Fragments of Boston: How to Become a Global Citizen In the Age of Global Gentrification is a series of short essays, fragments, and interventions written by Brian Francis Culkin between 2015-2019 about contemporary gentrification, both as a global phenomenon, and how it has specifically effected the city of Boston, Massachusetts.
My play “Bread” is available for purchase at the link below:
My 11th book, “Boxing and Cinema: From Industrialization to Virtuality” is now available. Order at the link below.
Although this book does not expressly theorize gentrification, it does in fact touch upon it at numerous junctures.
Boston Magazine published a small article a few years ago regarding the introduction of a new class designed to help people lose their Boston accent. The basic premise of the class was to facilitate a linguistic reconditioning of those peculiar Boston individuals — those who speak in a style noted for the foreclosure of the letter “R” — so that their speech will be better suited for participation in the contemporary global marketplace. In other words, to be completely blunt, what these classes are really saying to the prospective student is something to the effect, “Unless you’re trying to get a job in a Hollywood movie that needs your Boston accent to fill a part, you’re hard core Boston accent makes you sound like a fool, and no company wants hire a person that talks like you:”
Alas, there are still some people who’d like to reclaim their Rs, or at least learn how to use them temporarily. For those select few, and perhaps for the broadcast journalists and actors who value non-regional diction, a one-day workshop is coming to town to help. Speech pathologist Marjorie Feinstein-Whitaker will teach the class at the Boston Center for Adult Education on November 21.
Lessons include dictation and listening activities, and readings of scripts loaded with Rs. When students read their scripts aloud, Feinstein-Whitaker makes a sound with a clicker each time she hears any hint of a Boston accent to reprimand them.(1)
But there is something else happening here with the emergence of such a class, something deeper than simply “getting rid of your Boston accent.” It is something that not only references the operation of both capitalism and gentrification in the 21st century, but also the ongoing homogenization of human language as such.
Central to global capitalism today is the flattening of all culture and social interactivity,(2) how so much of human experience is now subsumed by a singular global network for the purpose of more efficient data circulation and economic exchange. As a computational analogy, this would be like the reduction of all information, no matter how complicated the social representation, into a series of 1s and 0s — the basis of all computational language that sits behind our experience of technology. This ongoing flattening of human experience — from a collective embodied experience in the “real world” to an isolated virtual mediation in cyberspace — is probably why we hear new terminology emerging in the lexicon of both Silicon Valley and Wall Street that seek to ideologically legitimize this mutation. Terms such as “frictionless capitalism” and “smooth networks” are examples of such language that have been introduced to normalize this radical shift. What we ultimately see here, in the shift from an embodied and messy social reality to a disembodied and “smooth” virtual reality, is the desire to absolutely optimize the functionality of both capitalism and technology.
In the 19th century, Kierkegaard, in his provocative 1846 booklet The Present Age, termed such a social reduction as a process of “leveling” when he said that
at its maximum, the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist.(3)
Although Kierkegaard’s profound insight is perhaps more true today than ever before with the rise of social media and the “deathly silence” that paradoxically defines any Twitter feed, he clearly had never heard a strong Boston accent, an accent which is anything but “a deathly silence.” No, a Boston accent is loud, colorful, and occasionally even jarring to the ears in its full and untempered expression. But this is precisely why, in the context of 21st century globalization, a local accent can almost act as a form resistance to the “monstrous abstractions” that are inherent to the leveling process of globalization. What capitalism ultimately wants today is to “flatten” all human experience into encoded technology for the purpose of facilitating and accelerating the interrelated processes of circulation, exchange, and surveillance.
The contemporary theorist Byung Chul Han, following Kierkegaard, sees that globalized capitalism
has an inherent violence that makes everything interchangeable, comparable, and thus the same. Ultimately, this total equalization leads to a negation of meaning; meaning is something incomparable.(4)
So in this twisted drive to make all things “interchangeable, comparable, and thus the same” we can better see how local accents are now experienced as an impediment, like an annoying nuisance that prevents optimal participation in the market. Thus, a class designed to “get rid of your Boston accent” emerges with a potential client base ready and waiting.
