium for gays and lesbians who could not live without fear where they had grown up. Then, too, with the arrival of the AIDS crisis, the sudden rise in deaths of gay men accelerated the process of gentrification. Their absences emptied out rent-controlled apartments, which, because gay partners usually lacked inheritance rights, were converted to market rate at an unusually rapid speed. “The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl,” Schulman writes.
Many died in their apartments. It was normal to hear that someone we knew had died and that their belongings were thrown out on the street. I remember once seeing the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills in a dumpster in front of a tenement and I knew that it meant that another gay man had died of AIDS, his belongings dumped into the gutter.
As the city was emptied of its core of artists and activists, the emotional trauma and devastation caused by AIDS was forgotten. So too, she contends, was the heroism of activists, many united by the direct action group ACT UP, to arrest the course of the disease. Next, argues Schulman, the official story of the epidemic became one in which Americans “naturally, normally” grew out of prejudice.
It’s not only neighborhoods, then, that are gentrified, but what we know of our history, and what we consider our politics, too. As Schulman provocatively argues, the seemingly astounding success of the gay rights movement over the past five years is itself a symptom of a gentrification of gay politics. It is gayness, she says, that has assimilated to the values embedded in dominant culture — like monogamy and the nuclear family — not straight culture that has integrated the hopes and insights of gay individuals. In so doing, writes Schulman, “…homosexuality loses its transformative potential and strives instead to be banal.” “If you ask most people what the most pressing issue for queers is in America today, they will say ‘marriage,'” says Schulman. In this, she’s proven more right every day, as politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo use support for marriage equality to bolster their liberal bona fides while slashing the budget for public services. But the single-issue focus obscures a host of ways in which gay people continue to struggle for rights and representation. Of the focus on marriage, Schulman asserts:
Inherent in this is the assumption that everything else is great for gay people, and only marriage remains. Yet there is no nationwide antidiscrimination law, and marginalization in publicly funded institutions like schools and the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day parade is firmly in place. There is no integration of lesbians of all races or gay men of color’s perspectives into the mainstream arts entertainment. Familial homophobia is the status quo. We are not integrated into education curriculum or services. Being out is professionally detrimental in most fields. Most heterosexuals still think of themselves as superior and most gay people submit to this out of necessity or lack of awareness. Basically, in relation to where we should be — we are nowhere.
Schulman is rightly critical of anyone who identifies marriage as the only issue of importance to queer people. We are in a dizzying state of affairs, where eight states sanction same-sex marriages and straightforward acceptance of the same is ever more de rigueur in polite company, and yet some 90 percent of LGBT teens suffer physical or verbal harassment, and queer-bashing in general is still commonplace. “Today if you are a lesbian and want to get married in Iowa, you are in luck,” Schulman writes. “But if you are a human being who would like to read novels with lesbian protagonists with openly lesbian authors, close your eyes and think of England” — where lesbian novelists Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson are celebrated.
As she does in so much of her writing, Schulman swings a lantern over deprivations we’ve forgotten or repressed: where is the permanent memorial for people who died of AIDS? Where is “our post-traumatic stress diagnosis”? But in leaving out any evidence of actual progress, she does some forgetting of her own. She asks, for instance, to see a New Yorker story with a lesbian theme written by a lesbian, but there’s been at least one of those: Ariel Levy’s wonderful 2009 essay on lesbian separatist communes of the 1970s, aptly titled “Lesbian Nation.” And herein lies the main problem with Schulman’s argument. The LGBT rights movement’s recent rapid advances are undoubtedly compatible with the familiar American trope of pro-market rugged individualism; it’s no surprise that marriage and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal have caught fire in the public imagination in a way that protections against employment or housing discrimination never did. Yet lesbians and gay men simply are not always and everywhere out in the cold. That complicates Schulman’s limited view of what constitutes political progress. In her forthcoming book, Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Limits of LGBT Politics, Urvashi Vaid observes, “Equal rights and equal protection can be granted without disturbing many of the hierarchies, institutions, or traditions that perpetuate the idea that LGBT difference is unnatural, immoral, wrong, or harmful to society.” But Vaid, a longtime critic of the gentrifying LGBT movement, simultaneously acknowledges that “[e]quality matters, and legal rights, including the freedom to marry, are meaningful in the lives of LGBT people. Policy wins for LGBT equal rights in the U.S. have been dramatic and significant in the past few years.”
Similarly, Schulman’s insistence that “authentic” lesbian stories still can’t be told rings hollow. It’s an overly obvious question in our post-postmodern age, but, really, what does “authentic” mean here? Grappling with the recent artistic and cultural success of a number of openly gay women and men would have bolstered, rather than undermined, her argument. (Why, for instance, must David Sedaris’s stories always refer to his partner in such a glancing manner? Why did Alison Bechdel’s depiction of oral sex in her recent graphic memoir Are You My Mother? provoke Judith Thurman to call it a “bad” book?) Schulman might then have lead us to consider which authentic stories of lesbian and gay lives can find traction in mainstream society, and which are still unheard. In the wake of ACT UP and a broader gay rights movement that has amassed both power and prominence, the threats of co-optation and piecemeal acceptance loom larger than outright denial or rejection.
Schulman powerfully evokes New York at a time when it offered something to its residents that no other city in America could. Before suburbs, “individuated young people came to New York to ‘make it,’ to come out, to be artists, to make money, to have more sophisticated experiences, to have sex, to escape religion, and to be independent of their families,” she writes. But mass culture and the Internet have eroded the city-country divide. Children of the suburbs no longer need be so culturally deprived or politically repressed. Nor are all New Yorkers necessarily so culturally adventuresome or politically innovative. And, it’s worth asking, should they all be? Is the city only for people who thrive on the margins, who, as Schulman remembers it, “had illegal sex, took illegal drugs, hustled literally and figuratively for money, lived in poverty, and said fuck you to dominant cultural values, all of which made it possible for them to discover new art ideas later enjoyed by the world”? Having failed to offer a clear articulation of what constitutes alternative values, Schulman ends up valorizing difference for difference’s sake. In keeping with this valorization of Otherness, Schulman has argued elsewhere that the waning of homophobia in straight society presents its own anxieties — namely, that it becomes harder for a gay person to predict whether acceptance or rejection will greet their coming out. True — and yet, it’s hard to deny that gayness is becoming ever more okay, and that surely this is cause for celebration. For Schulman, however, this chance to fit in, to be accepted, is a mixed bag.
In The Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman resurrects a city that is equal parts myth and memory for younger queers, offering rich history lessons for which I am grateful. Yet she is surprisingly unforgiving of the new kinds of sacrifices the city requires of its residents now: like making the best of a day job, taking political action in an era of deep and deserved cynicism, struggling within institutions, grappling with the intoxicating effects of ambition. “The other day I asked a new tenant what she does for a living,” Schulman writes. “‘I’m in branding,’ the thirty-something said, smiling.” For Schulman, that’s a punch line. She has let the reality — that artists can barely afford to live in the city unless they’re in branding — recede. She never entertains the notion that artists might also be marketers. Schulman has provided a galvanizing account of the transformation, both external and mental, in New York City life. But she does so with limited empathy for, or insight into, what making a life in the city requires today.