We Are The Gentrifiers

In comparing our building–a redone calendar factory–with the other dwellings in our neighborhood–more typical Montreal brick duplexes or triplexes–I often joke that we are the gentrifiers. But it’s actually not a joke at all. I knew this intellectually, but now it’s been driven home for me. We are now literally (in the literal sense of literally) a textbook case, or at least a journal article case.

In Jan Radway’s classic “Ethnography Among Elites,” an essay I had occasion to cite this weekend, she has a line about ethnographers studying people with “commensurate” means of representation. One of the results of such a state of affairs is that the ethnographer may come “upon a counter-representation–if not a full-fledged critique–of herself as the other of another’s discourse” (9).

The thing is, sometimes in cultural studies it’s not even that distance. Sometimes the means of representation are not commensurate but the same. Here is a long passage from Sharon Zukin’s “Consuming Authenticity” (Cultural Studies 22:5) on gentrification (a subject on which I think she is one of the best writers–if not the best)

In the East Village, consumption spaces swung dialectically between the populist culture of the commercial mainstream and the neighborhood’s cheap restaurants, bars, and photocopy shops, before developing entrepreneurial outposts of difference. So, too, in Wicker Park, Chicago, new residents at first liked the atmosphere of Sophie’s Busy Bee, a greasy spoon cafe whose ‘ambiance screamed authenticity.’ But old and new patrons harbored different expectations of the consumption experience. Waitresses at the Busy Bee grew impatient with young artists and musicians who wanted to linger all day over a single cup of coffee, and to these new patrons that coffee really was not very good. After a new arrival in the neighborhood opened the Urbis Orbis Cafe´ in a converted warehouse, new residents flocked to it. Just a few years later, the Busy Bee shut down, while Urbis Orbis earned praise from Rolling Stone as ‘the coolest place [in Chicago] to suck down a cappuccino.’ When housing in the neighborhood grew more expensive, the space above the cafe´ turned into a futon and furniture store, ‘an interesting contrast to the discount furniture outlets that . . . lined the commercial strip a block away on Milwaukee Avenue for decades.’ (730)

When I was in university, my friends Wayne and Lisa moved in to Wicker Park while she was at the U of Chicago Divinity School. I ate my first-ever pierogis at the Busy Bee, which I regarded as a quaint neighborhood joint. I remember the opening of Urbus Orbis and reading some alternative newspaper or something while drinking tea (as a non-coffee drinker I can’t comment on that part of her argument). And I remember being sad when the Busy Bee closed, since it was a regular part of our visits to our friends. If I’d thought about it, I should have understood the connection (I had read Loft Living as an undergrad and it is still one of my favorite books on cities) but there it is, by the same author who provided me with my first understanding of gentrification. Except this time my life and the lives of my friends are folded into the story.

The article continues and discusses food (and other kinds of) shopping and I see the same patterns she describes in how we exist in our neighborhood. We shop in the shoe store at the corner (though I am more likely to make a special order than get something off the wall), but we unlikely to frequent the bar with the older working class men, some of whom start drinking at 10am. We love the Lebanese, Greek, Haitian and Salvadoran grocers but wouldn’t think of buying consumer electronics from the discount place down the block. We are patrons of the new coffeeshop on Guizot and the new bakery on Liège, but not the greasy spoon breakfast joint down the block (though my stepdad tried it once). We enjoy the diversity and eclecticism of our neighborhood (hey, rent is cheap enough that one of Canada’s great luthiers is 2 blocks from me) but if enough people like us were to move it, it would eventually turn into chain stores and upscale boutiques (cf parts of the Plateau).

Zukin’s article is mostly about New York, and gentrification is not the same in Montreal to be sure, in part because global capital is slowed by language laws (hence no Whole Foods across from the Marché Jean-Talon) and the real estate market here is entwined with the politics and economics unique to Quebec. But I did not just see myself in her side-example of Chicago. When she discusses Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope, I also visited friends who were part of that process, and indeed a colleague is now writing a book about parts of the new economy that more or less happened in her living room (I exaggerate, but still).

A dual income, no kids couple living in a loft, where we have home offices. I keep a list of restaurants I like* on this very blog. We are, by all measures, the gentrifiers.


* an addition from last night: Robin des Bois

5 replies on “We Are The Gentrifiers”

  1. Wonderful post 🙂

    Shamefully, I hadn’t read this article by Radway. But I am so grateful to hear of it, not least because tomorrow I’m going to an ethnography conference.

    Maybe this is related: my paper is going to be about the methodological issues involved in studying information workers, as I do–in fact the paper should probably be called “On the very notion of white collar ethnography”. With this context, I’m wondering how you see Radway’s argument today, especially in terms of changes to academic work, and what seems to be a depreciation in the kinds of privileges involved in “knowledge work” in general. There are various references to cite, from Bourdieu to Hardt & Negri, that note the growing role of taste arbiters and intermediaries, etc., and I guess there are people like Alan Liu who argue that knowledge work has been devalued in correlation with its newfound *generic* status.

    I’m not sure how to explain this without a lot of background and it’s hard to compare across contexts… but I’m starting to wonder whether ethnography might also be an ethical use of the remaining privileges of the academic in the task of identifying new class formations that are yet to recognise themselves as such (e.g. the debates about “the precariat”).

    So, in addition to the utility of Radway’s “studying up”… can studying across different manifestations of changing experiences of work AND its privileges have uses too?