This is a perfect opportunity to highlight a key point of global capitalism today, which is the way it masks its raging desire for efficiency, optimization, and Sameness. Paradoxically, it achieves this end by constantly encouraging us to “use our voice,” “to be different,” and “to be a disruptor,” etc. Neoliberal ideology wants us to think of ourselves as being a rebel of sorts, as constantly “resisting” the powers that be, so long as that resistance does not effect global capitalism itself. In other words, as a society of the most rigid Sameness is being created in front of our eyes, we are made to think that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of diversity and difference.
To put it another way, as this ideological distortion specifically relates to something like the Boston accent, ideology appears to love the Boston accent even as it tries to rid itself of it: loves to hear it spoken in Hollywood films, loves to poke fun of it on Saturday Night Live, and loves to play around with it in YouTube videos. Consumer culture always gives the appearance of appreciating difference and diversity, whether it be in regards to colorful local accents or anything else. But, the moment it comes to serious participation in the global marketplace, something like a strong Boston accent is no longer an endearing cultural artifact to laugh at, but rather a liability.
But why is it a liability?
Precisely because, to use the terminology of Kierkegaard again, a strong Boston accent “resists leveling,” it resists the abstractions and homogeneity that ultimately drive the core logic of globalization/gentrification in the 21st century.
A process like gentrification, which is ultimately just a particularly intense strain of global capitalism within the urban topology itself, does not like the Boston accent at all. It can not tolerate it in the least, which is precisely why so many of the people who actually have Boston accents have been progressively priced out of the various neighborhoods that they once inhabited.
The accent of the Yuppy, paradoxically what we could call a non-accent, is a completely and utterly “leveled” linguistic vibration. It resists nothing, and therefore has no character. The flattened and vanilla accent of the Yuppy is fully congruent with a social process such as gentrification: it reproduces the globalized Same of neoliberalism without any material resistance whatsoever.
LANGUAGE AND LIFE
For Jacques Lacan, the symbolic order is what constitutes our experience of day to day reality, how we naturally experience our surrounding environment: the symbolic order is the totality of signs, sociocultural formations, and the system of language that human beings are always-already immersed within. Although the symbolic order is ultimately a universal structure by which we experience social reality, this universality is modified in the infinite permutations of local cultures, local symbols, and local languages, ad infinitum that constitute the wide array of human community.
What this means is that during our brief stay here on Planet Earth we are all ultimately symbolic creatures; we are grounded by the order of language, and we are passively structured by a series of particular and abstract interlocking symbolic formations.
This is a good way to think about what a local accent even is. A local accent is a historicized linguistic vibration, a unique signature of communal speech that denotes a particular mode of enunciation linked to a particular geography. Something like the Boston only exists in Boston, just like the accent of the bayou only exists in the Gulf Coast. In other words, there is a link between accent and place; there is a relationship between a certain linguistic vibration and a specific topology:
The classic example of a dialect is the regional dialect: the distinct form of a language spoken in a certain geographical area. For example, we might speak of Ozark dialects or Appalachian dialects, on the grounds that inhabitants of these regions have certain distinct linguistic features that differentiate them from speakers of other forms of English.(5)
But this, in many ways, is the problem today: how the link between accent (or dialect) and place is coming under great stress from the effects of surplus technology and de-regulated capitalism, a point I tried to convey in the title of my book There is No Such Thing as Boston. My point in that title was that the city of Boston is not simply something that can be experienced at a specific juncture of latitude and longitude, as in 42.36N, 71.05W, the formal geodesic coordinates of Boston. Boston, like any city or town, is a place. And all places have their mode of language that is rooted in a particular formation of the historically contingent symbolic order.
What is absolutely crucial to note here is how “the Boston accent,” although unique to the greater Boston area, was by no means a uniform mode of speech. Actually, it was multiple and displayed a wonderful diversity in its day to day expression. For instance, the Boston accent of someone living in working class Charlestown would be very different from the version that the Kennedy brothers spoke throughout their political career, or how an African-American living in the Mission Hill projects would speak the Boston accent. The seeming universality of “the Boston accent” was fundamentally inscribed by differentials; demarcated by a rich multiplicity of enunciation.
Whereas, on the far contrary, the accent of the contemporary Yuppy has far less difference. There is very little diversity, or room for new linguistic conjunctions: it is standardized by the logic of gentrification, which is ultimately the logic of Sameness. But the uniform speech of the Yuppy is not only pointing to the collapse of authentic linguistic diversity in a city like Boston, but also referencing the ongoing technological standardization to the totality of human life in the 21st century.
