The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

I’m muddling through reading a sexist and mundane book about surfing, so it was a relief to switch over to reading Schulman’s intellectual musings about gentrification, specifically the impact that the AIDS holocaust had on accelerating the process. I’d never thought about this, and she raises an excellent point—you had a generation of artists who died off, unable to leave their apartments to their lovers (they weren’t “married”), and suddenly rents skyrocketed from $300/month to the market rate in NYC and SF. The high rate of death from AIDS was a significant factor in the rapid gentrification of certain Manhattan neighborhoods.

Her book is a bit of a ramble, but I didn’t mind taking that leisurely walk with her brain. She had a front row seat to seeing gentrification take over her East Village neighborhood. Privileged new tenants didn’t have to be aware of their power or even of the people who’d been brushed aside. They “saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.”

Since the mirror of gentrification is representation in popular culture, increasingly only the gentrified get their stories told in mass ways. They look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world. If all art, politics, entertainment, relationships, and conversations must maintain that what is constructed and imposed by force is actually natural and neutral, then the gentrified mind is a very fragile parasite.

She and two lesbian artist friends watched limos arrive in 1980 to the first art gallery on E 11th and Ave C where champagne and oysters were served up. She and her friends felt no sense of threat, just watched it as a spectacle. Then a posh restaurant named after the Hawaii Five-O tv show opened on the block:

Almost immediately it was filled with a kind of person unfamiliar to us, wearing clothes and paying prices that came from another place… That was one of the bizarre things about these new businesses. They would open one day and be immediately packed, as though the yuppies were waiting in holding pens to be transported en masse to new, ugly, expensive places.

After the influx of Europeans into the East Village, the acronym “B&T” for bridge & tunnel got amended to “B&T&A” to include airplane.

While outlining the connection between AIDS and gentrification, she isn’t shy about speaking truth about gay men. “Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice. There is a destructive impulse inside many white gay men, where they become cruel or childlike or spineless out of a rage about not having the privileges that straight men of our race take for granted. They have grief about not being able to subjugate everyone else at will.” She then calls out Andrew Sullivan for declaring in 1996 that we’d reached “the end of AIDS.”

Schulman goes after the younger generation of queers, too, saying that they don’t seem to appreciate what had happened, seemed blithely unaware about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, seemed to take their freedom for granted. Artists, too, seem to be much more conservative, flocking to get MFAs instead of congregating with freaks and other artists. Schulman was tapped to write a piece about emerging theater in 1997 and she was shocked by the new scene that was geared toward profitability instead of pushing boundaries or talking politics. One director said that “issues are for television,” while another amazingly said “Many artists today don’t have to suffer like they did in the fifties. They have enough intelligence to avoid it.” The MFA crisis is another function of gentrification, homogenizing the creation process.

I was pleased that she included a significant section of devotion to Kathy Acker, a victim of the forgetting/whitewashing away of gay thought more than a victim of AIDS (she died of breast cancer). Ultimately, Kathy’s wealthy background gave her the ability to create art, and Schulman says flat out that many people who aren’t the source of their own financial lives are infantilized and tyrannical. “They seem to believe, on some level, that they deserve this advantage. In Kathy’s case, her background and financial cushion gave her a sense of entitlement that was unreasonable.”

Schulman holds her own writing workshops out of her apartment, called “The Satellite Academy”, charging $40 a class and providing “no chit-chat, no nurturing, no consciousness raising or eating. They come on time, and I take out my little blackboard and we go through each person’s work with an eye towards craft alone… We’re artists together, looking at each other’s work, and I am the senior one sharing what I know. In this way, I have recreated my lost world for myself, and it give me hope that bohemian, smart angry girls with something new to say and a desire to say it are never in short supply.”

Her interview with Marcia Gallo about her book Different Daughters included detail about the shock troops who were working to enact change. Gallo’s comments about feminism are strong:

Feminism is still subversive. It’s still scary. Feminism means humanity moving forward and addressing inequalities. And that women lead. Independent women who do not need men for their emotional, physical, and economic well-being are scary still. Even those of us who love men. I think that the fact that we strive to be independent is frightening because we challenge all the paradigms. When we’re at our best we challenge the way power gets constructed. We challenge how knowledge is transmitted. We are just too powerful, too uncontrollable, too queer.

I’m always appreciative when someone comes right out and says what they feel about raising children as clearly as Schulman does, watching her lesbian friends adopt or get artificial insemination to carry on the mother duties:

Very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place. Personally, I don’t feel that creating new victims, perpetrators, and bystanders is the great social ooh-and-aah that it is made out to be. I do understand that people want to have children for reasons personal to their own needs, not necessarily for the child or for the world, and perhaps that’s reason enough, but I don’t know why.

 

 

The Cosmopolitans

[amazon template=image&asin=1558619046]

Gulped this down in one sitting as a salve to the burn I was getting from reading Nancy Jo Sales’ amazing and infuriating book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Schulman’s book is a dreamy and fun story about NYC in 1958, at the intersection of two fifty-year-olds’ lives: Bette, a white secretary from Ohio who’d been in the Village for thirty years, and Earl, a gay black actor who worked at a slaughterhouse day job to make ends meet. The two are neighbors who meet up for dinner every night, battling loneliness through each other.

The calm, smooth current of their lives is interrupted by the arrival of Bette’s young cousin Hortense, who moves in with her sizable allowance and begins taking acting classes. Around this same time, the atmosphere at Bette’s workplace changes significantly as well, as the advertising company decides to move into television and brings in dynamo consultant Valerie to whip things into shape. Things start to break apart when Hortense moves in with Earl as he inexplicably shuns Bette and thinks to saddle himself with a rich white wife as a way to make it through life. A TV is delivered to Bette’s apartment right before the book’s Intermission, which Bette leaves in the middle of the room, unplugged, as a table.

The second act is a whirlwind of machinations as Bette plots about how to get Earl back, in the process confronting her now-paunchy and dilapidated former lover (who married her cousin and is the father of Hortense). Bette also slyly buys up half of the company she’s working for, which she reveals at a critical moment where she’d been almost fired by Valerie. The end is too tidy, the perpetual problem of wrapping up a book, wherein the book’s author (Sarah Schulman) makes her appearance as a baby crying in the building and bringing Earl and Bette back together as friends. A final beef is with the “A Note on Style” appended to the end of the book wherein Schulman gives us four additional pages detailing her influences, the rails on which she built this story, revealing that she wove in two lines from Balzac’s Cousin Bette into the tale, “I leave them to the literary detectives to unearth.” Gag. This is worse than a book with multiple introductions and prefaces, where the author breaks through the fourth wall to smirk about how clever she is.