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.