The corporate steamroller of gentrification is a deliberate process

By Pete Dolack

Gentrification is an ongoing process, of which we’ve had two reminders in the past month in New York City. The recent closing of the Bowery Poetry Club is a sad reminder of the dwindling number of community spaces — and one need only look across the street to see a high-end corporate clothing boutique occupying the space where CBGB showcased musical acts for more than three decades.

Even last weekend’s annual commemoration of the Tompkins Square Park police riot of 1988 was, in its own way, an echo of gentrification as the event served mostly as an act of nostalgia for the past of Manhattan’s Lower East Side that remains only in pockets. No New York City neighborhood put up more of a fight for its survival as an alternative haven for non-conformists in cultural, political and social milieus. That any of its tradition as a place of resistance to the overwhelming power of money survives in the now legalized squats, smattering of community spaces, and the out-numbered activists, artists and non-conformists who are able to remain by virtue of rent regulations is because of collective action.

Just to be clear about what is meant by the term gentrification, a working definition of it is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

This process is concurrent in many cities and countries. A special twist in New York City is that artists are used as a “bait” to put formerly industrial areas on the map as destinations, until the artists are no longer needed and are forced out by the sharply rising rents that sweep over the area once gentrification takes hold. This process can happen gradually, as it was in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, or it can happen swiftly, as it was further down Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the “Dumbo” enclave.

These processes are never organic, but become orchestrated once a neighborhood attracts a reputation as “hip” or “interesting.” In this variant, the artists arrive in places either emptied by de-industrialization, subject to high crime rates under the impact of neglect, or a combination of the two. In the case of Williamsburg, the process greatly accelerated following a massive rezoning that allowed 40-story luxury condominium buildings along the East River where only industrial uses has previously been allowed. (That more than 95 percent of local speakers at an hours-long hearing were in opposition and that local activists spent years developing an alternative plan in line with the neighborhood’s character was of no consequence.)

So now we have the “irony” of aggressively marketed buildings branded as “The Edge” located where an open-air waste-transfer station operated only a few years earlier: Bags of garbage used to molder there until a barge could arrive to remove them.

One strongly suspects the developers responsible for the complex do not inform the newcomers of the recent past.

The neighborhood that became know as Dumbo (the name is an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) underwent the process much quicker. Artists had settled there, too, as space became available. One real estate company essentially bought the neighborhood and openly used the artists as bait to make the neighborhood a desirable destination, going so far as to give street-level space for them to use as galleries or performance stages for a couple of years until the developers would be ready to reclaim the building to convert into condominiums and/or rental space for high-end corporate retail businesses.

The process extended to the corporatization of the annual Dumbo Arts Festival. I appeared as a poet in the 1999 pre-gentrification edition of the festival, simply because I happened to meet the friendly organizers of the spoken-word event, which was held on a loading dock. Artists would open their studios to the public, and those participating in the festival were primarily artists who lived there. A decade later, the neighborhood had been transformed into an expensive shopping mall, and the festival now boasts a string of corporate sponsors. Few artists remain in a neighborhood now dominated by million-dollar condominiums, the owners of whom undoubtedly fancy themselves as trend setters by virtue of living there.

The idea of corporatization has so taken hold that Dumbo’s open space, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, is expected to generate a profit. That sounds crazy, but it is really true: Some of the land set aside for the park is being sold to developers to build high-end hotels or other commercial enterprises to offset the costs of the park.

But the draw of artists is not necessary. Gentrification moves in waves and is ongoing; in New York City, developers are greedily preparing to devour Harlem — its historical cachet reduced to an advertising campaign — and have begun to eye outlying neighborhoods such as Bushwick. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

The city’s oldest gentrification project is that of the Lower East Side. Here the concept of “spatial de-concentration” was put into practice. “Spatial de-concentration” is a deliberate strategy of reducing the available housing stock to disperse a population. The Lower East Side in the 1970s suffered from a wave of landlord abandonments, arsons and city neglect, such as reduced firefighting services; eventually a shortage of housing triggered rising rents and stimulated real estate speculation.

A neighborhood that was an escape from the pervasiveness of corporate mass culture — its unique ambience created by a mix of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks — and anchored by community spaces and local mom-and-pop businesses has been transformed into an alcohol-fueled playground for the privileged overrun by “trendy” bars and chain stores. Deep-pocketed chain stores and boutiques owned by holders of trust funds are becoming the only entities that can afford the commercial rents as the very concept of commercial rent control is never raised by any political leader.

