Friday, May 06, 2011

Has New York Been Ruined by Gentrification?

On April 28, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel discussion at the 7th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. The event hosted 100 published writers from 40 countries around the world. Salman Rushdie was this year's chair.

The discussion I chose was called "De-Gentrify New York and Give Her Back to the World," with Sarah Schulman, a Village Voice writer and gay rights activist, and Samuel R. Delany, an erudite and well-decorated science fiction and fantasy author.

Schulman started with a history lesson about how New York City was nearly bankrupt just a few decades ago, and how there was a concerted effort to attract wealthy people to the city to boost the tax base. But then something went awry.

"Today," she said, "New York is overflowing with rich people." All over the city (and in all the boroughs, not just Manhattan), the dry cleaners, corner barbershops, delis, pubs, and other mom-and-pop businesses are being replaced with banks (LOTS of banks), Barnes & Noble bookstores, and Duane Reade chain pharmacies. These areas, according to Schulman, are now scrubbed clean and homogenized, overrun with retail chains and franchises, and shiny high rises. This type of urban planning is encouraged, she said, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's deliberate policies to gentrify the city. To make money for real estate developers while squeezing out the poor and middle class, even though they're a needed part of city economics and, indeed, city life. Schulman calls this "gentrification of the mind," when people have an attitude of entitlement, supremacy, and/or deserved power.

And yes, she said, it's messing up the city. Big time.

Historically, "People come to New York to create art, escape their families and [the pressures of their] conforming communities, and to have sex," she says. "They come to be New Yorkers." But now, she says, people come to New York not to metamorphose into the city but to change the city to suit their own values. In some parts, the vibrant stew of city life has been turned into a beige puree.

How to fix the onslaught of beige puree? Here were some of Schulman's ideas, which are listed here as a foundation for discussion:

1. Require banks to support the neighborhoods and schools where they operate. (Same goes for real estate developers.)

2. Legalize marijuana as the harmless, socializing drug it is. Making it legal could detract from the worse "chic" drugs, such as methamphetamine.

3. Minimize the foodie craze, which seems to emphasize "fusion" cooking and the watering down of cultures. "Bring back cuchifritos and ethnic restaurants owned by the ethnic," she says.

4. Eliminate MFA programs, which tend to produce posturing talking heads instead of people who actually create art and hang out with other artists.

5. Make being uncomfortable a valuable cultural commodity. The uncomfortable, the crude have a place in the city, too. They contribute to the creativity that makes the urban landscape--not the suburbs--worthwhile and interesting.

Delany remembered moving to the Upper West Side 30 years ago where people of all colors lived. He urged people to remember the common human condition and relying upon one another. He suggested starting groups that would unify the community (he started a gay dads group, for instance), and saying hello to everyone, more than once, until you get a "hello" back.

This is not to say that everyone in attendance agreed that all gentrification is bad, or that it has failed everywhere in New York City. But the beauty of the whole discussion was in, well, the discussion. Without communication, the asking of questions, identifying what isn't working, and the interplay of ideas, voices are silenced and an authentic city experience swirls around the drain.

With Samuel R. Delany

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