Stealth Gentrification


 
The bar Max Fish closed yesterday. Since Max Fish was one of the first of the gentrifying establishments to open in the Lower East Side, I thought it would be fitting to note its passing by focussing on one of the techniques by which it came to be.

Lara Belkind introduces her essay Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, thusly:

    This article describes current adaptations of the traditional environment of New York’s Lower East Side. It examines how global factors such as expanding “content’ industries, market differentiation, and the internet have reinforced perceptions of the area as real and authentic while opening it to dramatic change. Specifically, the article considers a recent trend of commercial camouflage — hidden shops, restaurants and clubs that “re-present” tradition by meticulously preserving defunct façades, signage, and other physical traces of the neighborhood’s working-class and immigrant past. Urban camouflage, in various guises, has played a role in the transformation of the Lower East Side since the late 1970s, and has been employed by a succession of actors, from squatters to global retailers. As a cultural strategy, it has been inherent to the economic restructuring of the area, helping to overcome barriers to redevelopment that have persisted for more than five decades.

She divides the period into three stages: 1980–1994; 1995–2002; 2003–2005. I’m just focussing on the first stage:

    Max Fish quickly became a destination for consumers of the downtown scene. … And it made Ulli Rimkus one of the first of a set of successful local artist-entrepreneurs.

    Stealth aesthetics emerged almost immediately as an expression of this new bohemian movement, signifying authenticity, membership in the downtown avant-garde, and a condition of being “underground,” or beyond the realm of middle-class consumerism. This signification contained an inherent contradiction, however, because many of these new residents arrived with very middle-class objectives. In particular, they were seeking to buy property or to create small businesses — opportunities they were finding increasingly out of reach in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

    Yet, despite expressions of solidarity with the local working-class, and despite positioning themselves as activists or bohemian outsiders, the motivations of many artists who moved to the Lower East Side were essentially middle class. By contrast, the very opportunities that attracted them to the area, to own property or start a small enterprise, were beyond the reach of most of their neighbors. Indeed, the concept of “pioneering’ in a residential community, even a battered one, inherently separated new residents from existing ones.

    [M]any of the bohemians who arrived on the Lower East Side in the 1980s adopted countercultural elements as a commercial strategy. … But art that borrowed the found qualities of these spaces quickly evolved into a trademark aesthetic that was used to attract middle-class consumers.

***

There was one part of the article I found a bit disturbing:

stealth-05-clayton
 
The drug trade that existed in this area was responsible for countless deaths, family crises, homelessness, as well as burglaries and muggings. Clayton Patterson says this was a good thing. Was it a good thing for the people living there before 1980? Do you think they had the view that the drugs were a trade-off, necessary to keep the middle class away? I think this is appalling.

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1Lara Belkind, Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (FALL 2009), pp. 21-36.

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Response to The Villager

For some reason, the moderator of the comments section of thevillager.com saw fit to exclude my response to Clayton Patterson’s most recent article, Let’s get back to our roots: We need new leaders. It wasn’t long, or offensive, so I don’t know why they censored it, unless they just can’t brook any disagreement with Mr. Patterson.

This is what I wrote (as best as I can recall):

Mr. Patterson puts the cart before the horse. Leaders come out of the people. It used to be that the people of this neighborhood were communists, socialists, even anarchists. Today they are mostly liberals. Liberals don’t care about the poor.* They care more about which stores open in the neighborhood than they do about the condition of the people who work in those stores.

And if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world. “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! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also.” (F. Engels, The Housing Question.)

*I bet this is where they balked!

So that’s what I wrote, but since I’m posting this on Quilas, I will expand it a bit.

I don’t know why it is that people isolate the experiences of artists when talking about this neighborhood. (Well, yes I do, but they shouldn’t do it.) The movement of artists into this area occurred during a specific period of time — post-WW2. Artists were not immigrants; they played a significant role in gentrifying this neighborhood. I wrote briefly about this in my post Artists Made This Neighborhood?

I’m not hostile to artists, but their plight was the plight of thousands more who had no other options, the way the artists did, to live elsewhere. Today, artists are seen as the victims of gentrification when, in the main, they were the tools of gentrification.