Tag Archives: gentrification

environmentalism when there’s a lack of resources

With the world’s climate changing the way it is, with permafrost not being so permanent anymore, it’s clear that a much broader sense of environmentalism could have been quite beneficial. But there’s always been a divide between people who are just privileged enough to enjoy a relatively contained experience of fresh air with nice views and those who are considered quite far from nature and heedlessly contributing to litter.  It’s not uncommon for the latter to be disenfranchised and often just trying to get through the day. Between this divide is where most people would probably consider themselves: mindful about their environment, but generally just going with the flow of a world where pollution is the not-overwhelmingly-tangible output of convenience as normalcy. I don’t know that environmentalism has ever really addressed those who aren’t privileged, though I’m speaking only to the privilege-regarded field.  Even in something that is supposed to be as eco-friendly and accessible as urban gardening, it seems like the people lacking in privilege who take it up (particularly in areas that aren’t gentrified) are quite the exception. I figure that most populous among polluters are people who are sort of privileged and those who are underprivileged.  But both of them are utilized and out-polluted by rampant profiteers — folks who  have instilled and created an infrastructure of considerably wasteful and literally toxic values all over the world. A disparity in resources can mean the difference between apathy about the environment due to a lack of solidarity, or apathy that comes from entitlement and convenience.   Generally people with resources are the only ones whose opinions count (or seem to count) in a society that can be all too driven by money; maybe this is why few people have ever really expected under-privileged people and areas to be devoid of (or care) about pollution.   If you’ve lived in a place that’s not considered respectable, you’ve probably seen people from neighborhoods that are (considered respectable) come to drop their garbage off. The world’s changing climate is already affecting everyone to different degrees. People who have no resources and are unable to move to drier pastures (hopefully not so dry that they don’t have a decent supply of drinking water) will continue to be affected most negatively — though there’s little clear sailing all around. It’s an awful lot to ask people who aren’t privileged to care about something they don’t get to enjoy the best of.  But, however it may be subdivided, there is only the one planet.


Lifestyle TV

Via the 17th century (and Wikipedia), a courtly precursor to tennis, one of the most lifestyle-driven sports.

Via the 17th century (and Wikipedia), a courtly precursor to tennis, one of the most lifestyle-driven sports.

To some degree, most people probably covet a lifestyle at some point in their lives: some seemingly predetermined mold of living that just looks right. A show like Mad Men benefits from the sheen — the aesthetic, the lifestyle — that was the cultural ideal of the 1950s. Specifically, Mad Men benefits in exploring how empty and shallow so much of that sheen was, while also being able to milk those qualities for entertainment value. But beyond that narrow realm of idealized-looking people in fancy clothes, the disconnect between lifestyles and substance rarely seems to change.

Even as the economy has stagnated due to unrestrained greed, there’ve been more and more TV networks catering to an upwardly mobile lifestyle. And, well, why wouldn’t they? TV is generally a for-profit business that caters to advertisers, and lifestyles are a premier business model. There’s never just one thing to buy; items, places and experiences are all part of the lifestyle tapestry. Often that collective is unified by the idea of ‘the best’: consuming the best food, living in the best place, etc.

Even though it’s yet to put an ‘F’ for foodies in its acronym of Home & Garden Television., HGTV is probably the premier channel of the lifestyle lot; so many shows, so many boring privileged people looking for the best life has to offer in property.

Bravo has probably been at the forefront of shallow lifestyle TV. Its output seems increasingly obsessed with utilizing the insecurities of those who proclaim to be living some golden dream. A foodie-centric show like Top Chef almost seems quaint in comparison.

There’s also Esquire now, which slightly minimizes an obsession with drama in favor of yuppie/hipster driven reality shows with a magazine-like sheen. Glossy and not particularly deep, which is the thing with lifestyles in general.  In two weeks, the Bio channel will become FYI, another network focusing on — you guessed it — lifestyles.

Obviously lifestyle is quite a broad term, but I do think that the ‘style’ part of the word is intrinsic to how we think about it. As style is thought of by some people who use fashion as their ticket to being special, so is  the idea of a lifestyle.  In that vein, it’s not something everybody can have exactly. A lifestyle has generally been the domain of those with resources.