The uncomfortable recognition here, as we speak about the degeneration of local cultures and languages, is that the homogenized language of the Yuppy may be the least of our concerns. I claim that we are all now in the process of collectively learning a new, universal language in the early decades of the 21st century. This nascent language — universal, homogenized, and gentrified — is ultimately the language that undergirds the ideological and material forces of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and our globalized consumer culture. These new planetary forces that have brought with them a new language — codes, algorithms, and computational binaries — are in many ways the precise opposite of the linguistic sense of belonging, the sense of being-at-home, that a local accent can bring forth for its speakers. Whereas the local accent brings forth a sense of familiarity, and therefore a sense of freedom, these new globalized forces entrap language into a pre-constructed exactitude based upon a capitalist-mathematical logic.
Code is the basic structure of this new globalized language. Code is the new form that is entrapping all other languages into its universal rhythm.
The Italian philosopher and media theorist Bifo Beradi contrasts the distinction between code and human language in the following passage:
Language has infinite potency, but the exercise of language happens in finite conditions of history and existence. Thanks to the establishment of a limit, the world comes to exist as a world of language. Grammar, logic, and ethics are all based on the imposition of a limit. Code is a limited exercise of language and, simultaneously, it is the imposition of a performing and productive limit. Limits can be productive, but outside of the space of limitation, infinite possibilities of language persist immeasurably.
Code implies syntactic exactness of linguistic signs: connection. Compatibility and consistency and syntactic exactness are the conditions of code’s operational functionality. Code is language in debt.
So whereas code is language in debt, we can see that a local accent is more like a linguistic surplus; it is an excess when the cup of language runneth over into the place where people live, work, and play.
What this means is that one should defend the Boston accent today not strictly to defend the speech of Boston itself, but also to defend a local dialect spoken in the deserts of Ethiopia or in the jungles of Peru: the defense of local accents is also the defense of local environments, local cultures, and human community itself. To defend a local accent today is to defend the very notion of diversity in its global dimension.
And, in the same way, one should not defend the Boston accent strictly in its historical enunciation. The Boston accent, like all accents, are open linguistic processes rather than fixed patterns of speech. Meaning, one should defend the Boston accent knowing full well it could develop and change as it progresses into the future, just as all languages surely do.
The paradox here is that the elimination of local accents — that is to say, the elimination of the link between language and place — is often seen as a progressive feature of globalization: as the world becomes more interconnected, we naturally lose our provincial ties and become more cosmopolitan through our engagement with greater cultural and technological forces. But the truth is the exact opposite appears to be happening. What we are rather seeing take place is a dumbing down, a frightening homogenization of culture when transposed upon the global network, and, with that, the emergence of a dangerous reactionary politics looking to violently recover a sense of roots that have been foreclosed by the globalization process.
The historical development of Boston can be summarized in 6 just words: From the Yankee, to the Yuppy.
This is the basic form, the beginning and the end, and the role of the contemporary historian is to fill in the content that can answer the double question: How and Why did this happen?
We begin in 1630 with the arrival of John Winthrop aboard the Arabella. A particular sociocultural constellation emerges from this original community: Calvinist Christianity, an elementary model of free market capitalism, and the development of a sociality completely and utterly unique to the city of Boston. The historian K.T. Erikson described the Puritan-Yankee that grew out of Boston as being
almost a mythical people in their own time, sure they were involved in a special cosmic drama … to establish New England as the spiritual capital of Christendom, the headquarters of the Protestant Revolution.(1)
This description of high Puritan culture is given further poetic justice by the 19th century writer Oliver Wendell Holmes in his characterization of Beacon Hill society as being akin to an Indian religious sect; with his now famous term “the Boston Brahmins”:
There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste … it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy … (2)
So, if we are to read our Boston history through a Hegelian frame, the Puritan-Yankee is our starting point; our thesis.
But then, the unexpected: in the 1840’s, with the mass arrival of Irish-Catholic refugees fleeing the famine, this original Boston thesis begins its process of ‘negation.’ That is to say, the original thesis (Puritan-Yankee) encounters its antithesis (Poor European Immigrants) and is progressively ‘negated’ from the encounter: it loses political control, its neighborhoods (the North End is the primary example) are taken over by the European rabble, and its culture fades into the history books.
