The Guilt Of The Gentrifier

Evan Hughes looks at the first stirrings of discomfort about New York’s gentrification:

The Hal Ashby film The Landlord, the L. J. Davis novel A Meaningful Life, and the Paula Fox novel Desperate Characters, all dating from 1970 through ’71, paint a strikingly consistent portrait of Brooklyn at a low ebb. Though widely divergent in tone, they all depict the bleak conditions that held sway at the time, despite being set in what are now high-rent districts. Cars are stripped to the axles in minutes, rocks get hurled through windows, and bums heckle passersby from the shadows.

The protagonists in Ashby, Davis, and Fox, who dive into this mess, are the forerunners of contemporary Brooklyn’s bourgeois and bohemian crowd. They’re the shock troops of gentrification, a word that barely existed at the time. They are well-educated newcomers bucking the larger trend of an ongoing middle-class exodus. They are also, notably, all white. Their neighbors, as a rule, are not. It’s odd to reflect on the fact that the writers behind these works had no idea how this social experiment would turn out. About the prospects of the would-be gentrifier, in fact, they seemed decidedly pessimistic.

Hughes, noting that “in 2010, for the first time in a hundred years, Brooklyn was whiter than it had been a decade before,” reflects on the resulting white liberal guilt:

Whatever your intentions, to be a member of the new, more privileged wave of residents in a gentrifying neighborhood is to be a part of a process that is displacing families who have lived there for decades, even generations. You have to be something of a moral idiot not to feel some queasiness about this. Although it is rarely discussed directly, I suspect that for a lot of who are, broadly speaking, on the advantaged side in this turf war, just walking around brings regular stings of class guilt. Obviously it is worse to be on the disadvantaged side; that’s why the advantaged feel bad about feeling bad, and therefore avoid talking about it.

What the advantaged do instead is pick apart all the failings and hypocrisies of our own team. That way we align ourselves, so we imagine, with the other team, the team that seems to have justice on its side: If I’m part of something bad, at least I have the right attitude about it.

Implicated in an uncomfortable reality, we resort to a bit of psychological jujitsu to fight off the shame. Feeling the heat of the spotlight, we swing it on a fellow gentrifier who’s going about it all wrong. I’m white and raised in suburbia, but I don’t wear khakis and clog restaurants with my stroller at brunch. Or perhaps: At least I’m not this guy here on the park bench, with his beanie and flip-flops. I mean, really. Look at this fucking hipster.