Witnessing both protracted blight and the sudden rebirth has been an education in class tension. Although the wealthy have the power to uproot, the marginalized have the moral authority to shame. Words like “invade” and “displace” carry weight. They suggest injustice, unfairness, and illegitimacy, words that in a democracy (nominally) founded on principles of merit, liberty and equality are tantamount to evil, criminal, insincere, inauthentic, words no one wants to be associated with. It is much more psychically pleasant on the side of the righteous, easier on the conscience to find common cause with the underdog. When One Percenter wunderkind Warren Buffet urged legislators to stop coddling his ilk in a widely circulated op-ed last summer was he not offering an olive branch to the disgruntled poor and middle classes? When nouveau riche rap icon Jay-Z tells us yet another cooking-crack-in-the-kitchen story is he not reminding
us of his acquaintance with adversity? When Jennifer Lopez claims she’s still “Jenny from the block” is she not suggesting she’s still “real”? Because we live in a society where, as Jay puts it on the song “Otis”, “everything’s for sale,” our identities are always in flux. As a result, our need to connect and re-connect our narrative with our version of hardship becomes pathological. We have to constantly prove that we are who we say we are, not only to others, but to ourselves. One way of accomplishing this is by literally affiliating ourselves with the struggle. And in America, as I’m sure is the case anywhere, the struggle has a physical location. It’s the ‘hood, the heartland or a distant homeland that our ancestors left in search of a better life. Either way, our collective anxiety about who we are, particularly our desire to align our unique personal history with the perceptions others may have about us based on appearances, drives us to attach ourselves to these “authentic” spaces.
The evolution of the Occupy Movement is a prime example of how the phenomenon works. It started as a fringe group mash up that no one took seriously. By early October Zuccotti Park was a carnival of special interests. By mid-October old-guard unions were showing up at the park. By November Jay-Z was peddling “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts. Two weeks ago I was at a swanky gathering of the New York liberal establishment where every single speaker championed the movement to resounding applause. Authenticity is like Thanksgiving turkey. Everybody wants a piece.
Now take my version of the stereotypical gentrifier. I can picture him. I even believe I know him. He is white, college-educated and young. He is seeking an escape from the sterile homogeneity that characterized his suburban upbringings. He thinks and even says he is looking to free himself from the shackles of his white-bred socialization, but he’s also seeking refuge from the scrutiny of his social group. This stereotypical gentrifier says he wants to live within a diverse human tapestry that compliments his progressive values but he also wants to capture valuable capital (social and economic) and leverage it once the ‘hood whitens up. Then he can say he was here first.
It’s easy to sniff out the search for authenticity in others; it’s troubling when we smell it on ourselves. Two months ago I moved into a community that New York Magazine named one of twenty “under-the-radar micro-neighborhoods” in New York that “may just be the Next Big Thing” and promptly caught my first whiff. It was unsettling. I’ve never thought of myself as that guy–the new gentrifier in the neighborhood. Up to now my career path has been checkered. My first job out of law school paid me $15 a day and all the books I could stuff into my bag. I was laid off from my next job after eight months when the executive director called and said we were out of money. I then collected unemployment for nearly a year. I took part-time and piecemeal jobs just to get by. And let me tell you, making ends meet as a freelance writer whose books have yet to scratch the bottom of a best-seller’s list isn’t for the faint of heart. Even when I held a steady job as a teacher, the proportion of income to outflow on my bank statements was still, somehow, too close for comfort. Only now that I’ve reached my mid-30s has my situation begun to stabilize and improve. Even still, barring a windfall, I’ll be paying off my school debt well into the retirement that I’ve been warned will never arrive.
Moreover, the idea of gentrifying hadn’t even crossed my mind when I decided to move. I chose Hamilton Heights for four perfectly legitimate reasons. The space, the views of the Hudson and Riverside Drive, and the comparatively modest rent were reasons one through three. Reason number four: it hadn’t been gentrified. It wasn’t hip. It lacked the trendy trappings. It was, based on my observations, still a bit too gully for the average yuppie.
lesser-known community bounded by 135th and 155th Streets to the north and south and Edgecombe Avenue and Riverside Drive to the east and west, Hamilton Heights has gone through the typical urban phases of ethnic occupancy, flight and blight. Named after the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, the once-rural area was initially comprised of farms. After the Revolutionary War, the large country estates appeared, followed by the elegantly designed row houses in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, the sprawling apartments, most of which remain sturdy reminders of our nation’s craftsmanship and quality, had been erected. At that time the residents were middle-class, professionals of Irish, Italian and German stock. Middle-class black professionals began making their way into the section now widely known as “Sugar Hill” in the ’20s and ’30s. Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Langston Hughes would be among the “A-List” African-Americans who would call Hamilton Heights home. As was the case throughout the long, checkered history of integration, black entrance spurred white exit, and by the middle of the century the neighborhood was showing the signature symptoms of suburban flight. Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, the turbulent political and economic climate in the Dominican Republic, combined with the archetypal search for a better tomorrow, drove millions of Dominicans off one island and onto another.