But this negation is not immediate. It is a long, drawn out historical process: first with the Irish in the mid 19th century, then further in the 1880s and 1890s with the arrival of both the Italians and Eastern European Jews (not to mention smaller migratory groups at this time, such as the Lithuanians that settled along C and D Streets in South Boston, or the Polish that settled proximate to Andrew Square and the Columbia section of Dorchester).(3)
This ongoing negation of the original Boston thesis (Puritan-Yankee) is further exacerbated in the postwar era with a surge of African-American migrants leaving the Jim Crow South to resettle in the industrialized north. The population figures of Boston referencing this demographic shift are astounding: in 1950 the African-American population of Boston was under 10%, by 1980 it was approaching 40%.
And then, as the negation enters into its final stages in the 1980s, we see yet even more new ethnic groups arrive, such as the Vietnamese that settled along Dorchester Avenue or the Hispanic community in East Boston that had taken over from the Italians that had previously been there.
By the end of the 1980s the negation of the original Boston thesis (Puritan-Yankee) is nearly complete.
But then, another unexpected turn.
In the 1990s, this 150 year negation of the original Yankee thesis by a successive wave of migratory groups also begins to be negated: a negation of the negation itself. A new contemporary social agent, the Yuppy, begins to move into Boston and slowly take over all of the ethnic and racially bound neighborhoods that had been previously taken from the original Boston thesis.
In other words, what the Yuppy effectively does in the historical development of Boston is to ‘negate the negation’ — it destroys what destroyed the original Puritan-Yankee thesis; it annihilates the legacy of the ethnic-migrant experience that had been central to the city of Boston since the 1840s with the arrival of the Irish; to the migration of African-Americans that settled into the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods in the postwar era.
With that, we come now the absolutely crucial point when trying to theoretically frame the situation in Boston today, which is the dialectically evolved relationship between the Yankee and the Yuppy.
For the Puritan-Yankee, the two most important things were God and money; taking the basic logic of Luther to its radical extreme in the New World. As many commentators have noted, the emergence of Protestantism — in particularly the severe Calvinistic version of the New England Puritans — was absolutely crucial for the development of capitalism in both Europe and America. The shift towards Protestantism and the social consequences that followed from its theology was in many ways responsible for
creating a void that led to a desacralization of nature. The sense of the sacred became focused entirely on man. Religion was centered on the drama of fall and redemption played out between man and God. Nature had nothing to do with it except as a kind of backdrop, or the means for people enriching themselves, becoming prosperous as a sign of God’s grace and providence.(4)
But this “desacralization” of nature, coupled with the radical individualization that necessarily follows from the Calvinist doctrine, is precisely what gives rise to an unbridled capitalist dynamic in Puritan Boston: it is what allowed for the ships to sail, for the textile factories to be built, and for the investment banks on State Street to stay perpetually busy.
Interestingly enough, it is precisely this degradation of the natural world and the obsession with incessant material production that inspires the Puritan-Yankee to instigate its own negation. That is to say, although the Puritan-Yankee were undoubtedly horrified at the tide of impoverished European immigrants rushing into Boston in the 19th century, they also saw these people as potential sources of cheap labor to man the emerging factories in places like Lowell and Lawrence.
By the time the Yuppy emerges as the principal social agent in 21st century Boston, long after the formal decline of the Puritan-Yankee, this desacralization of nature is entirely complete. The economy, social interactivity, and cultural production have all moved into the virtual realm: on networks and social media sites, mediated by algorithms and mined for personal data. But not only has nature been completely and utterly desacralized in 21st century globalized society, but religion itself (especially the austere Calvinist version) has been “desacralized” as well. There are absolutely no traces of any Calvinist theology that serves to ideologically suture the relationship between capitalist productivity and God in contemporary Boston.(5)
And this is precisely where things get so interesting.
Because what the Yuppy effectively does, 400 years later, in a textbook Hegelian dialectical reversal, is simply to fuse the two together: in contrast to the Puritan-Yankee where it was “money and God,” for the Yuppy money itself is God.
In other words, the theological link so crucial to the early relationship between capitalism and Protestantism — a feature noted time and again by Max Weber and others —- that allowed the Puritan-Yankee of Boston to develop their unique culture in the 17th and 18th centuries has been inverted into itself with the 21st century Yuppy.
