THE DREAM OF GENTRIFICATION

One of the most well known statements by the French philosopher Giles Deleuze is, “Si vous etes pris dans le reve de l’autre, vous etes foutus” — which translates to, “If you wake up in another’s dream, you are fucked.

One cannot help but chuckle here that this off hand remark is one of Giles Deleuze’s most quoted and remembered lines. Deleuze, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, whose two volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia is perhaps the most significant philosophical text of the past fifty years, is often remembered more for this somewhat vulgar remark than he is for some of his most refined philosophical observations.

But this straightforward statement nevertheless bears witness to a profound truth about human life — both in the personal and political dimensions.

The obvious example of how this statement applies to the interpersonal domain is within the context of a narcissistic relationship. As a rule, one never realizes they are in a relationship with a narcissist until after the fact, until they have woken up and discovered that they are trapped in the narcissist’s twisted dream. 

And as it applies to the sociopolitical realm there are countless examples throughout history in which the followers of a certain politics — that of the third world dictators, the medieval kings, the corrupted emancipatory radicals, etc. — have suddenly woken up “in another’s dream” and then made to suffer the dire consequences.

In this very Deleuzian spirit, contemporary urban gentrification is fundamentally a dream; it is the ideological dream par excellence of globalized capitalism as it applies to the 21st century urban horizon. And the basic function that this dream takes is that it can continue on forever: that the modus operandi of gentrification can somehow carry on indefinitely and obfuscate all of the countless social antagonisms it produces every single day within the City without them eventually exploding to the surface.

What is now slowly (very slowly) starting to happen throughout cities in both America and throughout the world is that people are starting to wake up in the middle of this gentrified dream only to discover, in the words of Deleuze, that they are in fact fucked.

But who exactly is fucked here?

Are those who are fucked simply the remnants of the formerly working class and ethnic neighborhoods that once defined cities such as Boston — Irish South Boston, African-American Roxbury, Italian North End, etc. — that have somehow managed to remain in their neighborhood of origin amidst the onslaught of gentrification? Although the answer to this question is undoubtedly Yes, it is nevertheless an answer that is incomplete. Because the people who are truly fucked in this scenario are actually the cognitive professionals — “the yuppies” — the very people who have fully identified with the content of the gentrified dream and then lived it out in their concrete experience. 

What this means is that it is not just the “original” working class urban residents who are the only ones caught within the gentrified dream — the true dreamers are none other than the yuppies themselves.

In other words, one of the basic fantasies that sustains the dream of gentrification in places such as Boston is that the “yuppies” (the young urban professionals, the hipsters, etc.) are actually happy, that they actually enjoy the experience of gentrification: that they enjoy paying exorbitant rent, that they enjoy the reduction of social and cultural life into a purely capitalist exchange, that they enjoy the instability of their professional networks, etc.

When the “original” person from East Boston or Dorchester looks at the young professional who just moved in next door, they falsely assume that this person is “living the dream,” that they are thoroughly enjoying their urban experience without a care in the world. The truth of the matter is that the overwhelming percentage of “yuppies” are actually living in what could be more accurately called a collective nightmare: precarious jobs, unsustainable debt and housing costs, and perhaps most significantly — the ongoing deterioration of their mental health and collective social substance.

One of the biggest mistakes that critics of gentrification always make is how they try to draw a formal line in the sand within the gentrification procedure. On one side is the middle and working class residents that once constituted the population of the pre-gentrified urban neighborhood. And on the other side are the gentrifiers: the young professionals, the yoga studios, the real estate developers, etc.

But this is fundamentally a false divide, a distinction that blocks the deeper divide of what gentrification even is and where the actual line should be drawn. In a certain respect, to subscribe to the reality of such a false divide is actually what allows the gentrified dream to continue on indefinitely, what prevents people from actually waking up.

Gentrification is first and foremost an ideological horizon that subjectives people. You could say the same thing in a more crude way: gentrification is an ideological horizon that turns people into “yuppies.” What I mean by that is that gentrification is a social process that reconstitutes human beings intro contingent instruments of a purely capitalist and technical exchange in all areas of urban life: family homes are turned into short term expensive rentals; romantic relationships are turned into swipes on Tinder; the human friendship once developed on the front stoop are turned into the amount of Likes and Shares we are able to accumulate on our thoroughly privatized social media accounts.

What this means is that the true divide of gentrification is drawn right down the center of our very Selves: the true divide of gentrification is fundamentally within us, not “out there” in the City at large.

I am by no means adopting a version of the typical New Age position, “You must first change yourself before you can change the City you live in.” What I am saying something far more disturbing in regards to contemporary American Cities and their urban residents: that they already have changed, but they didn’t realize it because they were caught in another’s dream when it happened.

The recent attempt to put a Starbucks Coffee at the entrance of Hanover Street in Boston’s North End was in many ways akin to a loud snooze button, a jarring noise that suddenly wrestled up the sleeping North End community from its thirty year slumber, mobilizing the community into a collective action in which they achieved a concrete political victory: after the direct intervention by the mayor of Boston Starbucks Coffee will not be moving to Hanover Street after all.

The danger now is that the North End will simply press the snooze button, sleep for another five years or another decade, before another Starbucks-like incident wakes them up from their collective slumber yet again, an event that will undoubtedly happen in due time.

So, the true political task in contemporary American urban neighborhoods may in fact be to somehow set the alarm clock buzzer off for all to hear, but not only to wake up the remaining residents of the “old neighborhood,” but to wake up the yuppies — the very people who are caught deepest in the dream yet weirdly think that they are in fact “woke.”

 

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