I once saw a poster hanging in the Whitney Museum that was as unadorned as it was unforgivingly blunt. Encased in a white frame, the dark blue letters seemed to shout against the bright white background: USA: FEAR EATS THE SOUL.
The proclamation made me contemplate how American society is not only driven by the idea that we have the right to prosperity, but motivated by the fear of the unknown, fear of the Other, fear of that which is unfamiliar. Fear can shape the creation and the demise of neighborhoods, infect communities with either stagnation or paralysis. It’s not a stretch to link this American-made worship of fear to the subject of gentrification. After all, the cities and neighborhoods that are targets of gentrification were previously viewed as “unsafe” or “dangerous.” Gentrification doesn’t challenge the fear of the Other; it immobilizes the fear through columbusing the perceived “threats.” If there’s an element of compromise in the process of gentrification, it does not benefit the long-time residents who are continuously pushed out of their homes and beloved spaces that provide feelings of belonging.
Mention the word gentrification, and the reactions are often polarizing. Writing for The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh discusses the history of the word “ghetto.” Sanneh brings up sociologist Mitchell Duneier and his recent book, Ghetto, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Duneier feels the “sting” of the word ghetto poised as an insult, a word that can be used as a pejorative descriptor or a physical place that underhandedly refers to Black people. Sanneh observes, “Where the ghetto once seemed a menace, threatening to swallow the city like an encroaching desert, now it often appears, in scholarly articles and the popular press, as an endangered habitat.”
Who gets to decide that the ghetto is an endangered habitat? And why does salvation need to come in the form of Starbucks and yoga studios and brunch spots with bottomless mimosas? Why is the only way to save the ghetto through the power of white money and high-priced real estate and the white gaze? In some ways, it seems that the ghetto didn’t need saving until the white gaze determined that it was something in need of repair. Yet at the same time, those who are negatively impacted by gentrification can also be complicit in the process.
Towards the end of his New Yorker essay, Sanneh writes, “In the ghetto narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to isolation; in the gentrification narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to invasion.” Let’s look beyond the cold, desensitized jargon of scholars, academics, and news pundits. Let’s look beyond the confessions of the settlers and the sympathetic white liberals who think “the ghetto” is a modern-day missionary work. Let’s reclaim our fear-eaten souls and dismantle the running narrative in order to preserve what has been or will be lost.
This essay collection aims to provide a nuanced gentrification narrative, a platform for voices who do not want to be confined by the term victim. By providing a spotlight for the gentrified and not the gentrifiers, I wanted to focus on their stories and their voices. I wanted to see these neighborhoods through their eyes, rather than filtered through the gaze of the neo-colonists or the sympathetic gaze of the bystander. Gentrification is a study of history and how its truths are decided. Let’s change the way history is written. Let’s seize the heart of the narrative from the conqueror and return it to the witness. -Vanessa Willoughby, November 2017