This is a guest post from the incomparable Guillermo Gomez-Peña, which I’m delighted to post here.
An anti-gentrification philosophical tantrum
by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, 2015
(In his most recent philosophical tantrum, performance artist and poet Gómez-Peña reflects on the dangers of the ultimate “creative city,” and what it means to become a foreigner in his own neighborhood, waiting for the much touted eviction notice.)
Dear Ex-local artist, writer, activist, bohemian, street eccentric, and/or protector of difference…
Imagine a city, your city and your former “hip” neighborhood, being handed over by greedy politicians and re/developers to the crème de la crème of the tech industry. This includes the 7 most powerful tech companies in the world. I don’t need to list them: their names have become verbs in lingua franca; their sandbox is the city you used to call your own.
Their Faustian iDeal involves radically transforming your city within a few years into an unprecedented “creative city,” a bohemian theme park for the young techies and “hipsters” who constitute their Darwinian work force. It comes with dormitories, food courts with catchy theme bars and entertainment centers. Sounds like science fiction, que no?
Imagine that during the reconstruction process, the rent – your rent – increases by two or three hundred percent overnight. The artists and the working class at large can no longer pay it. You are being forced to leave, at best to a nearby city, at worst back to your original hometown. The more intimate history you have with the old city, the more painful it is to accept this displacement. You have no choice.
While you hang on by a thread waiting for the eviction notice, every day you continue to lose old friends and colleagues you might never see again. They were less lucky than you and got evicted earlier. Heartbroken and exhausted, you spend a large part of your civic time attending anti-gentrification demonstrations and collaborating with other artists and activists in anti-eviction actions and techno-artivist projects, but still it only gets worse by the day. The number of dramatic eviction cases increases constantly and both the diminished politicized citizenry and the progressive media begin to experience compassion fatigue.
As your community rapidly shrinks, so does your sense of belonging to a city that no longer seems to like you. You begin to feel like a foreigner and internal exile: freaky Alice in techno-Wonderlandia; the Alien Caterpillar who inhaled. Unless you own your home and studio, as a renter, your hours “here” are numbered and you carry this feeling of imminent orphanhood like a very tight and stylish noose around your neck. After all, you perceive yourself as a dandy.
Imagine that all the classic and familiar places in your hood including funky, decades-old Latino restaurants and immigrant bars full of memories and ghosts, barber & specialty shops, bohemian sex clubs, experimental art galleries, indie theaters and bookstores –yes, shops where bound books are sold, — the emotional spaces which have been your main source of inspiration, creativity and community — are also forced to close because the pinche greedy landlord tripled the rent overnight or some millionaire bought the building or the entire block to rent out micro-units to airbnb. And all the new laws and acts protect him. Your imagination becomes a painful exercise in forced tolerance and providential acceptance.
In a few months, these wonderful places that for decades provided the city with a strong cultural identity are destroyed and reopened as (get ready) homogeneous “live/work/play” spaces, “micro-condominium” buildings and tech plazas in the works. Coño! The new city begins to look like a generic global metropolis imagined by Italo Calvino. To make the lives of the transient work force somewhat pleasant, hundreds of similar smart cafes, trendoid restaurants, overpriced “eateries” and “celebrity bars” open up in each neighborhood. Even the last standing old-school dive bars are being “discovered” (a euphemism for taken over) by the transplants via their Yelp or Foursquare mobile app.
But you, no matter how long you lived here or how much you have paid in rent – even if it is enough to own your hipster remodeled Victorian upper unit – You are not welcome.
You hit the streets again: What you used to call an average priced dinner is way above your price range now. Your sacred $4 night cocktail, now served by an aloof “celebrity bartender,” costs $15 and your daily jugos and licuados, now called “cold pressed gluten-free organic cleansing juices,” go for $12 in a “recyclable sustainable” bottle. But don’t worry: Remember that this is just a perverse exercise of radical imagination, or rather, a psychomagic challenge to deliver your daily dose of survival humor.
Imagine that your own building, a legendary (ex) artist building is now just another revolving airb&b miniunit for zombie techies who make well over $200 grand a year, but behave not unlike obnoxious teenage frat boys. If you are the only one of 3 Mexican tenants left, when you open the front door for a new neighbor, they either perceive you as the building’s janitor or report you to the manager as a “suspicious character.” And yes, in Technotopia: your new identity is that of “suspicious character.”
The nightmare unfolds: Full of Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes, the private parking lot is now protected with barbed wire fences and a digital display keypad encoded by microchips; and so are the “vintage bike” racks and trash containers. Video surveillance cameras are omnipresent. The new management wishes to keep the homeless, the day laborers and the “scary” young “people of color” at a distance…that is, before the cops get them. They are unpleasant memories of the old city of sin and compassion; kids from former distasteful and economically disadvantaged, at-risk neighborhoods.
The newly empowered cops drive around the hood looking for (criminal) “difference.” The homeless and the “gang bangers” aren’t the only ones being removed from the streets to make them safe for the new dot.com cadre. With them go the poets, the performance artists, the experimental musicians, the frail transvestites, the politicized sex workers, the gallant mariachis, the cool low-riders, the urban primitives, the angry punks, the defiant radical feminists and the very activists who used to protect us all from the greedy landlords and politicians who conceived of this macabre project.
It’s the latest American version of ethnic and cultural cleansing. It’s invisible to the newcomers, and highly visible to those of us who knew the old city. The press labels it “the post-gentrification era.”
“Prehistory is only 7 years old and nostalgia is pure style, a bad selfie of a fictional memory.”—Anonymous tweet.
There are suspicious fires happening constantly, in apartment buildings and homes inhabited by mostly Latino and black working class families. And you cannot help but to wonder if landlords and redevelopers are setting these fires? “Is there a secret garden of violence in the heart of techno-bohemian paradise?”-Anonymous tweet.
You also begin to wonder, who are these random people and newly evasive neighbors taking over your neighborhood? Metaphysically speaking, where did they really come from? And how long will they stay? Are they merely browsing in the mythological backyard of Technotopia? Will they return to the suburbs when the Chicano intifada begins? More »