What this means, far from being cultural dead and gone, the Puritan-Yankee of Boston has been resurrected in a new form, in the guise of the the contemporary Yuppy, and has now come back to take his revenge.(6)
- See, https://www.openlettersmonthly.com/issue/american-inheritance-harvard-pulpit-boston-brahmin-liberalism/
- See, https://www.enotes.com/topics/brahmin-caste-new-england
See, O’Connor T. South Boston: my hometown: history of an ethnic neighborhood.
Sheldrake, R. The evolutionary mind: conversations on science, imagination, and spirit. Rhinebeck: Monkfish Book Publishing. pgs. 187-188. Kindle Edition.
Spirituality in globalized cities like Boston have been handed over to a hodgepodge of New Age and Eastern spiritualities. Motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods now serve the spiritual desires of people far more than traditional Christianity.
A character in one of Boston’s great novels, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, is an old stock Yankee named Amos Force. Although he would not live to see the arrival of the contemporary Yuppy in Boston, in many ways his absolute disdain for the immigrant-ethnic ethos of the Boston of his time bears witness to this intergenerational desire for revenge.
In Huston Smith’s classic study of global religions, he remarks on the differential value of place as opposed to space. Whereas space is just a universal term to describe the virtual coordinates of any location, as in the formal intersection of latitudinal and longitudinal vectors, place is particular; place is a particularity that has been transformed into something singular from the sustained influence of history, culture, and language upon it:
Place is not space. Whereas space is abstract, place is concrete. A cubic yard of space is identical wherever we calculate it, but no two places are alike. (1)
This is an elementary, but quite helpful way to understand gentrification at its core: gentrification is a social vibration that transforms places into spaces. That is to say, gentrification takes a place – like an urban neighborhood once defined by the presence of a particular ethnicity, a unique urban culture and vibration, a collection of families and neighbors with shared communal and historical bonds – and makes it into a universal space: a completely abstract urban area defined by short term renters, a precarious real estate and labor market, young cognitive professionals directly plugged into the day to day operation of globalized capitalism: with gentrification everything in the urban horizon essentially becomes engulfed by the same space.
Gentrification erodes, by default, the very idea of a concrete, local urban place in order to erect a globalized territory for the purpose of reproducing the uninhibited flows of technology and capital that have been suddenly allowed to move freely throughout this newly created space.
A perfect example of this is Boston’s North End. Up until the 1980s, even into the 1990s, this was the archetypal Italian working class neighborhood, the Little Italy of Boston. A neighborhood like the North End was in many ways the very definition of a place: kids on the stoop, old Italian grandmothers looking out the windows, a series of family owned businesses with historical tied to the neighborhood, etc. The place-ness of the North End was formed by a synthesis of cultural, ethnic, and historical factors, thus creating a socialized vibration in which the North End stood out as a totally unique urban neighborhood.
But now, in 2019, the North End functions more as a tourist destination, almost like the Italian section at Epcot Center for tourists so they can feel themselves to be experiencing “authentic” Italian-American culture: the North End has been stripped of its unique place-ness and reconfigured as a globalized consumer tourist space in the dimension of something that even Jean Baudrillard would scratch his head at.
Another interesting way you can see the effect of this operation – the transformation of place into space – is in the clear and present crisis of meaning that can now be found in the contemporary Red Sox and Yankees rivalry versus how it once functioned in the past.
One of the basic functions of gentrification is to cut off a person, or a neighborhood, or an entire city, from their own history, and their own sense of place. Gentrifications cuts the city neighborhood away from its own history and then inserts it into the pure present, and into a purely global space, under the code of digital “real time.” Gentrification does this – enacts a rupture for the urban individual in their sense of history and place – for the very simple reason that the person can be a more effective consumer without the weight of the past. Freed from the weight of history, the contemporary urban consumer can better participate in the dynamics of globalized capitalism, not to mention passively embody the ideology of neoliberalism, in their day to day life.
This function materializes in many different ways, but one of the most obvious ways is the collapse of “the Neighbor.” Just like the professional baseball teams of the present day that seem to have a completely new roster every year, it is the same with the contemporary urban neighborhood, how a completely new set of residents seem to move in each and every September: you simply cannot trust that your neighbor will be there tomorrow within the gentrified horizon, just like you cannot trust your favorite player will not be traded away to another team.
