An article I wrote appearing on the site, Caught in Southie.
Link to shorter version of article: http://www.caughtinsouthie.com/feature/some-thoughts-gentrification
Link to full article: http://www.thegentrificationofboston.com
“It is always from the depths of its impotence that each power center draws its power, hence their extreme maliciousness, and vanity. (1)
| Giles Delueze / Felix Guattari |
One of the difficulties in discussing gentrification is its status, not as a thing that can be sensed and touched, a concrete manifestation, but rather as the ideology par excellence that sustains the contemporary urban theatre. Yet, at the precise same time, there is no illusion present in the materiel reality of a new luxury condominium development overtaking a former Catholic grammar school and the accompanying transformation of both its architecture and historical production of meaning. But, as we analyze gentrification and its incursion into the Boston neighborhood, we should always keep in mind that hegemonic real estate development is not gentrification itself. Rather, it is a symptomatic manifestation that emerges from deeper causal relations, and then, as in this specific case, materializes as an event to elucidate the core of its abstract social processes. However, these central features that demarcate and define gentrification’s force interieure – it’s abstract and invisible nature – should never take away from the fact that gentrification, as its urban effects begin to disclose themselves, can only be considered entirely catastrophic for city life and the social relations that once defined it. The catastrophe that gentrification carries forth, as it paradoxically positions and brands itself as the epitome of urban improvement, is always obfuscated by the proclaimed ”benefits” it is said to entail: exponentially increasing tax revenue, rising real estate value, aesthetic reconfigurations in a former depressed neighborhood, etc. But ironically, this built in social catastrophe that accompanies gentrification in its movement across urban space, is both integrated and deflected by both the mainstream political and left and right, simultaneously. Even more specifically, this mutual deflection and integration is always executed by the very worst features of these once, now only alleged, oppositional political ideologies.
For the left, gentrification represents a definitive form of urban “progress,” as it embodies the renouncing and reconstitution of antiquated notions of social organization and community, in favor of a postmodern multiplicity that uses the always ambiguous term, “inclusiveness,” as its theoretical justification. That word specifically, “inclusiveness,” becomes the adjective par excellence that the left continually uses to justify the logic of gentrification as it radically replaces and displaces the once defined “old neighborhoods” of the American city. But of course, nothing in contemporary urban America is more exclusive than gentrification, most especially for the traditional city dwellers who can no longer afford to reside in their own neighborhood. And because gentrification – at least in its current form within certain post industrial American cities – always carries with it a certain level of technological progression within its spaces of activity, and thus producing the excellent illusion of democratization and egalitarianism, the left can not help but fawn over gentrification’s rapid acceleration.
For the right, gentrification represents a different kind of “progress.” It represents unhinged capital circulation, radical entrepreneurship, corporate power, and the ever present challenge of the developer to claim bureaucratic victory over any city ordinance or municipal restriction that seeks to disrupt the flow of its exponential process. For the right, the real estate developer is transformed into an Ayn Rand character, a la Howard Roark, and their property acquisitions/ design/ construction are mythologized as a triumph of free market logic and global capital: the right integrates gentrification into its overall goals because of its fierce allegiance to capital’s properties of multiplication and circulation.
Now, opposing its own support for gentrification as elucidated in the above paragraph, for the left, gentrification becomes a theoretically disastrous proposition in its continual devouring of particular urban life worlds it consumes on its pathway towards city hegemony. It’s deep and explicit association with the brutality of global capital, the primary historical enemy of the left, is perpetually reincarnated in the contemporary urban theatre in the form of real estate developers and multinational corporations looking to extend their profit in the neighborhoods once inhabited by working class city dwellers. The left can only bear silent, painful, witness to the transformation of the once vibrant inner city neighborhood – a neighborhood composed of hardworking residents with their history, ethnic territories, and organic communal relations on proud display – into an obscene Disneyland version of the city neighborhood. We can comically note how the contemporary North End is eerily similar to the “Italian” section of Epcot Center.
