Friday, January 16, 2009

confessions of a gentrifier who’s kind of over confession

1. perplexed in the city

First of all, a shout out to Hawaii friend Mano, because not many houseguests would get genuinely excited when their host said, “Hey, there’s this lecture at the library I want to go to tomorrow night. Want to spend your only night in L.A. doing that?”

Luckily, it was kind of a kick-ass event: a Q&A between poet/KPFK guy Jerry Quickley and writer/solo performer Danny Hoch, whom I became a fan of in college when his one-man show Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop came to UCLA. The topic at hand was gentrification, the subject of Hoch’s new show Taking Over.

Jerry and Danny are both NYC natives who saw the city through the crack epidemic, the Giuliani crackdown and the era when Michelle Williams began strollering her baby through Brooklyn. Even though Jerry was quick (no pun intended) to point out how everyone likes to believe the gentrifiers are the ones who came right after him or her, I could tell he also wanted to devote some time to humorously ragging on all the white people in Harlem now.

And Danny (a white guy with some hip-hop street cred) kind of did too, though in a manner that was a bit more nuanced. His basic point was that gentrification is a kind of colonialism because it involves bringing wealth to a place and using that wealth to displace those who are already there.

Even if you really needed to get out Kansas.

Even if you spend your money at local businesses.

Even if you teach or volunteer or advocate for your new community.

You’re still a colonizer.

“People keep saying to me, ‘Okay, so what should I do? What do you want me to do? Just give me an answer,’” Hoch said. And sure enough, a couple of people in the audience said just that, trying in subtle ways to exclude themselves from gentrifier/colonizer status. “I don’t have an answer,” Hoch kept saying.

2. return

Except he had one small and radical answer, which was: Go back to where you came from.

No one wanted to hear it—not even me, and I only live 25 miles from where I grew up, but about six classes and 75 cultures lie along that stretch of freeway.

He had a good point, one that I haven’t heard anyone else make, which is that all those people who found their hometowns in “flyover” land stifling owe it to their former communities—and to the “real” and “gritty” urban lands they want to adopt—to try to enrich their cities of origin. If you stay it will get more progressive. You can build an artistic and cultural community there.

It just doesn’t bring the hipster cache and instant gratification that setting up shop in Brooklyn or, say, Highland Park does.

After the talk, we ran into Raquel, a member of the Butchlalis performance troupe. “Are you a Danny Hoch fan?” I asked, just making small talk.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “He’s so paternalistic. I heard he owns all this property and has a PhD. His methods are so ‘90s—playing the guilt card. I think I’m over hip-hop theater.”

Raquel is waaay more tapped into the performance world than I am, and it seemed like she was already exhausted by a dialogue I had just caught a few enticing words of. In some ways, I didn’t really get what she was saying: Hadn’t Danny Hoch just implicated himself all over the place, admitting to having a fridge full of soy milk? And didn’t the Butchlalis also play a bunch of characters and draw on a mix of spoken word traditions and academic ideologies, not unlike Hoch’s shows?

But it also snapped me out of my Danny Hoch dazzle-ment a little bit. Like my favorite college professor Chris Cunningham, Hoch was a funny, educated white guy who waved my own privilege in my 19-year-old face until I cried, sometimes literally. As a descendent of British oppressors and Jewish grandmas, raised in love and comfort by parents who grew up in poor and/or dysfunctional families, I was a perfect storm of guilt.

3. then what, now what?

And then I got over it. Well, not like over it over it, but through it. Awareness is important. Guilt is mostly a waste of time. But sometimes a little awareness gets lost in the guilt-shedding process, and hearing Hoch again blew the dust of my awareness antennas. I’d be lying if I said that my masochistic heart didn’t warm to the possibility of more guilt, but I also felt like I was genuinely in a different place than I was a dozen years ago.

Like I could own my privilege but not be crushed by it, for no other reason than the fact that me getting crushed is not going to save anyone in the third world, or even any Highland Park natives.

(And maybe Taking Over takes this on, but what about all the gray-area gentrifiers? People like my friend Alberto, who grew up in HP but left for a long while and has a college degree and the most hipster-y music collection of anyone I know. People—myself included—who’ve gentrified an area only to be priced out of it five years later. People who might have been able to make a living in small-town Kansas but who, because they’re gay or trans, could never make a life there, as one audience member pointed out last night.)

So what do we, the gentrifiers, do? Last night AK—who left not-so-privileged Santa Ana for not-so-privileged-but-cooler L.A.—and Mano—who got bombed out of Vietnam as a five-year-old but now feels weird about displacing native Hawaiians in Honolulu— and I ate really good burgers and veggie burgers and grilled cheese at the Redwood Bar & Grill: a downtown venue that is not quite hipster, definitely not Skid Row, and brazenly pirate-themed. And we talked about all this stuff, and we waved our pirate flags.


Tracy Lynn said...

Dude, the important part of anything is the THINKING. Stuff that makes you think is good. No matter where it comes from, I've found.

Nature is full of colonizers. It's not just humans.

Claire said...

I don't buy the argument that a person is beholden to the place they grew up. It's a nice idea, but very limiting... staying put would set up something of a caste system based on advantages of particular locales.

Anonymous said...

from an econ perspective, mobility is considered the great american innovation. mobile workers move around in search of employment, keeping wages relatively low but people employed, allowing businesses to be flexible in terms of resource needs and adapt to the economy, etc. as a result of innovation and mobility, there tend to be spatial (e.g. place-based) winners and losers over time. places that were winners at one point may become losers (e.g. the rust belt) due to a change in the economic structure, or an inability to meet changes in demand. it's a different lens by which to look at the concept of gentrification.
(europe is another model, where people stay put for generations, workers have lots of power but low chances of changing jobs or classes, economic innovation is relatively low, etc.)

the last noel said...

This is a very interesting and difficult discussion. My old neighborhood sells lattes now. I couldn't afford a home there, but I'm glad what it's doing for the price of my mom's home. She'll need the money someday should she sell.

Frankly, I'm glad to read that gentrifiers have a conscience.

Cheryl said...

TL: Good point. Even bunnies took over Australia or something, didn't they?

Claire: It's true, but I think Danny Hoch's point was: Think about who you're limiting when you're trying to escape your own limits.

Christine: Thanks for the always-needed global/historical perspective. I've heard about studies that show gentrification can be beneficial to both longtime residents and newcomers if it happens slowly and allows the old-timers to make some money. I wouldn't trade in mobility entirely, but it was interesting to consider the European model, since it's almost a taboo here.

N: A mixed bag indeed. I hope your mom makes big bucks when she decides to, and in the meantime enjoys a good latte.

Anonymous said...

Weird. I feel like I have heard the "Go back where you came from" argument in a slightly different context before, and seemed to come to a fairly racist and un-human conclusion. Then again, I think that the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, in particular, are in such as state of constant flux, any attempt to identify a specific area as being "for" any one group is suspicious and naive.