August 9, 2017

TERROR:

First it was arson, then it was crack, now it’s farm-fresh goat cheese.

Will the horror never end? Can Newark ever catch a break? The questions are implied in a New York Times piece this week headlined with a lament from one city resident that Whole Foods, which opened its Newark branch in late winter, is “not for us.” Newark’s population is only one-fourth white, and it seems obvious that the sentiment being expressed here, as well as the use of the word “gentrification,” are what in other contexts might be called “racial dog whistles.” The Times frets that it’s a “tense moment” and that development is happening “unevenly” in Newark, that only certain neighborhoods have benefited so far. No doubt this is correct. You might think a paper based in New York would be aware of another city where development occurred in an uneven pattern. The Upper West Side gentrified in the 1980s, Times Square in the mid 1990s, the Lower East Side in the late 1990s, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in the 2000s. Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant are gentrifying as we speak. It takes a while to renovate a city. . . .

Let’s recap the slate of urban worries on the left. “Food deserts,” meaning a lack of availability of fresh food (or a lack of market demand for it), are bad. The opening of a gigantic store dedicated to selling healthy comestibles and produce, though, is also bad. When large corporations don’t invest in urban communities, that’s shameful. Investment? Also shameful. White flight by people moving to suburbs in the 1960s? Racist. Their grandchildren’s return? Also racist. Increased disorder that leads to garbage-strewn vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and declining property values is troubling, but increased order that leads to refilled buildings, cleaned-up neighborhoods, and rising rents is also troubling. Segregation? Bad. Integration? Bad. Such thoughts are not restricted to the fringe. Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most revered thinker on black life in America, advances them in his National Book Award winning memoir-cum-manifesto Between the World and Me. When white people started moving into his neighborhood, he felt this way: “I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts . . . their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.”

Spike Lee compared the gentrification of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he grew up, to genocide after someone called the police to complain about his musician father playing late at night. Cornel West equated gentrification with “land-grabbing” and “power-grabbing,” and in an interview with AlterNet he denounced Harlem as “49 percent vanilla” as white people have moved in to “leave precious and poor working people dangling with very little for a place to go.” In his very next comment, he deplored the large number of abandoned buildings in places like Philadelphia as a result of “neoliberal hegemony.”

Sounds racist to me. And what about the Statue of Liberty?