ENGELS AMONGST THE HIPSTERS: DW Gibson’s “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century”
This piece is part of our Life in the 21st Century City thread, an occasional series of reviews, essays and travelogues. It seeks to explore the felt reality of world cities today and the experience of living in them on both large and small scales. The series’ remit is necessarily and intentionally broad; it makes no claims of completeness. Rather, in gathering together a thematically diverse collection of documents, it aims to explore and interrogate the varieties of city life around the world.
DW Gibson The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (Overlook Press, 2015)
by Mark West
A recent listicle on Buzzfeed described a New York deli owner’s response to his rent being more than doubled. Titled “A Brooklyn Deli Was So Outraged By A Crazy Rent Hike It “Gentrified” Its Prices,” it explains that Mohamad Itayim created “fancy names, yuppie names” for everyday products including a “curated” extension cord set, “grass fed” tuna, and “artisan” roach bombs. The article’s title works as clickbait because it appeals to an already existing narrative which, boiled down, asserts that hipsters = gentrification. One needn’t travel too far, let alone as far as Brooklyn – also the focus of DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center – to hear people moaning about hipsters taking over sections of cities with coffee shops, art galleries and soaring prices. Hipsters have become so synonymous with gentrification that they are often decried as its source. While this is a simplification verging on a misconception, it is no accident that the two terms often appear together, because no-one ever admits to being either; both terms seem to work exclusively as insults. Relatedly, no-one ever seems to realise that they are one – it’s hard to be a self-aware hipster or gentrifier. This is reason enough for careful study, given the social currency of such terms (no-one wants to be one of these, either) and that debates around them so often rely on cliché and stereotype. The fact that they name – however clumsily – a key twenty-first century problem adds a further urgency. One of the salutary aspects of Gibson’s book – and there are many – is that it tackles this simplification head on.
Early on, Gibson talks of “the whole labyrinth that is the gentrification conversation.” Throughout the book, individuals offer interpretations of what the word might mean. This is a vexed subject. When one of his interviewees uses it, Gibson remarks ruefully: “suddenly I’m tangled, again, on what the word may or may not mean.” Gibson’s own approach is to admit that the word is amorphous. He tells one interviewee, a man named Toussaint, that “I don’t think anyone really knows what it means, which prompts him [Toussaint] to try for a definition of his own. After a minute of contemplation and a series of aborted sentences, he gives up and insists he doesn’t need to describe gentrification because he knows what it feels like.” Gibson treats this as proof of the term’s slippery nature, but also its very real manifestation, and it is this latter that the book is (wisely) more interested in. As he points out, the terms change (he cites “trendification” and the awful and mercifully short-lived 1970s phrase “brownstoneurbia”) but the process remains reasonably similar. Indeed he quotes Friedrich Engels, who wrote in the nineteenth century that
the bourgeoisie has only one method of settling the housing question … the breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere
If The Edge Becomes the Center offers a definition of gentrification, this is it. Yet Gibson is more interested in letting people speak for themselves. Here, then, are some of the things the word comes to mean:
Potentially toxic “vapours” accompanying the election of relatively left-wing Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York. As Gibson writes, “the violence of gentrification that fuels the de Blasio battle cry is so subtle, less like a bullet or a blade and more like the slow encroachment of carbon monoxide, filling one building after another.”
A node for the intersection of race and class. Middle-class and black, a man called mTkalla finds that his class position outweighs his race when he buys a townhouse in the neighbourhood he grew up in. “I don’t know if it’s the way I walk or talk,” he says, “but I’m still approach as though I’m a gentrifier. Because, again, gentrification isn’t about color, it’s about perceived class.”
The result of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton’s so-called zero tolerance approach to policing, according to a banker Gibson talks to, who says that “the drop in crime enabled people to move into neighbourhoods. Then the mortgage business began to respond to that.”
Local manifestations of a global phenomenon, according to the same banker, who raised millions and millions of dollars for big regeneration projects from taking money from rich people all over the globe, who bought into the projects in order to ‘own’ part of some land in New York City.
A subject off-limits for politicians. Daniel Squadron, a state senator “for New York’s 26th District, which includes all of Lower Manhattan – Wall Street, Tribeca, the Lower East Side, Chinatown – and man of the waterfront neighbourhoods in Brooklyn,” is, Gibson tells us, like the banker, “more comfortable with the macro, the big idea, the framework, while the micro – the intricacies of self, the apartment shared with rats and feral cats, etc. – is avoided altogether.” Squadron himself explains that gentrification is “not a helpful word for a politician speaking on the record – and it’s risky: too many implications, too many donors who might not like what they hear.”
Swirling about the conversations that compose the book is the question of what makes the ideal city, famously described in 1961 by Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities as including mixed-use streets, short blocks to encourage pedestrian use, non-uniformity of building design, and high density. For her, city life was akin to an “intricate ballet.” In The Edge Becomes the Center, for a man named Michael De Feo, the emergence of graffiti was exciting because “the excitement [was] about people becoming a part of the actual fabric of the city that they live in.” There are echoes here of Michel de Certeau, who wrote in The Practice of Everyday Life (published in English in 1984) of the difference between strategies and tactics. The former are the ways institutions and power structures maintain control over populations through (among other things) city planning. The latter are the daily rebellions made by individuals to reassert their agency. Like Jacobs, de Certeau praised the “long poem of walking,” and championed the pedestrian’s ability to escape domination through improvisation. In a chapter likening walking to “a series of turns and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures’” he writes that these figures “transform the scene, but they cannot be fixed.” The perfect illustration of this, he says, is
the fleeting images, yellowish-green and metallic blue calligraphies that howl without raising their voices and emblazon themselves on the subterranean passages of the city, ’embroideries’ composed of letters and numbers, perfect gestures of violence painted with a pistol, Shivas made of written characters, dancing graphics whose fleeting apparitions are accompanied by the rumble of subway trains: New York graffiti.
