I had the great pleasure of recently watching a documentary short entitled Everything is Incredible, a film that tells the peculiar story of a disabled Honduran man who has been trying to build a homemade helicopter out of his garage for the past several decades. The film, in trying to make sense of this unusual life project, interviewed several people from the man’s family and neighborhood, and the general feeling regarding the project was something to the effect, “What can we say, the man is a little bit out there, he is different. We don’t exactly know why he is doing such a crazy thing.”
But things get interesting when we actually listen to the man speak, once we hear the care and logic in his voice that unapologetically justifies the decision to carry on with his life’s work in the face of such pervasive criticism and questioning.
At one point in the film the documentarian asks him what the underlying reason is for this seemingly illogical drive, this attempt to build a makeshift helicopter that most certainly will never be completed. The man, sitting up tall and dignified in his wheelchair, replies in the following manner:
The problem with (this world) is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it.
If we were to transpose the spirit of that very same quote onto the situation now developing in Boston regarding a Starbucks Coffee trying to force its way into the city’s historic Italian-American neighborhood directly against the community’s wishes, we could just as easily say:
The problem with the North End is that it is incredible, but Starbucks can not accept it.
When hearing a quote like this, our initial reaction, in a flood of emotion and memory, is to simply praise it as a statement of pure truth. But what is often is absent in such a moment is any real critical reflection. We are afraid that if we intellectualize such a statement we will potentially lose its raw spiritual power. So, what is truly needed here is not just a standard critical reflection, but rather a critical reflection that can still retain the emotional force and spiritual depth of the proposition itself.
So although I absolutely agree with the underlying sentiment of the man’s statement — “The problem with this world is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it” — one cannot help but look around today at the state of working class urban neighborhoods throughout America, like the North End in Boston, and encounter the sad fact that things are anything but incredible. Things are actually not good at all if we are being completely honest with ourselves: real estate prices are spiraling out of control, local communities are progressively losing their history and culture, and real estate development funds and transnational corporations like Starbucks are now moving in and radically transforming the social-symbolic substance that these very neighborhoods once signified — forever changing them away from their working class, ethnic, and family oriented roots.
In this very sense, the fight to keep a Starbucks out of the North End — or the ridiculous attempts to represent Boston’s ‘Little Italy’ as a living testament to working class and ethnic life in contemporary Boston when in reality the average condominium price is now approaching closer to one million dollars in the neighborhood — has a similar logic of trying to build a helicopter in your garage. And this is precisely why the people, politicians, and corporations that defend the gentrification process as being “natural,” as being “just the way things are now in the city,” often claim that anyone who tries to resist gentrification is simply silly, foolish, or borderline crazy — which is precisely why one should do it.
In other words, fighting back against gentrification in contemporary American cities is exactly the same as trying to build a helicopter in your garage. In one sense it is stupid and ridiculous, but in a much deeper sense it may in fact be the only real way to discover that the world is actually incredible, to see that the world is actually beautiful: we can only find out who we really are when we try to do the impossible, when we are willing to risk it all for something that we believe in.
A Starbucks trying to move into the North End and the incredible backlash it has produced over the past several weeks, culminating in a community hearing on June 28th in which virtually every major media news outlet in Boston covered as the lead story that same evening, has very little to do with this specific Starbucks itself. Such an impassioned response is more like a setting off point, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” that rather speaks to the tail end of a three decade process in which a neighborhood like the North End has been continually drained of its people, history, and unique culture.
But why now? That is to say, why are The people just resisting it only now, in 2018, in such a palpable and direct way?
The principal reason why 21st century urban gentrification is ultimately so dangerous to cities around the country is because gentrification is first and foremost an abstract process, it is ideological, that only reveals itself through its own self-produced symptoms. And, what could be more of a symptom exploding to the social surface than a Starbucks Coffee trying to open a store at the very gateway of historic Hanover Street? What I mean by that is that even if you think you can “see” gentrification in action, the true danger of gentrification lies in the fact that it is an invisible phenomenon. It is invisible because gentrification is ultimately only a way of thinking, it is a way of orienting yourself and experiencing the urban world without the accompanying consciousness of its logic.
The purpose of gentrification, like the purpose of a Starbucks, is to put everything and anything into a system that is fully mediated by a global capitalist logic, technological efficiency, and a spirit of pure competition. This is precisely why something like gentrification absolutely loves Linkedin profiles, Tinder Swipers, and corporate coffee chains: gentrification only works when people are ruthlessly competing with one another: it is truly the ultimate “dog eat dog” phenomena in 21st century urban American space.
But what gentrification cannot stomach, what it cannot to stand to be around, what terrifies it more than anything are things like friendship, solidarity, and self-respect. Nothing is more frightening to gentrification than two people sitting on a front stoop watching the world go by; nothing is more unsettling to its logic than an urban community with nothing left to lose that is finally willing to fight back.
A Starbucks trying to move into the historic gateway of the North End in Boston — even if this neighborhood is not even historic any longer, even if this neighborhood is already a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood in its present state — is in many ways symbolic of everything wrong with the world today, and most certainly everything wrong in America; which is, in a sentence: corporate violence against local communities and local people.
Seeing the small, remaining North End community mount a pushback against a multinational corporate giant is actually a beautiful thing to witness, it is something that can give us all hope and faith in the world, just like a person in a wheelchair determined to build a helicopter in his garage.
The North End is incredible. It is, as Jane Jacobs once correctly remarked, one of the truly great urban neighborhoods in America.
And it is absolutely worth fighting for, most especially because of the fact that it is already gone.