I guess the idea of a lifestyle will always be comforting, because it’s an insulated way to live. But places becoming tailored to lifestyles is generally one of the elements of gentrification — the process in which people  are mostly as (positively) relevant to society as their privileges are.  Maybe those privileges could entail resourcefulness as opposed to just resources, but it seems like we’re presented lifestyles as a dressed up approach to being a consumer as a way of life.

a problem with brands

You may not like to think of yourself as so easily reflected by the stores you shop at, but chances are that frequenting a certain store reflects that you’re among a certain demographic. Take Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Depending on where you’re from, these two stores may seem quite different in who they appeal to — or, from outside a particular range of neighborhoods, they may seem like slight variations on the same healthy kind of brand. Trader Joe’s offers foods that are both healthy and affordable, which is a rare combination that disenfranchised/low-income communities could certainly benefit from. While it may not be as remotely upscale as Whole Foods, I don’t think of Trader Joe’s as a place that one would find in a neighborhood not considered desirable — whether that be because it’s considered an acceptable standard to those who are upwardly mobile enough, or because it’s gentrifying to that.  What Trader Joe’s lacks in an upscale experience, it seems to make up for with a whimsical name that alludes to a bygone entity. This has the same appeal vinyl holds to some people.

I recently read a post that mentioned the Portland African American Leadership Forum’s campaign against a Trader Joe’s moving into a primarily black, low-income neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. There’ve been many pieces lambasting that forum, but this one amounted to the way that just a Trader Joe’s, in and of itself (minus accompaniment by upwardly mobile-friendly development projects) could be good for a lower-income neighborhood. I think the problem is that store brands generally aspire to offer the same experience, specifically to appeal to a reliable customer base. So, any one brand that appeals to people who are upwardly mobile is synonymous with such. Think Starbucks.

If brands weren’t such a single-minded entity, then perhaps they could be tailored to low-income communities — with the obvious benchmark being that any variation on their stores all upheld the same standards. It would be easy to hire the majority of a store’s staff from that specific neighborhood, and let the uniqueness of that store be defined by the community that already exists there. The benefits of a brand’s resources could go a long way, even without their usual logos.

As far as wanting to keep Trader Joe’s out of that particular lower-income neighborhood in Portland goes —  it seems unfair to mention this without mentioning the statistical demographics of Portland (both historically and more presently).  Its reputation attracts the kind of upwardly mobile, primarily white people not so funnily lampooned in that dumb TV show — the kind who are generally thought of as being for diversity.  From what I can tell from Wikipedia and the Portland, Oregon section’s sources, the relatively small African-American communities the area has had seem to have been displaced even more exponentially than most.

In honor of today

Lida Husik talked about Martin Luther King Jr. in my 2011 interview with her: “The American travesty that hurts me the most is the Black Experience.  I’m not a do-gooder, or politically active, besides voting, and being vegan. I don’t protest things or write my congressperson.  But I was six years old when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. I remember that day and how it felt like a wound piercing my heart.  So this was what the grown-ups got up to.   The heart of a child never gets used to constant disappointment in adults. I grew up in Washington, DC, in the white sector, although later in jr. high and high school black kids were bussed in from other parts of the city, so I was exposed to that other culture thoroughly—and in the seventies as well, a different world.  You couldn’t see the math problem on the board through the sea of afros.  The black kids were loud, angry, and funny; they sang and danced in the halls and popped gum.  There was Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Parliament.  The hits were sung with gusto.  We little white kids tapped our Lawrence Welk toes hopefully along to the beat.  The black kids had a different way of speaking, mellifluous and abbreviated, full of mysterious code words that cracked them up.  We were meek and pale and tongue-tied, and turned even whiter next to them.  Most of our teachers were black, too.  They were warm and funny and had life experience in their faces.  The white teachers seemed shriveled and boring and nasal.

Art by Robert Pinero. Words by Lida Husik.

