My working definition of gentrification is, “a social process that reconstitutes human beings into contingent instruments of a purely capitalist and technical exchange in all areas of urban life.”
In many ways you could say that this is the precise same definition of neoliberal globalization, other than the fact that gentrification refers specifically to what occurs within urban space itself, whereas globalization refers to the overall process as a whole. In other words, globalization ‘as such’ is not restricted simply to cities, it can just as easily transpire on a soybean farm in Nebraska or a diamond mine in the remote mountains of Central Africa. From this perspective gentrification essentially functions as a species to the overall genus of neoliberal globalization, just like a “seagull” or a “parrot” is just a species to the genus of “bird” (1) — gentrification is simply a particular manifestation of the basic thrust of 21st century capitalism that occurs specifically within the urban topology.
But what is this “basic thrust?” What is this “particular manifestation?” And, furthermore, why does there seem to be a correlation between the dynamics of gentrification and the explosion of a whole host of psycho-pathologies –—ranging from depression, to social anxiety, to more extreme cases such as bipolar disorder?
What is perhaps most interesting here is how the very frame of gentrification mediates the way we look at the problem. That is to say, when we think about the problem of something like depression or social anxiety, serious mental health issues that are now haunting contemporary American cities, we think about the problem through the ideological lens of gentrification, regardless of whether or not we are consciously aware of it. Meaning, we are thinking about the solution while unconsciously playing by the rules of the very problem.
The basic drive of gentrification is to reconstitute the human community that resides in urban space into instruments of a purely capitalist and technical exchange. What this means, when we apply this to the field of mental health, is that gentrification wants to turn depression into something that is both quantifiable and marketable. For instance, when we reduce the complexity of depression into strictly a problem of neurology, into only a case of “neurotransmitters malfunctioning” — that is to say, reducing depression into a problem of biochemistry and nothing else — we are essentially following the gentrified law to the letter. What we are doing is not only transforming the complexity of depression into a pseudo-mathematical schema — “the cure for depression equals X neurotransmitter in X neuronal gap” — but we are also creating the potential for a market to emerge: from new forms of therapy, to pharmacological interventions into cerebral space, to Tony Robbins styled weekend seminars to help people feel motivated, etc. But far more importantly, when we passively adopt this position, that depression is only a neurobiological problem that can be dealt with through appropriate scientific and mathematical models, we de facto rule out the possibility of any socioeconomic causation: we naturalize the depression, we think to ourselves, “it’s sad, but this is just the way it is.”
Gentrification always presents itself in neutral terms, it wants to appear to its observers as “just the way things are.” Something like gentrification would never present itself as a charged ideological process that could potentially be the cause of depression or mental illness.
This is not to say, by any means, that we are making the ridiculous claim that brain chemistry doesn’t play a role in something like depression. Of course it does. That seems to be a matter of common sense. What is rather be said is that the collective brain chemistry of an urban neighborhood is fundamentally linked to the socioeconomic and ideological frame by which it experiences itself on a day to day level. (2) And this is precisely what needs to be brought to the surface for some kind of sociopolitical examination.
Gentrification is a system of pure competition and pure individualization. It is a system that reduces urban life, on one hand, into a spectacle of consumerist enjoyment: Selfies, New Age platitudes, cultural “experiences” to be publicly relayed on the social medias for passive consumption. But then on other hand, beneath the shiny ideological veneer, it is a dog eat dog world of ruthless utilitarian competition in the economic, sexual, and cultural realms. Gentrification is the ultimate “everyman for himself” phenomena of urban life.
So the real question is: who wouldn’t be depressed living 21st century gentrified cities, who wouldn’t feel a permanent sense of insecurity and irrelevance trying to live today within such a technologically and capitalist mediated system? Depression is by no means an aberration of gentrification, it is perhaps the very law.
My basic claim is that mental health issues are constitutive to the gentrified experience. And not only will something like Prozac or Wellbutrin not really help here, but these things can’t really help here. And the reason why Prozac or Wellbutrin cannot help here is because the problem of depression does not strictly reside within us, it resides “without us.” That is to say, under the horizon of a gentrified neighborhood, depression is a structural problem, it is a problem that is fundamentally integrated into the very process of gentrification itself. It does not exist in us or in our personal biographies, it quite literally surrounds us in the structural form whereby we experience social reality.
So, what is the role of therapy here? What role can a therapeutic discourse play in de-suturing the ideological frame by which gentrification legitimizes itself?
Of course I don’t know the answer to such an important and profound question. But not only do I think that this a question that must eventually be answered, but I absolutely believe that some kind of therapy is fundamental to the cure for gentrification in the future; that therapy will be absolutely necessary to help reverse the untold damage that has been done to cities over the past two decades.
The only question is what kind of therapy will it be?
The therapy of Cities in the future, across the world, will rest on its ability to provide a clear pathway out of this very ideological horizon, it will rest on its capacity to open a space – both in theory and in practice – to not only resist this very same “gentrified” interpellation by social authority, but also to fundamentally rethink what it even means to be an urban citizen, maybe even what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.
(1) Of course I mean this in a general metaphorical sense, not to make an exact analogy of zoological classifications.
(2) A possible site of research that could link the material reality of brain states with social reality is the function of “mirror neurons” in the brain.