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Some thoughts on gentrification

Written by Brian Culkin

One of the difficulties in discussing gentrification is its status, not as a ‘thing’ that can be sensed and touched, but rather as an ideology. Yes of course, you can certainly see the reality of a new luxury condominium development taking over a former grammar school, but that is not gentrification itself. Rather it is a symptom, a manifestation, that emerges as an event from an abstract social process that is ultimately invisible.

However, this very facet of gentrification’s nature, abstract and invisible, should never take away from the fact that gentrification in its purest form can only be considered entirely catastrophic for social life and relations. But ironically, this built in social catastrophe that gentrification carries with it, is almost always deflected by both the political and left and right. Even more specifically, this deflection is always executed by the very worst features of these political opposites.

For the left, gentrification represents ‘progress.’ It represents the renouncing of antiquated notions of social organization and community in favor of a disjointed multiplicity of ‘inclusiveness.’ That word specifically, ‘inclusiveness’ is the adjective par excellence that the left continually uses to justify the logic of gentrification. But of course, nothing in contemporary urban America is more exclusive than gentrification, most especially for traditional city dwellers. And because gentrification – at least in its current form within post industrial urban America – always carries with it a certain level of technological progression within its spaces of activity (the illusion of democratization and egalitarianism) the left can not help but fawn over its acceleration.

For the right, gentrification represents a different kind of ‘progress.’ It represents unhinged capital circulation, entrepreneurship, and the challenge of claiming victory over any city ordinance or restriction that seeks to disrupt the pace of its process. For the right, the real estate developer is transformed into an Ayn Rand character, a la Howard Roark, and their property acquisitions/ design/ construction are mythologized as a triumph of free market logic and global capital. The right aligns with gentrification because of its fierce allegiance to capital’s properties of multiplication.

Yet, in this very posturing by both sides of mainstream political ideology, the truth of gentrification is never, ever approached.

A recent film I directed, The Mission, forced me to become extremely familiar with gentrification from a philosophical perspective, and see how this issue is so innately difficult to grasp. That being said, I have become intrigued by the current developments pertaining to the Gate of Heaven School in South Boston as it relates to this exact topic of gentrification’s ambiguity. But what intrigues me most about this event is the intensity of the emotional, historical, and social ties this building has to the local community, which has effectively transformed this showdown into a very defined ‘singularity’ as it relates to the tension that is always present within gentrification.

For here is a concrete event, a moment in time, where the forces dramatically collide and the stakes of the game are very high. However, after reading Ray Flynn’s recent column in the Boston Herald I was disheartened by the scope of the defense he utilized to pose a critique against gentrification, a vague public statement constructed to stop the real estate venture from moving forward.  That is to say, Flynn employed just as much smoke and mirrors in his defense against gentrification as the developers use in their argument for gentrification.  This is not saying Flynn overtly and consciously misrepresented the facts, far from it, and for the record I have tremendous respect and admiration for the former mayor as I consider him a personal friend. But rather, it seems he was compelled to skirt around the crux of the issue entirely and use a series of non sequitur and unrelated arguments to further his general position. But it is this very point that brings us to the very heart of the matter: the truth of gentrification is very uncomfortable to talk about, so it must be deflected.

So, any type of public discourse as it relates to gentrification can’t help but remind us of the excellent Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight, and its extremely honest rendering of contemporary political relations. For at the climax of the film, it is Batman himself that takes the public fall for Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City. That is to say, rather than admitting this inconvenient truth to the people of Gotham, Batman does the complete opposite. Instead, he takes the blame himself to protect the people’s illusions and thus employs the political logic of Plato or Immanuel Kant that goes something like this: the people can’t handle the real truth, so we must protect them by inventing an acceptable alternative. {1} But it is this very point that forms the basis of my central analysis of gentrification: the truth of it is so uncomfortable, so revealing, that both sides of the issue must dance around it in order to avoid confronting its ideological center.

No matter how gentrification appears, no matter how shiny the new building looks, and no matter how much progress it is said to theoretically entail, at the very heart of this process is something that we do not like to speak of. For ultimately, gentrification is simply a mirror of ourselves, and possibly, our collective social dysfunction.

The issue at hand, ironically, is not the future of the school itself. Of course, I feel as any decent observer would, luxury condos as a substitute for a former grammar school is nothing short of a tragedy, while also demonstrating the real problem that seems to be at the center of American society today: the very dangerous association of ‘social progress’ with financial speculation and technological advancement.  But at the very same time, and taking reality into account, I can also consciously acknowledge that preventing this specific development will do absolutely nothing in the long run towards suspending gentrification’s rapid acceleration and encapsulation of all urban spaces; from Brooklyn, to Inglewood, to South Boston.  So for me, the real issue at stake is rather: Can the parties talk honestly and openly about gentrification? Can the parties strip away all of the surface rhetoric and look at the truth of what this process actually is? Can the parties understand the multiple factors in play and completely divorce themselves from any political position? Can they, rather than being developers or neighborhood activists, just be human beings?

And it is in this very possibility where the Gate of Heaven event has the potential to be the most effective, most powerful, and most honest. After all, this a church property we are speaking of, a place where truth, or at least the quest for truth, should be front and center of all potential dialogue.

Brian Culkin is a filmmaker, artist, and writer.  He is a former professional athlete and also worked as a financial executive before transitioning toward film and art. His website is www.brianculkin.com and more of his writing can be found at culkin.wordpress.com where he analyzes cinema, technology, and writes extensively on the sport of boxing as he is about release a book on the subject tentatively entitled: Postscript on Boxing: the human body, digital worlds, and the death of boxing in American culture. He is a graduate of Skidmore College, class of 2001, where he graduated as the all time leading scorer in the history of its basketball program.