So under the effect and vibration of gentrification, a system which subverts one’s relationship to both history and the singularity of place so to generate higher levels of productivity and profit, you simply cannot have an authentic rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankees any longer. And you cannot have it because any rivalry between these two professional sports teams is ultimately nothing but a reflection of the rivalry of place itself.
What all this really points to is that you cannot have meaning any longer in the gentrified city that dislocated from the operation of Capital, which is precisely why it is the mechanisms of advertising, branding, and marketing that are now responsible for generating meaning in our lives. The sense of narrative is being replaced by data, the sense of quality is being replaced by quantification. Meaning itself is progressively obliterated and a system of pure equivalence, exchange, and “data” is put in its place instead.
Something like the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry was once so rich and full of such a wonderful social energy because it was based on a culturally recognized narrative structure, as well as a clear differential value disclosed by the singularity of place. It was beautiful and intense and so deeply meaningful because the rivalry tapped into an energy between two cities that literally went back to the political differences between John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the differential between the working class culture of Brooklyn and the Bronx juxtaposed against the working class culture of Roxbury and South Boston.
But now, as these two cities have become progressively immersed in the same space of globalized capitalism and digital technologies, mainly populated by the same exact class of people, the Yuppies, a global subjectivity that generally has the same worldview, the same values, and the same economic interests, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry simply cannot be generated any longer as it once was: it is, Going, Going, Gone.
- Smith, H. The worlds religions.
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.
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 roughly 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 comical 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 and even contemporary global capitalism – the basic structure of our normalized sense of reality – also follows this same logic. That is to say, so many are now waking up to discover themselves trapped in the twisted dream of neoliberalism. So many are painfully discovering that what they had previously considered just normal, day to day banal realty, is actually someone else’s (multinational corporations, for example) dream. One of the basic functions that this dream takes is that it can continue on forever, that the basic frame of the gentrified dream will reproduce itself into infinity; that it can somehow carry on indefinitely and somehow overcome all of the countless social antagonisms it produces every single day within the city without them eventually exploding to the surface.
So what hat is now 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 by gentrification 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 certainly Yes, it is Yes in a very obvious and narrow sense; it is an answer that still remains 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. In other words, the “original residents” of neighborhood Boston never really identified with the gentrified dream in the first place, they always recognized it for the smoke and mirrors that it was. Yes, of course, they are fucked, they have been priced out of their own neighborhood, they have lost their former ethnic, religious, and cultural ties that were once part of disciplinary-parochial urban neighborhood prior to its integration into the gentrified procedure. But the people who are really fucked, or, more likely the people who will soon discover just how fucked they are, are the Yuppies themselves: they are the ones truly caught in the gentrified dream — the true dreamers are none other than the yuppies themselves.
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 don’t mind paying exorbitant rent, that they take pleasure in the reduction of social and cultural life into a purely capitalist exchange, that they revel 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 these young cognitive professionals 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 in Boston 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, externalized divide is actually what allows the gentrified dream to continue on indefinitely, and 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 both ideological and material process that turns people into “Yuppies.” It is a social procedure 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 or the basketball playground are turned into the amount of Likes and Shares we are able to accumulate on social media platforms.
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.”
I had the great pleasure of recently watching a documentary short entitled Everything is Incredible, a film that tells the peculiar story of a disabled Honduran man who has been trying to build a homemade helicopter out of his garage for the past several decades. The film, in trying to make sense of this unusual life project, interviewed several people from the man’s family and neighborhood, and the general feeling regarding the project was something to the effect, “What can we say, the man is a little bit out there, he is different. We don’t exactly know why he is doing such a crazy thing.”
But things get interesting when we actually listen to the man speak, once we hear the care and logic in his voice that unapologetically justifies the decision to carry on with his life’s work in the face of such pervasive criticism and questioning.
At one point in the film the documentarian asks him what the underlying reason is for this seemingly illogical drive, this attempt to build a makeshift helicopter that most certainly will never be completed. The man, sitting up tall and dignified in his wheelchair, replies in the following manner:
The problem with (this world) is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it.
If we were to transpose the spirit of that very same quote onto the situation now developing in Boston regarding a Starbucks Coffee trying to force its way into the city’s historic Italian-American neighborhood directly against the community’s wishes, we could just as easily say:
The problem with the North End is that it is incredible, but Starbucks can not accept it.