One is left to imagine what de Certeau would have made of the contemporary hipster, and what we call gentrification. Jacobs, for her part, is said to have encouraged it, with one caveat. Gibson interviews Tom Lunke from the Harlem Community Development Corporation who once met her. “I asked her what she thought of gentrification,” Lunke says, “and she pretty much said that gentrification is a good thing, it’s displacement that’s the problem: How do you engage the community in the gentrification process so that they’re not displaced?” Gibson’s book repeatedly picks up on these related issues of displacement and community involvement, both when he’s talking to local community group members and when he interviews bankers and planners. Everyone agrees that community involvement is a good thing, and everyone professes to be acting for the benefit of the community, but there are always agendas. Lunke describes consultations between Columbia University and residents living in an area of Harlem the university wanted to develop. When the university didn’t get the answers they thought they would, answers that didn’t fit in with their plans, they disregarded them. For Lunke, though, the process was still beneficial because it educated local people in town planning. “The community became more knowledgeable about how it can affect a change,” he says, although it came too late to stop – or even alter – the university’s plans, which were given the go ahead in 2008 after four years of discussion. He is philosophical, though. As he puts it, the community also became “mindful that there are times when you come up against a power structure that is so large you can’t infiltrate it in the ways you want to. You can in small ways but the power structure vision ends up getting pushed forward.” Less buoyant individuals than Lunke might suggest that this is precisely the problem with de Certeau’s tactics: they are limited in their effectiveness against power structures so large as those encountered by Harlem residents.
This dynamic is present throughout the book: a local community tries to organise itself and affect development plans. Versions of these local tenants groups – some more successful than others – pepper the book. But they are always the David to the power structure’s Goliath, whether that structure is composed of a public-private hybrid organisation or hedge funds that buy up whole swathes of city properties with the intention of turfing out tenants and jacking up rents. If the tenants leave, rents can go up by 20%; if the tenants stay, rent increases are limited to around 7%. This is where The Edge Becomes the Center questions the perception that gentrification is driven by hipsters. That these groups install themselves in communities hitherto ‘unexplored’ by young creatives is not in and of itself the engine of gentrification. Their movement into city neighbourhoods is more an effect of planning policies and big developments, and is dwarfed in its impact on individual lives by the concurrent turfing out of existing communities. Indeed, this is the key interjection this book makes in the debate about hipster gentrification. It focuses less on individuals moving in than on the – economic, structural – process of moving people out. As Toussaint puts it, developers dismiss communities with a casual “We’ll just put you out here.”
There are different elements to the process of gentrification. The person in the book who most clearly sets out the differences between what she calls its “cultural” and “economic” components is a young activist in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights named Celia – or Cea – Weaver, who has been part of a drive to organise against foreclosures and encourage collective tenant ownership. As Cea explains, those suffering foreclosures are not often “sympathetic homeowners” but “private equity companies or hedge funds that were buying up multi-family housing stock in New York City from 2005-2008.” These purchases, she says, were “risky” because they “can only work by completely turning over the tenancy.” In other words, the million dollar-plus mortgages these hedge funds and private equity firms took out are only sustainable if they are able to throw tenants out and significantly raise rents. “If tenants decide to fight back, that mortgage is not sustainable.” She acknowledges that people think of gentrification being “about artists moving in,” but for her “cultural critiques about gentrification are less interesting … than capital and real estate.” And, she points out, “are the West Indian people who have been living here for years not artists?” – “when people say artists and gentrification they kind of mean white artists and that’s not helpful.” Instead, echoing Engels, she describes gentrification as
a sort of structural process where real estate capital sees growth opportunity in neighbourhoods and comes in and tries to do neighbourhood turnover. Real estate developers see a difference between what the neighbourhood is currently making in rent capital and what its potential is and that gap is something landowners can sort of exploit and that’s where gentrification happens.
The Edge Becomes the Center focuses on the issue of housing, but what it really discusses is the creeping neoliberalisation of daily life since the 1960s. Throughout the book, people mourn the slow but extensive destruction of ways of life. While objections may be made to these characterisations – and it’s easy to accuse them of nostalgia – they nonetheless describe these individuals’ felt sense of change. And it is not for the better. So, one interviewee, a guy named Raul, laments the decline of mixed-income neighbourhoods and the growing gap between rich and poor: “When I was growing up, poor people, rich people, middle class, we all hung out with each other. Now you go to a place, it’s either high end or it’s low end.” An art dealer named Quang Bao looks back on New York’s artistic history and wonders whether it will be able to foster experimentation and innovation in the future: “Artists continue to go farther and farther out … how much farther until they leave the city entirely.”
Gibson’s book is not really his book, which is to say that most of the words in it are not his. This might sound glib, but it’s important for the book’s overall effect. In parts it is ephemeral and passing, and just like a conversation you don’t always remember everything you’ve read. Sometimes the intricacies of housing law can get boring. Sometimes Gibson tries to liven it up with novelistic interjections. But the book’s strength lies in moving past Buzzfeed’s wry humour at hipster mores by letting shopkeepers, tenants, community activists, bankers, developers, and landlords speak. Gibson is right to be cynical about the banker and the politician and their preference for the abstractions and platitudes of the macro; he is right, too, to pay attention to the micro, those “intricacies of self” that say the most about the lived experience of gentrification, which is to say, the lived experience of our neoliberal world.