1. Slavoj Zikek, Living in the End Times, Verso, 2011

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About the Author

Maureen Dahill

Maureen Dahill is the editor of Caught in Southie and a lifelong resident of South Boston sometimes mistaken for a yuppie. Co-host of Caught Up, storyteller, lover of red wine and binge watching TV series. Mrs. Peter G. Follow her @MaureenCaught.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    First, I think this article is too intellectual for the average CIS reader (and way more so than the best SBT reader), so I'm excited to see the comments. Should be interesting.

    But, to the real heart of the matter, Culkin doesn't explain who the "parties" that need to discuss actually are. It is absolutely necessary for a discussion to take place, but it's not between the buyer, seller, developer, etc. It's between the market and the neighborhood. As Culkin asserted, this proposed project is just a manifestation of an ideology, the exemplification of gentrification. It is not gentrification itself. What is the purpose of the symptom discussing itself without bringing the illness to the table? It's not between the Church and the neighborhood, but the neighborhood, the city, and the market.

  2. Maureen Dahill says

    Let me get this straight. This website publishes one article against gentrification but then follows it up with what I assume is a paid advertisement for a single family home for sale at $650k. So it is bad that only well off people can afford to buy in Southie, but look at this overpriced home for sale. Will you people please make up your mind.  (if you want to move this comment to the gentrification article as to not offend the re agent who paid for this article I totally understand).

  3. Anonymous says

    First they came for St. Augustine's, and I didn't say a word, because  . . . . .  Next, they came for St. Mary's and St. Peter's and I didn't say a word because  . . . . .?  Now they're coming for Gate of Heaven (ME!!), and there's nobody left to help.  

  4. brian culkin says

    That's a ridiculous comment – first off – I write the way I do because its how I express myself. Im not going to change it for one article. Second, let's look at your flawed logic:

    You say I need to be more speficic in defining who the parties are. Don't I say forthright: the developers and the neighbrohood activists?

    You say the 'parties' are the nighborhhod, city, and 'market.'

    That's about ten levels of abstraction northward from where I am.

    I appreciate the feedback, but please come back with with something that isn't so obviously paradoxical. 

  5. WTF? says

    This over egotistical and pointlessly boldfaced article reminds me of one of my favorite quotes…

    "Mr. [Culkin], what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I've ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response was there anything that could even be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul!" Billy Madison

  6. John Gwynn says

    There is nothing that can stand up to the ineluctible force of young faces with deep pockets and the multitudes who want to sell them things…

  7. unimpressed says

    You speak in only abstract terms about the issue of gentrification here, yet go out of your way to impress us with your knowledge of varying philosophical schools of thought. You fail to make your point and defend your thesis – what's left is the poetic, rambling, musings of a writer on gentrification with no solid evidence to defend the point. And you criticize Ray Flynn for his article? Fail.

  8. Brian Culkin says

    First off: I write how I how I write – not going to change for one article.

    Second:  Let's unpack your logic. You say I don't name the parties. Yes I don't name names – bit I say 'developers' and 'neighborhood activists.'  Those are the main parties involved.

    You say the parties are the 'neighborhood' and 'the market'  This is about 10 levels of abstraction northward of me. So, your critique negates itself in your own solution – it makes no sense what you are saying.

    Do you see that?

  9. Jiminy Cricket says

    There's a single family available for only 650K? I can make an all cash bid, sight unseen.

  10. Heather says

    Goes to show, if you have no solutions, no real insights and no ability to change anything, write a verbose article about the situation.

  11. Anonymous says

    I wasn't commenting on your writing style, but the reading level of the site's typical visitor. Take a look at the comments – I wasn't wrong. Contrary to others, I actually appreciate your writing style and intellect. It was refreshing as it is not what I am accustomed to on this site. For those ready to jump down my throat about why I bother visiting the site, it's because it is a terrific resource for neighborhood going-ons.

    I may be more abstract (which does not imply paradoxical), but that's because gentrification is an abstract problem. Sitting the developer down with the neighborhood activists to discussion concessions, abandoning the project, etc. will "cure" this symptom of gentrification. But, curing the illness of gentrification cannot be done by just one project; rather, it requires curing the market, which is what drives gentrification. What many don't realize is that by limiting the number of units, they are limiting the supply that the market clearly needs in order to satisfy a demand. If you want to avoid escalating prices, you must address supply or demand. That's not possible with just one building or project, but rather at the geographic market-level. Sorry if I wasn't clearer in my initial post on both of these points. I hope that I have adequately clarified them.

  12. Re : What is your point says

    I have to admit, laughed out loud on that comment.

    I didn't mean to be pointless in my article, and I apologize if you read it that way.

    Billy Madison beats anything I could say as a comeback … you're point.

    brian culkin

  13. Re: eschew obfuscation says

    I don't see your point. You say I speak in abstract terms – but you give notning concrete or solid to counter. 

    Yes, I did critique Ray, for the exact reasons I stated.

    I'm confused in what you are saying. In one sense – you seem to be against the artcle, i.e. pro gentrification.

    In another sense, you defend Flynn, i.e. anti gentrification.

    Which is it?

     

  14. Anonymous says

    Is anyone else just really fucking sick of yuppies and their brilliant friggin' ideas? You aren't doing us any favors by insulting us with your "help". Go back to the boonies where you came from… We can handle anything on our own and have for generations before things like "SoBo", "EBo", "WeBo", "Broadway Village", and names like Chad starting to pop up. Like who comes up with this shit? You can have your million dollar condos and fancy shit restaurants that only you can afford, some of us OFS-ers aren't going anywhere – we are keeping our Southie.

  15. Oliviabenson says

    Completely agree.  The boldface was completely unnessary, useless and distracting.