When hearing a quote like this, our initial reaction, in a flood of emotion and memory, is to simply praise it as a statement of pure truth. But what is often is absent in such a moment is any real critical reflection. We are afraid that if we intellectualize such a statement we will potentially lose its raw spiritual power. So, what is truly needed here is not just a standard critical reflection, but rather a critical reflection that can still retain the emotional force and spiritual depth of the proposition itself.
So although I absolutely agree with the underlying sentiment of the man’s statement — “The problem with this world is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it” — one cannot help but look around today at the state of working class urban neighborhoods throughout America, like the North End in Boston, and encounter the sad fact that things are anything but incredible. Things are actually not good at all if we are being completely honest with ourselves: real estate prices are spiraling out of control, local communities are progressively losing their history and culture, and real estate development funds and transnational corporations like Starbucks are now moving in and radically transforming the social-symbolic substance that these very neighborhoods once signified — forever changing them away from their working class, ethnic, and family oriented roots.
In this very sense, the fight to keep a Starbucks out of the North End — or the ridiculous attempts to represent Boston’s ‘Little Italy’ as a living testament to working class and ethnic life in contemporary Boston when in reality the average condominium price is now approaching closer to one million dollars in the neighborhood — has a similar logic of trying to build a helicopter in your garage. And this is precisely why the people, politicians, and corporations that defend the gentrification process as being “natural,” as being “just the way things are now in the city,” often claim that anyone who tries to resist gentrification is simply silly, foolish, or borderline crazy — which is precisely why one should do it.
In other words, fighting back against gentrification in contemporary American cities is exactly the same as trying to build a helicopter in your garage. In one sense it is stupid and ridiculous, but in a much deeper sense it may in fact be the only real way to discover that the world is actually incredible, to see that the world is actually beautiful: we can only find out who we really are when we try to do the impossible, when we are willing to risk it all for something that we believe in.
A Starbucks trying to move into the North End and the incredible backlash it has produced over the past several weeks, culminating in a community hearing on June 28th in which virtually every major media news outlet in Boston covered as the lead story that same evening, has very little to do with this specific Starbucks itself. Such an impassioned response is more like a setting off point, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” that rather speaks to the tail end of a three decade process in which a neighborhood like the North End has been continually drained of its people, history, and unique culture.
But why now? That is to say, why are The people just resisting it only now, in 2018, in such a palpable and direct way?
The principal reason why 21st century urban gentrification is ultimately so dangerous to cities around the country is because gentrification is first and foremost an abstract process, it is ideological, that only reveals itself through its own self-produced symptoms. And, what could be more of a symptom exploding to the social surface than a Starbucks Coffee trying to open a store at the very gateway of historic Hanover Street? What I mean by that is that even if you think you can “see” gentrification in action, the true danger of gentrification lies in the fact that it is an invisible phenomenon. It is invisible because gentrification is ultimately only a way of thinking, it is a way of orienting yourself and experiencing the urban world without the accompanying consciousness of its logic.
The purpose of gentrification, like the purpose of a Starbucks, is to put everything and anything into a system that is fully mediated by a global capitalist logic, technological efficiency, and a spirit of pure competition. This is precisely why something like gentrification absolutely loves Linkedin profiles, Tinder Swipers, and corporate coffee chains: gentrification only works when people are ruthlessly competing with one another: it is truly the ultimate “dog eat dog” phenomena in 21st century urban American space.
But what gentrification cannot stomach, what it cannot to stand to be around, what terrifies it more than anything are things like friendship, solidarity, and self-respect. Nothing is more frightening to gentrification than two people sitting on a front stoop watching the world go by; nothing is more unsettling to its logic than an urban community with nothing left to lose that is finally willing to fight back.
A Starbucks trying to move into the historic gateway of the North End in Boston — even if this neighborhood is not even historic any longer, even if this neighborhood is already a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood in its present state — is in many ways symbolic of everything wrong with the world today, and most certainly everything wrong in America; which is, in a sentence: corporate violence against local communities and local people.
Seeing the small, remaining North End community mount a pushback against a multinational corporate giant is actually a beautiful thing to witness, it is something that can give us all hope and faith in the world, just like a person in a wheelchair determined to build a helicopter in his garage.
The North End is incredible. It is, as Jane Jacobs once correctly remarked, one of the truly great urban neighborhoods in America.
And it is absolutely worth fighting for, most especially because of the fact that it is already gone.