In last Sunday’s opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, writer Matthew DeBord gave us all a glimpse into the dilemma of those who gentrify. In a brazenly open reflection titled “The Gang’s All Here,” DeBord mourns how following the perfect “gentrification script,” didn’t exactly lead to new urban homeowners paradise in his case. His new home for his family in the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Glassell Park faced two unexpected variables; a homeowners based recession and gangs.
What follows in this rare glimpse of honesty into the mindset of the average participant in the gentrification process is revealing. After DeBord lays out his encounters with the criminality of the Avenues Gang in his new neighborhood, he lets his readers in on how people like himself cope with such circumstances:
Even the most optimistic participants in gentrification culture find living in the middle of an organized-crime enclave tricky. How do civilians manage such proximity to hard-core organized crime? At my house, we make jokes. Our first strategy was to “Soprano”-ize the situation. So if the local Fresh & Easy market discontinues an item, it must be because the Avenues weren’t cool with it. That taco truck of such consistent excellence? It must function as the Avenues’ Satriale’s Pork Store. We modify lines from “The Godfather.” “Leave the AK-47. Take the churro.” Uneasy chuckles ensue.
Laughter is cathartic and these guys are such a crackup! In fact, this is the most compelling argument to accelerate this process of gentrification; more humorous hoods! Working class Mexican stiffs prefer pork products from a truck parked on the sidewalk as opposed to the enlightened shopping for healthy groceries at “Fresh & Easy!” Damn those vatos locos are in control of everything! Leave the neighborhood, take the churro! Lick it and pass it, tambien! Seriously, though, what’s really funny is that gentrification – through the prowess of city politics and real estate developers – is its own turf war…
DeBord does not fail us in this regard either. He expands on a mini-history lesson and tries to attempt to show that this round of gentrification actually has a dual redemptive motive. Confirming what I have sarcastically deemed “Brave New Urbanism,” DeBord follows:
There’s mild bravery in attempting gentrification, as well as a reversal of what many of us consider to be a grave past injustice. Those who abandoned the cities in the 1960s and ’70s were unapologetic about their motives. For them, the cities were going rapidly to hell, and they were going to put some distance between themselves and the threat. Generation gentrification, by contrast, is attempting to rehabilitate menace by living with it. To be sure, we genuinely desired a more urban life and more diverse neighborhoods; and if we were honest, we would also recognize how far violent crime rates have fallen in the last 30 years. We figured we could neuter any remaining danger by exposing it to the irresistible pressure of our Starbucks-y values system.”
According to DeBord, these “Brave New Urbanists,” are not like their parents who fled to newly created suburbs in the White Flight craze of the late 60’s/ early 70’s. This generation actually wants to right two historical wrongs by jettisoning the open racism of white flight by integrating themselves into “menacing” neighborhoods and by their very presence, “rehabilitate” them. This municipal colonialism amounts to a nothing less than a new “Rudyard Kipling” mindset of the white man’s burden. It does not contain the belligerence of Sundown Town/White Flight racism, but is still inherently racist nonetheless. Extreme naivety and foolish racism can only account for the mindset that supposes that “Starbucks” values of conglomerate capitalist suburbanite homogenization can cure the “ills” of the inner city. Hey DeBord and company, I hear Africans are still shaking spears at each other in an almost never ending feud of tribalism…have you ever considered gentrification outside the territorial United States? Kipling would be proud…
But alas, “Rudyard” DeBord’s initial faith has been shaken by his conceptualization of a neighborhood dichotomy that solely exists between the antagonistic poles of the pioneering redeemer class and street gangs such as the Avenues:
It’s foolhardy to assume that once the sushi and eyewear boutiques arrive, a gang like the Avenues will fold up and slink off to more overtly scary precincts, even as more affluent residents demand police and political attention. The gangs have their own ambitions, and zealously protecting what’s always been theirs is high on the list. What are cool T-shirt emporia in the face of reliable drug profits defended by assault weapons? If history is any guide, the recession will eventually end and the gentrification of the Eastside will resume apace. But even then, the neighborhood will remain home to both the likes of us and the Avenues. Humor helps us live together, but deep down, we don’t think they’re funny at all.
It’s really quite instructive that an op-ed article such as this appeared less than a week before a community organization like “Homies Unidos,” celebrated its 10th anniversary. For DeBord, even a rebounding economy and Hayashi rolls won’t spell the end of his view of a polarized city dynamic. This conclusion hints that nihilism has crept into the minds of disenchanted members of the “redeeming gentrification” class.
Their mission is doomed by the inextricable ills of the hood. Their Kipling notions have become ever more burdensome. It is in this flawed initial framework and its subsequent dismantlement that makes evident the fact that gentrification’s brave new urbanists are a worthless bunch. When you juxtapose their nonsense to the on the ground reality of groups like “Homies Unidos” headed by Alex Sanchez – who actually organize to combat gang violence and who don’t suppose that their mere presence and “values,” are enough to turn anything around – you realize who has the best interests of the community and its longtime residents in mind.
*Note: My soon to be finished Hip Hop demo “Kaos Theory” features a collaboration with Cat, the lead singer of Mystery Hangup, where we take on this issue with the song “Gentrify.” It’s dedicated to Anaheim, Santa Ana, Echo Park, Glassell Park and everywhere this city occupation unfolds. Be on the look out!