    Sorry for the overbearing length of this comment… obviously I am thinking about this stuff a lot right now!

  2. Yes, Jonathan, I hear you on this one. I lived in both Carroll Gardens and Red Hook in the late eighties, when gentrification was just beginning. I remember when it was impossible to buy the New York Times in those neighborhoods. We were in Wicker Park earlier this week and saw it there too. One sure harbinger of gentrification–extremely expensive baby gear stores. It’s very gentrifying to have one or maybe two children and buy them organic cotton onesies with ironic sayings on them, Swedish strollers, and other very very overpriced items. We live in such a cheap part of the world that we have each have our own offices while daughter has her own room. Raising your child to be a gentrifier is a sure sign of gentrification. Laura has her own special order at Starbucks (soy milk with vanilla). Sometimes I cringe to think–my father and mother both spent years in internment camps, and here we are.

  3. Great comments! I should post about class more often–I always seem to get the best comments when I do.

    Mel: The Radway piece is a classic. It’s very specific to her work with the Book-of-the-Month club. So in that sense it still holds. You’ll see when you read it. Her point was that she was writing at a moment when a lot of the theories of ethnography were being written about the ethnographer having all this power and exploiting the subject (think Clifford and Marcus), and the intervention was good–and a useful reminder that the ethnographer does not automatically have the upper hand in any ethnographic relationship. As to knowledge work, some of it is being devalued more than others. I cited the piece in the context of my interviewing a handful of engineers and psychoacousticians for the mp3 book. These are people who are probably better paid, more famous and more established than me. Most were gracious, a few won’t return phone calls or email requests to be interviewed. But they are already writing their own histories, and they have their ideas about how my history should be written. So in that case, I think I’m studying even further “up” than Radway was. I think the kind of lateral scholarship you’re talking about has some of the greatest political potential in terms of generating lasting collaborations beyond the study and really making some differences for people. So in answer to your “I’m wondering if” question I would answer definitely yes.

    Lisa: profound in a totally different way. This is the thing about the gap between your parents and Laura is that they would probably want it that way. I mean, I don’t know about the special order at Starbucks, but the level of comfort and security. I imagine the same thing with my grandparents, except that they would no doubt be disturbed by the materialism of everyday life now (I know my mom is, to be sure). For me, it’s just about rethinking lifestyle politics, which I usually poo-poo (“sure, Bourdieu is right about taste, so don’t argue your tastes to me”) but in fact is quite important in some contexts like the shape of neighborhoods. The thing that hit home for me was that in those space I was just living my life and not thinking relationally. But it is always relational, and when I get all excited about “exploring” the city, there are consequences for the neighborhoods that are being “discovered.”

  4. This is an interesting post from my point of view as I live only a few blocks from you but exist as an entirely different kind of gentrifier (as, no matter one’s class or social position, everyone is a gentrifier in some way or another).

    I’m a relatively low-income student, living with a roommate in a small, slightly decrepit 4 1/2 in a medium rent bracket considering my income (about $12 000 a year [loans and part-time work with tuition subtracted]). What’s interesting is that I’m what would be called a a marginal gentrifier; the young, poor, creative type of people who make the neighbourhood more attractive for the type of gentrifier that you embody. This neighbourhood is gentrifying slowly allowing me, you, working class people, immigrants, and the very poor, and everyone in between to all be able to live together with little trouble. In neighbourhoods that gentrify faster, the situation would be much different; people in my position, oblivious to our own position in the gentrification process would be the types to paint “die yuppie scum” on your condo buildings while the wealthier people in the condos call in noise complaints on the bars and parties of the marginal gentrifiers whose activities made the neighbourhood so vibrant, and thus attractive in the first place (especially once cultural publications like Utne or Spin get wind of it). Meanwhile, a few of the tail-end of the poor who remain, feeling the crunch of higher rents and cost of living, might be breaking into our apartments and condos to try to make ends meet until they are finally pushed out to somewhere else. Eventually, the marginals will leave for those places as well (or, having graduated, move out of their apartments and buy condos themselves) and the cycle repeats itself.

    Of course, this is a gross generalisation but every gentrifying neighbourhood will go through a process similar to this in some way or another. We can all be indignant and try to justify our place while demonising everyone else (especially those higher up the ladder) but it doesn’t negate the fact that we’re all part of the process, no matter how hard we all might try to convince ourselves that we aren’t.

    *note: this isn’t a direct comment to the original post, just my own reflection on gentrification within the context of our two different positions!

  5. Great comment. And realistic: our building was tagged last summer (though no message was left). Of course, we cleaned it up. Having been one of those “damn kids” myself the circle of life was not lost on me.

    One of the interesting things about Montreal is the long blocks, which is the kind of thing that Jane Jacobs hated, but means that we don’t hear anything from the commerce on the crossstreets even with out windows open. I suspect the same is true in the Plateau, although there are some truly unrealistic living arrangements there (like moving next door to a major local music venue because it’s “cool” and then being surprised that you can hear the loud music).

    Also, we walked by Miss Villeray the other day and took a look in there–I always thought of it as a dive bar for ironic hipsters but it actually looks like of posh now. Maybe it’s the boutiques in the couple-block range around there. . . . .

    Anyway, great comment. Spacing Montreal is one of my favorite local blogs.

Comments are closed.