Grayson Lookner: 21st-Century Colonialism
Wednesday, July 08, 2015 2:07 PM
Gentrification is an ugly word. Even its mere mention can invoke classism, jealousy, and contempt. The haves and the have nots. Injustice and inequality. The inevitable but usually veiled question: "And which side of it are you on?"
The word itself is derived from the antiquated "gentry" which was the class of people in Europe just below the nobility. "Ha!" Say you, "no such thing here in 'murica! We're the land of the free and the home of the brave. You make it here by your hard work and determination! Your wits and your hands! Your hatchet and your six-gun! There ain't no nobility here, that's why we had the revolution! Nope, no sirree, no gen-tree-fik-a-shun here!"
Our turn-of-the-20th-century rugged individualist of the preceding example is obviously from a different time, but still in living memory. A time when land was abundant and people flocked to the new world for a taste of the American dream. You know the story. Lady Liberty and the Lincoln Highway. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. History.
Gentrification is such a touchy subject because it provides stark evidence that the America of yore is no-longer, gone with the railroads and the great public works. The America of today is stratified along socioeconomic lines. Born poor, you'll probably die poor. Born rich, you'll probably die that way. Dynastic capital concentration and nepotism are both here and here to stay.
And it seems to be about as much a fact of existence these days as Newton's laws of motion. It is a pervasive, ubiquitous, and inescapable condition of reality, so quit whining and get used to it. Get on the winning side, get your hands on some capital and some real estate and you too can be a member of the exploiting class. You too can drool, rub your hands together excitedly, and shriek with joy with each new report of exponentially sky-rocketing rent; and you too can eventually sell your holdings for quadruple what you paid to the Emir of Qatar who has suddenly become the largest land-owner in North America-and so on and so forth until gravity reverses, entropy prevails and the universe implodes-or something to that effect.
The process of gentrification usually looks something like this: Neighborhoods that were once ghettos or working-class get colonized by starving artists looking for cheap rent who make the place hip. Next, students and socialites move in, and brag about their cheap flat in a cool renovated warehouse. The next thing you know historic brick buildings are demolished and replaced with composite tile materials and immaculate, shatter-proof windows. The buildings that once housed families or warehouses or industrial production equipment then become home to boutique stores, sterile coffee shops, and architectural firms.You can smell the gloss as you walk down the street. Holier-than-thou people right off the covers of GQ and Cosmopolitan strut down the freshly paved sidewalks and eye you suspiciously if you're not wearing Prada or, more likely, just ignore you completely. The character and the culture that once made the place interesting and vital is displaced by the dominant culture of professionalism and capital. The place is no longer so much of a unique community forged by authentic relationships crafted over generations between individuals and the place itself, but another product or market or commodity to be sold and profited from. The people that once lived there, the community that existed, is fragmented, atomized and dispersed. Relegated to the suburbs where they don't have access to the same resources that they once had in the urban centers. They wallow in poverty. Same sob-story, different day.
Gentrification is getting a lot of attention here in Maine these days, which is interesting, because it is a term that has typically referred to urban areas. As we all know, and used to be proud to say, Maine is not an urban state. We're fishermen and lumberjacks and farmers and farriers, we can wrest a living off the land. City-slickers are welcome here in the summer to enjoy our abundant natural resources, but scamper off south on 95 once the leaves fall, and take with them their big-city values. Or so it once seemed.
Not anymore. It seems as if the city has expanded-enabled by the Internet, smartphones, and telecommuting-urbanity has infiltrated even the quaintest of Maine's towns. People who once had to retreat to New York or Boston to fulfill their economic niche now find they can function just as well in Portland or Brunswick or Rockland. They bring with them their ingrained beliefs about capitalism and impose their values on localities that once had an authentic community.
It is no wonder that gentrification has been called another form of colonialism. Maybe our aforementioned example of the 20th-century frontiersman would be right at home in this context, except instead of him conquering the natives with guns, germs, and steel, he's doing it with tech, speculation, and law.
Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden and now lives in Portland.