For the right, gentrification also presents theoretical conflicts with their own allegiance to its very process that was articulated above. This conflict emerges for the right because of gentrification’s continual effacing of history, community tradition, and most importantly, the practice of organized religion as the grounding practice for social morality, a historical texture to the social body the right claims to be essential. But historical, organized, religion rather becomes the ultimate persona non grata in the gentrified space, much to right’s dismay. That is to say: the political right has to deal with a perpetual inner tension that is inscribed into the heart of gentrification. For even with its vast profits and possibility of radical capital accumulation, there still remains an unsurpassable obstacle that its own ideology desires to transcend. We can state this in the form of the follwing impossible query, “How do we make as much as money as possible, yet keep the “old neighborhood church” in tact?”
But, in this bipolar posturing (simultaneous support and disavowal) by both sides of mainstream political ideology, the core of gentrification’s ideological nexus is never,ever approached. A recent film I wrote and directed, The Mission, forced me to become extremely familiar with gentrification: specifically how gentrification absolutely destroyed the entire foundation of neighborhood basketball, inner city street ball, the very activity that once produced the NBA superstars who radically transformed the game in the postwar decades. That tragedy, the tragedy of urban basketball’s formal demise, is just too obvious not to miss in any honest observation of the empty contemporary basketball courts now populating American cities. But, my deeper inquiry was the gaze upon gentrification as the symbolic counterpart to the core practices that result from the obscene relationship that constitutes our present economy: unmitigated flows of capital coupled with the social destabilization of digital technologies.
But of course, in the purest demonstration of the alienation that accompanies our collective postmodern condition, is that to work within and be integrated into the machinery of techno-capital is, of course, to also be blinded to the very processes that define gentrification’s operative logic. That is to say, to participate in gentrification – as an active instigator, a victim, a casual observer, even a politician dealing with the fall out from their own constituents – is to most likely be unconscious to the multiple ideological features that demarcate gentrification, features that are always transpiring before our very eyes. That being said, and with my own continual and evolving attempt to understand the factors at play regarding the general scope of gentrification – historical, social, religious, philosophical, technological, aesthetic – I have become intrigued by the current and specificdevelopments pertaining to the Gate of Heaven School in South Boston as it relates to this exact topic of gentrification’s innate ambiguity. But, what intrigues me most about this event is the particular intensity of emotional, historical, and social ties that this building has to the local neighborhood in South Boston’s City Point: a complex relational web which has effectively transformed this showdown into a very defined event as it directly references the previously articulated tension that is always present, in on form or another, that accompanies gentrification’s motion through urban space.
For here is a concrete event, a moment in time, where the opposing forces – the real estate developer vs what is left of the community base – dramatically collide over the fate of a children’s school and the stakes of the game are very high. However, after reading Ray Flynn’s, the seeming spokesman for the local community, recent column in the Boston Herald I was disheartened by the scope of the defense he utilized to pose a legitimate critique against gentrification’s incursion into the very bricks of this former Catholic grammar school: a vague public statement articulated, ostensibly, to stop this specific real estate venture from moving forward. More accurately stating my critique, Flynn employed just as much smoke and mirrors in his defense against gentrification as the developers use in their argument forgentrification. This is not saying Flynn overtly and consciously misrepresented the facts, far from it, and for the record I have tremendous respect and admiration for the former mayor as I consider him a personal friend. But rather, it seems he was compelled to skirt around the crux of the issue entirely and use a series of non sequitur and unrelated arguments to further his general position that turning the former grammar school to condos is an obscenity, immoral, and inherently wrong. Of course, Flynn was absolutely correct in his basic, but restrained, assertion regarding the future of the school being transformed into luxury condos as being unconscionable. However, my critique is rather on the way he attempted to convey that very point. And it is this precise element, Flynn’s rhetorical ambiguity conveying the overt brutality and violence of gentrification, that brings us to the very heart of the matter: The truth of gentrification is very uncomfortable to talk about, so it must be averted at all costs.