The average neighborhood residential monthly rent is now $2,400 — this in a neighborhood where, 40 years ago, people paid less than $100 for an apartment. Commercial space has increased in price still more steeply; local businesses that give back to the community are steadily forced to close their doors. As the former population becomes a smaller minority within in its neighborhood, the ability to fight back in an organized way dwindles, until a critical point is reached where real estate interests become essentially dictatorial and the process accelerates.

At some point, history becomes nostalgia. And 24 years later, the Tompkins Square Park police riot — when police hiding their badges went on a rampage against anybody luckless enough to be near the park sparked an intense period of struggle that lasted for several years — was unmistakably an object of nostalgia in this year’s commemoration. And even that had its corporate echo, as one person seized control of the annual event after chasing out others who previously helped organize it, and announced that he owns the marbles and will take them home if others don’t do as he says. A most capitalist attitude.

A community needs community institutions. Several years ago, I published a book of poetry by a friend who had recently died. The poet was well-liked and very modest; his friends felt it important that his work be kept alive. After I had completed the book, I walked one Friday afternoon to the Bowery Poetry Club, saw the owner, Bob Holman, there and began to ask him if I could schedule the book-release party there. Before I could get the first sentence out of my mouth, he enthusiastically said yes, giving me a two-hour Sunday slot without charge. I don’t think Starbucks would have done that.

I don’t pretend to know the club’s financial specifics, but I don’t think it takes a stretch of imagination to imagine that Mr. Holman had a large mortgage or rent to cover each month. And his club, home to artists and performers in a variety of disciplines, was a haven for community do-it-yourself arts and culture. I mention this not because its closing is a loss to a specific community (which it is) but because it is an example of what is happening on a mass scale through the corporate homogenization that arrives in the wake of gentrification.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby the “commons” are taken away and replaced by privately owned space. When there are no longer places where the community can gather — whether for their own cultural events, to discuss community issues or as gathering places for demonstrations and protests — the ability to maintain alternatives to the pervasive corporate culture and to continue to retain the ability to cohesively resist corporatization or to defend themselves against a city government determined to push them out is greatly diminished.

The Lower East Side will provide an example here. During the 1990s, a former school building was used to build a community space called Charas/El Bohio; benefit concerts, dance parties, space for a variety of local cultural groups and performers, and meeting places for organizers were among its uses. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which real estate developers saw dollar signs in front of their eyes and in which a large body of neighborhood activists resisted gentrification, Charas was seen not as the busy community resource it was, but as a threat that had to be eliminated.

In one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last acts, he saw to it that is was eliminated. Partly because of his hatred of community organizers or any opposition, partly because of his embrace of corporate ideology that insists private profit is the only legitimate usage of any property, and partly in support of a corrupt local council member in bed with developers who literally saw himself in a war against the neighborhood but who supported Giuliani, Charas was taken away and sold at far below market rate to a connected developer. Because of ongoing pressure that has blocked a necessary zoning change (the corrupt council member who did not try to hide the hatred he felt for his own constituents is long out of office), the developer has not been able to realize his plans. But 13 years later, Charas sits empty behind sealed walls and has so deteriorated that it is now uninhabitable.

That’s capitalism in action: A community resource created and run by the community is taken away so one person can make a profit, and the resource is allowed to rot unused if that one person doesn’t realize the profit.

The path of gentrification mirrors that of culture. The corporatized art world now mimics finance capital. In the financial world, a tiny number of people succeed in positioning their company for an initial public offering and the fantastic riches that flow upward from it while so many others labor for little; in the art world, a small number of artists catch the eye of a wealthy investor, generating multimillion-dollar sales while legions of other artists starve.

None of these patterns are new. The taking away of the commons is as old as capitalism; in fact capitalism was built on the privatization of commons. As a market arose for commodity agricultural products, feudal lords wanted to clear space for sheep meadows. Peasants were forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), forcing them to become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or laborers in the new factories to endure pitifully low wages and inhuman working hours.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away; the measure of independence that rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing them to be fully dependent on wage work.

Legal codes make such work more civilized these days, but the principal remains. An independent community is a community that can’t be pacified or narcotized by consumerism; common or collective property available for community use presents a counter-example to privatization of all spaces; and the use of resources for community benefit instead of for private profit represents an especially dangerous counter-example. Such concepts must be systematically stamped out, and for resisters, a militarized police force is used to enforce the rule of wealthy elites instead of the army as in past times.

If democracy is the goal, then community self-management must be a part of it — decision-making that requires a radically different way of organizing the community. A system in which the community exists to be plundered for the private profit of local elites is incompatible with democracy.