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, place is particular; place is a particularity that has been transformed into something singular from the sustained influence of human history, culture, and language upon it:
Place is not space. Whereas space is abstract, place is concrete. A cubic yard of space is identitcal 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 – ¨Yuppies¨ – directly plugged into the day to day operation of globalized capitalism: with gentrification everything in the urban horizon essentially becomes the same space.
Gentrification destroys, by default, the very idea of a concrete, local urban place in order to erect a globalized territory so it can continue reproducing itself from the unhibited flows of technology and capital that are allowed to move freely throughout this newly created space.
A perfect example of this in 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: it was, strictly speaking, the very definition of a place: kids on the stoop, old Italian grandmothers looking out the windows, a series of family owned businesses, etc. But now, in 2018, the North End functions more as a tourist destination, almost like the Italian section at Epcot Center for neoliberal tourists so they can be deluded that they are experiencing “authentic” Italian-American culture: the North End has been stripped of itself as a unique place and reconfigured as a weird consumer tourist space in the dimension of something that even Jean Baudrillard would scratch his head at.
Another interesting way you can see the true and direct effect of this very same 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 that of the past.
The basic function 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 away from its own history and then inserts it into the pure present, into a pure global space, under the vibration and code of digital “real time.” Gentrification does this – severs the urban individual from 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, so that the person can better directly participate in the dynamics of globalized capitalism and fully 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 just the same with the contemporary urban neighborhood that now seems to have a completely new set of residents each and every September: you simply cannot trust that your neighbor will be their tomorrow within the gentrified horizon, just like you cannot trust your favorite player will not be traded or sign a new contract the next day.
So under the effect and vibration of gentrification, a system which as a rule subverts one’s relationship to both history and the integrity of a singular place so to generate higher levels of productivity and profit, you simply cannot have an authentic rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankees any longer: you cannot have it because the rivalry between these two professional sports teams was 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. The sense of narratively structured meaning 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 meaningful, so rich, and full of such a wonderful social energy because it was based on the narrative structure of history and the differential qualitative value 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 digitized technologies, mainly populated by the same exact class of people, the global Yuppies, a class that generally has the same worldview, the same values, and the same economic and cultural 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.