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