Gentrifying The Gayborhood
The NYT reported yesterday that with the acceptance and assimilation of gays into American life, the distinctiveness of gay neighborhoods is going away too. Excerpts:
The artist John Criscitello of Seattle first became angry a few years ago about the changes in his beloved neighborhood, Capitol Hill, historically the city’s enclave for gay men and lesbians. The area had become decidedly more straight and, in his view, infuriatingly obnoxious.
“On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s like Mardi Gras,” Mr. Criscitello said. He called the area “a puke-and-leave drinking destination” for the city’s young heterosexuals, who seemingly have little regard for, and some hostility toward, the gay people who have lived there since the 1960s.
So Mr. Criscitello responded with art, creating a series of provocative and sometimes vulgar street murals excoriated the invading masses as homophobic and insensitive.
“I wanted to poke a stick at the beehive of what was going on,” he said.
In Providence, R.I., a section of the city’s downtown is strewed with rainbow banners on utility poles, advertising its gayborhood of bars and cafes. Plans are also in the works for an L.G.B.T.Q. community center.
“There’s a very large craving to have a space where you can meet like-minded people,” said Davide Gnoato, board president of Rhode Island Pride.
Mr. Ghaziani referred to these new efforts as “cultural archipelagos.” He warned that gay men and lesbians still face discrimination. But, he said, “Plurality is the name of the new game,” as shown by newly emerging gayborhoods.
Still, some worry that much could be lost as the old famed gayborhoods become watered-down versions of their former selves. Political clout, services and opportunities could be diminished.
“This is not about nostalgia,” Mr. Jones said.
He bemoaned a lack of thoughtful conversation about the issue. “The gayborhoods are going away,” he said. “Where do we go now? The old ways of organizing and defending ourselves are being changed. What are the new strategies?”
You can see where they’re coming from. It’s normal for people not to want their neighborhood to change. It’s a perfectly human response. This story — sympathetic to those who feel the sense of loss, but also balanced — could have been written about gentrification of black neighborhoods, of Hispanic neighborhoods, and so on. And has been (e.g., this piece on the gentrification of Harlem).
But it could not have been written about white European neighborhoods. Had it been, it would have told the story of racist whites lamenting the loss of their enclaves. Imagine a John Criscitello figure in such a story posting vulgar murals insulting the newcomers, and characterizing them as anti-white and insensitive. In the gayborhood story, he comes off as a crank, but one for whom one might rightly feel some sensitivity. In the white-neighborhood version, he would have been History’s Greatest Monster.
Almost 20 years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, the nearby Carroll Gardens neighborhood had a reputation for being defiantly Italian. One of the attractions of the neighborhood was its close-knit feel, and all the Italian stores around it. The rumor was that the people of the neighborhood had formed some kind of association, probably illegal, to govern home sales within the enclave, to make sure the neighborhood stayed Italian. At the time, I had two thoughts about this:
1) That’s unfair to people like me, who should have the right to live here if we want to and can afford it; and
2) they’ve got a good thing here, and I don’t blame them for wanting to keep it
The story about gentrifying gayborhoods is a complex one, because it shines a light on one price paid for joining the mainstream: a loss of communal feeling, and a physical loss of a distinct community. When mainstream society no longer looks down on you and sees you as a threat, you should not be surprised when people who used to be outsiders want to live among you. What’s the alternative?
I think liberalism (by which I mean our governing philosophy, not only the politics of the Democratic Party) doesn’t know how to handle things like this, because it complicates the Narrative. If there is one standard for all, as there must be under liberalism, then people like John Criscitello, who resort to name-calling and other efforts to insult and intimidate outsiders moving into his enclave, must be villains. Do you have any doubt that The New York Times would have portrayed his ethnic white counterpart as such?
If gay residents undertook any initiatives to preserve the gay character of their neighborhoods, my guess is that media would present them sympathetically, in a way that it certainly would never do with ethnic whites doing the same thing. It would present the efforts as beleaguered victims of gentrification doing their best to hold on to something good. In the latter hypothetical, it would present the efforts as bigoted reactionaries resisting the arc of history.
How do you tell when it’s one and not the other? Is it a who, whom? thing? That is, does the subjective qualities of the residents and the newcomers determine whether or not we should sympathize with them? If so, then how is that liberalism? How is that neutral?
If you don’t feel some sympathy for the John Criscitellos — be they gay, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever — then I suggest that you are missing something important about what it means to be human. We like to be around our own kind. Community is not simply the sum total of who is living in a particular geographical space at a given moment. There’s usually more to it than that, at least in normal cultures. Whether those communities were created by oppression, or through some other means, there is often within them a sense of solidarity, belonging, and mutual help. These are goods that are harder to come by in more diverse communities, because of the relative lack of social trust. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has documented this, though as a political and cultural liberal, the findings made him very uncomfortable. It’s not a matter of hating the Other as much as it’s a matter of not knowing who you can trust.
But if you don’t also feel some sympathy for those spited by the John Criscitellos, then I suggest that you are missing something important about what it means to live in a just society. Few of us would believe that there should be laws preventing people from buying housing in certain neighborhoods, based on religion, ethnicity, sexual identity, or anything else. So how do you keep the neighborhood “our thing”? One way to do it is by policing the boundaries in ugly ways, like John Criscitello is doing. If you condemn it when Archie Bunker does it, you have to condemn it when John Criscitello does it. If not, you are a hypocrite.
How to preserve particularity within liberalism without being unjust? The way not to do it is to resort to who, whom? (e.g., it’s okay when John Criscitello does it, but not when Archie Bunker does it). But that’s the only way progressives know how to do it. It’s not about justice, but power. Then again, can it be done at all? I doubt it. If my neighborhood association had the legal right to exclude Jews, gays, blacks, et al., I would strongly object to any attempt to exercise that right, and fight it. It would be a matter of moral justice, even if there were no legal problem with this.
That being the case, how can anybody under liberalism protect communal particularity without breaking the moral law? Is it the case that liberalism inevitably destroys traditional communities? Progressives aren’t the only ones caught in a bind here. Conservatives (like me) who believe that things like restrictive covenants, formal or informal, are immoral are without the means to protect what we consider to be a common good.