THE DARK NIGHT
So, any type of public discourse by either the proponents or detractors of gentrification, can’t help but remind us of the excellent Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight, and its extremely honest rendering of contemporary political relations. For at the climax of the film, is it not Batman himself who takes the public fall for Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City? That is to say, rather than admitting the inconvenient truth to the people of Gotham regarding Dent’s identity as “Two Face,” Batman does the complete opposite. Instead, he takes the blame himself to protect the people’s illusions and thus, unwillingly, employs the political logic of Plato or Immanuel Kant that goes something like this: the people can’t handle the real truth, so we must protect them by inventing an acceptable alternative.
Batman and his police friend Gordon recognize the loss of morale the city would suffer if Dent’s crimes became known. So Batman persuades Gordon to preserve Dent’s image by holding Batman responsible for the murders; Gordon destroys the Bat Signal and a manhunt for Batman ensues. This need to perpetuate a lie in order to sustain public morale is the film’s final message: only a lie can redeem us. (2)
But, it is this very point articulated by Zizek, the great contemporary critic, in the above passage from his excellent book, Living in the End Times, that forms the basis of my central analysis of gentrification and the adamant refusal of all parties to publicly speak of its mysterious and destructive nature: the truth of gentrification is so uncomfortable, so revealing, and so incredible, that both sides of the issue must constantly dance around it in order to avoid confronting its ideological center. So, no matter how gentrification appears, no matter how shiny the new building looks, and no matter how much “progress” it is said to theoretically entail in its present day urban application, at the very heart of this process is something that we do not like to speak of. For ultimately, gentrification is perhaps, at its simplest level of interpretation, is nothing more than a mirror of ourselves, and possibly, our collective social dysfunction.
So, the issue at hand, ironically, is not the future of the school itself. Of course, I feel as any decent observer would, luxury condos as a substitute for a former Catholic grammar school is nothing short of a tragedy, while demonstrating at the precise same time, the very real problem that seems to be at the center of the dysfunction that demarcates American society today: the very dangerous association of correlating “social progress” with financial speculation and even worse, unhinged technological “advancement.” But, at the very same time, and taking reality into account, I can also consciously acknowledge that preventing this specific development from moving forward will most likely have no effect towards suspending gentrification’s rapid acceleration and encapsulation of all urban spaces: from Brooklyn, to Inglewood, to South Boston. So for me, the real issue at stake is rather: can the parties at hand talk honestly and openly about not just this specific effect of gentrification, but rather its underlying causes? Can the parties strip away all of the surface rhetoric and look at the truth of what this process actually is, on its deepest ideological level? Can the parties understand the multiple factors in play and completely divorce themselves from any political position that obfuscates what is transpiring before them? Can they, rather than being developers or neighborhood activists, just be human beings? And it is in this very possibility of potential discourse – genuine human encounter between “developer” and “neighborhood person” – is also where the Gate of Heaven event has the potential to be the most effective, most powerful, and most honest. After all, this is a church property we are speaking of, a place where truth, or at least the search for truth, should be front and center of all potential dialogue.
CONCLUSION: THE “Real” GATE OF HEAVEN
From the Boston Globe, June 23, 2015
A developer’s plan to convert a shuttered Catholic school into condominiums won a key zoning approval Tuesday, likely clearing the way for construction to begin on the controversial South Boston project later this year.
Dorchester developer Oranmore Enterprises LLC has proposed putting 26 condos into the four-story Gate of Heaven Catholic school, which closed in 2008. Its plan won preliminary approval from City Hall in March, and at hearing Tuesday, Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to approve several remaining zoning exceptions the project needed to proceed.
“I think it’s good for the community,” said Michael Moore, the project’s manager. “We’ve invested a lot of time and energy and money into the process, so it’s absolutely satisfying to see it get resolved.”
Moore said the only hurdle remaining is obtaining a routine building permit, and that he expects to begin construction in September.
