March 3rd, 2011

Voodoo Gentrification

Posted in Film, History, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
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You’ve probably heard the term “voodoo economics” before. Famously used by George H.W. Bush to denounce Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down wealth when the two were vying head-to-head for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, they never again escaped the elder Bush’s lips after he became Reagan’s running mate in that year’s general election. The former’s subsequent silence and the latter’s historic victory ensured that voodoo economics would reign unchallenged throughout the 80s, fueling a period remembered for overall prosperity — but an alarmingly huge income gap.

It’s no coincidence that the 80s were also the period when the word “gentrification” began to play a major role in US public discourse. So did “yuppies”, who became the subject of routine social satire during the decade. Less well documented, though, are the earlier, murkier beginnings of postwar gentrification, well before the tipping point that brought the concept into mass consciousness. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as white flight continued hollowing out American city centers, the first gentrifiers were also taking their initial, cautious steps into what is now some of the most coveted real estate in the country.

Director Hal Ashby’s first film, a 1970 comedy called The Landlord, marks the period well. The protagonist is Elgar Enders, a dandy-suited suburban WASP who lives off his parents’ money — the original trust fund kid. His plan to buy a ghetto tenement, evict its tenants, and transform it into into his new mansion seems rebellious and eccentric, though it’s no less whimsical than the change of tastes that brought mass gentrification to similar Brooklyn neighborhoods (the movie was filmed in a now unrecognizably destitute Park Slope) in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Enders’ scheme might have been prophetic — in the last decade, the mansionization of New York apartment buildings has become a small trend.

Predictably, little goes as smoothly as planned for the would-be eviction agent. The clip above highlights some of the hostility faced by Enders and his new neighbor (who sees himself as part of a wave of “beautiful people” moving in) upon arrival in their new neighborhood. While talking over area amenities with Enders’ real estate broker, the neighbor’s new home is invaded by a stream of delicate white particles. “Eviction powder,” the broker explains, with evident nonchalance. After the two express alarm and confusion, she adds that “it’s just a little voodoo.”

When magic fails to foil Enders’ designs for the neighborhood, his new tenants opt for open hostility, literally chasing him from the block. These street scenes come as a shock to anyone who’s familiar with what’s become one of Brooklyn’s most polished neighborhoods, home to celebrity actors and writers. Although gentrification isn’t always as totalizing as many writers presume, its effect over time can be substantial. Park Slope and other, now long-affluent heartlands of American yuppie culture didn’t just present a radically different physical appearance forty years ago, they had substantially different ethnic compositions as well. Similar neighborhoods, like Boston’s South End — which also began gentrifying in the 70s, despite looking quite worse for wear — were, in fact, sites of almost complete population displacements in ensuing decades.

For all its comic exaggeration of the mutual disregard in which locals and gentrifiers held one another during this period, such radical discontinuity isn’t part of any future The Landlord could surmise. Enders winds up too fond of his tenants to ever contemplate evicting them, and the film’s plot turns toward a love triangle between the new landlord and two local residents. For all that critics still praise the film’s complicated depiction of urban race relations in the wake of the violent race riots of the late 1960s, the future it contemplates seems, in hindsight, full of almost preposterous optimistism.

Defiant optimism must have been the tune of the moment. 1970 also witnessed most of the first season of “Sesame Street”, set (controversially, at the time) in an urban neighborhood that’s been likened to a multicultural fantasyland. The neoliberal reforms that came along somewhat later — particularly the end of rent control — accelerated evictions, making mixed-income areas like the block depicted in the show much less prevalent.

Today, these are often gentrification’s borderlands, regions that will undoubtedly move further south and east upon the next wave of affluent urban pioneering. In the process, they continually self-cannibalize themselves by calling attention to the “hipness” resulting from their frictitious mix of poverty and plenty. “Just like Sesame Street” has become a common Brooklyn neighborhood branding slogan, one which ensures the disappearance of the very condition it’s selling in the act of selling it. It’s a process no amount of eviction powder will ever be able to terminate — Reagan’s voodoo has ultimately proven strongest.


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2 comments

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I wonder what it would be like to map the relationship between neoliberal policies and gentrification patterns in different cities around the world. Gentrification seems somewhat more benign in Montreal than in New York or Toronto, for instance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this has to do with the fact that Quebec did not undergo many of the neoliberal reforms that other places have experienced since the 1980s.

    March 3rd, 2011 at 5:10 am

  2. C. Szabla says:

    I’m sure you’d find a correlation between the two. Gentrification is often treated as a social trend with economic consequences, but the underlying legal bases often gets swept under the rug.

    The question of the relationship between neoliberalism and gentrification can get slightly more complicated, though. Cities didn’t just help facilitate gentrification by opening up housing stock on the supply side, by, for example, ending rent control. Governments also inflated the demand side, by liberalizing their economies to attract service industries and their professional, white collar workers. The two tended to go hand-in-hand, though it would be interesting to try to think of examples of places where they didn’t, and what’s happened to them.

    And then there’s the libertarian counteragument: that governments artificially restrict supply by enforcing the things that make gentried or gentrifying neighborhoods attractive: zoning regulations, historic district restrictions, and other impediments on developers who would otherwise relieve the pressure on urban neighborhoods — meaning few gentrified neighborhoods have actually been the product of “neoliberalism”. Of course, this sort of restriction is often the result of lobbying on the part of gentrifiers to protect their individual property rights. It’s a problem when a philosophy of “the market speaks” leads to the market asking that it not be able to express itself so fully.

    March 4th, 2011 at 3:30 am

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