Though the project is modest in scope compared to other developments underway in the city, a highly vocal group of South Boston residents has maneuvered to block it at every turn, saying the development would overcrowd the area and calling it a symbol of the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification.
Last year, the Gate of Heaven Neighborhood Association persuaded City Hall to put the development on hold for months while residents unsuccessfully searched for a charter school to take over the building instead.
That “cooling off period” came to an abrupt end in March, when Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration allowed the project to come before the Boston Redevelopment Authority for approval, enraging neighbors who say they had been assured the project was dead. Since then, Walsh’s administration has issued terse statements insisting that the project needs to go forward before the rundown building decays further or the real estate market declines.
“I do understand there is an element in the community that wanted to see a school there, but it just wasn’t viable,” Moore said. “If it was, it would have happened.”
Dozens of neighbors showed up for the hearing Tuesday, handing over a petition against the project they said contained 2,000 signatures — to no avail.
“We’re very disappointed in the mayor,” said Kevin Lally, the neighborhood group’s leader. “He’s turned his back on the schoolchildren of South Boston.”
Lally said his group had hired a lawyer and is now planning to sue Oranmore Enterprises in a last-ditch attempt to block the project. (3)
There is no real surprise as to the final decision that was recently formalized regarding the fate of this neighborhood grammar school, a school once bursting with the countless children of South Boston’s Irish Catholic families. However, can we not be amazed, or even disturbed, at the logic of the alternative solution presented by the South Boston community group, the very group that was opposed to the condominium development because of the position it stakes? That is to say, their solution was to have the school, a historical symbol of local consciousness and culture, be administered by an outside charter school that would have to bus students in from surrounding areas because of the fact that there aren’t even enough children in South Boston to populate the school any longer. Even the oppositional stance, incredibly enough, furthers the overall logic of gentrification. This is ideology working in fullest capacity: invisible even to the people who claim to be against it.
But the ultimate irony in this whole situation is not so much that a Catholic grammar school is being supplanted by a development consisting of “luxury” condos, a crystal clear articulation of gentrification’s underlying logic and ideological crux. The true irony is what emerges from the enunciation of the school’s name itself. “Gate of Heaven,” how appropriate is that very name to serve as a metaphorical background to the unfloding of these events? Isn’t there a little part of us all – no matter if we are Catholic, atheist, or even a New Age yoga practitioner – that can’t help but wonder what St. Peter himself, the very guardian of “the gate of heaven,” thinks of this mundane situation? The irony, laid bare in its most telling dimensions, emerges from Matthew 29 when Christ remarks, “And again, I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (4) But, rather than descending into a critique that draws upon this central element of Christian theology to attack the underlying desire that guides this development and its vacuous assertion that “it’s good for the community,” we should instead see something entirely different: we should appropriately note the obscenity of gentrification’s “spirituality” on display for all to see. Meaning, to look at this development overtaking a site once native to an education steeped in the Catholic faith, is to also observe the fact that these condos represent a new kind, a perverted kind, of “Faith” in the Boston of today. To be painfully blunt, the contemporary luxury condo is nothing more than a “million dollar rosary,” for its social function is to ground the deed holder into a system of meaning, a system of collective values and norms that articulates a series of metaphysical codes that reference its Master – global capital. And it is this fact, this recognition of gentrification’s covert theological dimensions, is what emerges as the ultimate tragedy from this transition: the formal transition of capital accumulation acquiring its place as a “spiritual practice,” a practice that must fragment any and all historical spiritual practices and orders, such as the parish church and school, that once grounded, and provided stable meaning, for social life in the American city.
1 Gilles Deleuze Quotes.http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/13009.Gilles_Deleuze. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
2 Zikek, Slavoj . (2010). Living in the end times. London: Verso. pg. 59
3. Adams, D. (2015, June 23). Gate of Heaven condo project in South Boston gets final OK; neighbors plan suit. Boston Globe, p. Business.
4. Matthew 19 vs 24. (1985). In The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society.