“Flash forward to the eighties and nineties and this godforsaken decade.  I am enraged by ‘gentrification’, the very word is so offensive, as if a bunch of ‘gents’ in ascots gallantly swoop in, take off their top hats, and say, ‘Sorry old chaps, we must have use of your neighborhood, but look, there’s a perfectly good crime-ridden suburb for you to move to, and we’ll just turn your old mammy church into a hipster wine bar’; and this has happened everywhere.  The old black grandmas can’t afford the property taxes; if there are government programs that could help they aren’t told about them, etc etc.  Now, I’m not saying that blacks are good and whites are bad; that would be stupid.  The black community has disappointed me too.  I don’t like the anti-gay bias.  I wish there was more of the old-time values instead of the hopelessness and violence, but that’s also just economics.  Mainly though, I’m so sick of how ignorant and selfish some white Americans are.  Just how ignorant of history do you have to be not to appreciate the great moment Obama’s nomination was?  How could you look at one second of footage of the sixties German Shepherd attacks and fire hoses, wielded by government employees, and not grasp that incredibly emotional opportunity for justice?  How could you not vote for Obama and call yourself a Christian?  Well, the hypocrisy never ceases to amaze.”


Not my idea of funny

© Robert Pinero and me

© Robert Pinero and me

While all humor is essentially subjective, what I’ll refer to as ‘hipster humor’ confounds me.  I recently saw a picture of an old homeless person that was accompanied by what I consider a cheap joke.  Possibly it was supposed to imply more about the kind of person who would identify with the joke’s vapid perspective than anything about the homeless, per se, but I think the actual person in said picture — someone who likely has no real lifeline in our society — at the very least deserves not to be used as esoteric commentary by someone of privilege.  Being down and out is not cute.

As a byproduct of apathy as coolness, hipster humor is bigger than people in places tailored to currency and exclusivity.  Apathy as coolness is hardly a stranger to thug culture.  But where thug culture does the most damage — in disenfranchised neighborhoods — perhaps there’s more of a sense that homelessness often has a lot to do with being unlucky.  If anything, you’re more likely to hear idiotic jokes that try to separate how far apart someone is from the conditions of homelessness, as opposed to things like caricatures.

Beyond the very important economic reasons, that kind of humor makes it easy to see why some folks who live in between the “bad” in their neighborhoods find the idea of improvement, and who it brings, so disheartening.  Some people seem to show fresh air more consideration than they would people who are struggling.

Location, location, location

Robert Pinero art

Robert Pinero urban samurai art

“It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.

“But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.”

The preceding quote is from Adam Alter’s NY Times opinion piece, “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are.”  For a while now, I’ve been writing about the silver lining of so called “bad” neighborhoods — that they can make for a certain kind of strength — but I may have only delved a bit into the thug culture that pervades in some of those neighborhoods.  This was probably because an abundance of people of color in a given neighborhood unduly makes for a bad place to live in the culture at large, even though most of any such people aren’t “thugs” at all.  Beyond a “black people are scary/cool” mentality, the Alter piece got me thinking about the role that location has in the way thug culture plays out — and also in the way that people extend themselves.

There is no greater fulfillment of the way that African-Americans have been disenfranchised than thug culture.  For the past century and a half, black people migrated to the north in a search of less discrimination and more opportunities — but, by and large, found themselves being looked over for working-class jobs (pretty much decreasing in number the more there was an emphasis on valuing employees as people).  Historically, such jobs have been the starting point for families to become middle-class and gain some sense of mobility.  With the people providing those jobs vastly preferring people who looked like themselves, African-Americans, already dealing with the psychological scars of being treated as less than human, typically had to reside in locations redlined by a population that fled to suburbs and various other enclaves.  It’s not an easy place to be (literally and existentially), and if you didn’t have much of a value system internally in the first place . . . well, it’s always easy to embrace mindlessness.

When hip-hop first emerged in crowded, urban black enclaves, it was something that was against hopelessness — much in the same way that rhythm and blues was when it came out of the backwoods of black southern life.  But that was then (and to be fair to what’s labeled as hip-hop presently, it’s the corporate stuff that’s the most mindless), and this is now, when what sets the tone is bass-thumping self-aggrandizement.

In his opinion piece, Alter mentions various studies that postulate that people who live in less densely populated areas are nicer–essentially, more likely to extend themselves.  Urban areas are defined by how crowded they are in relation to surrounding areas; gentrification by whom it thins out.  If you’re in some densely urban place that’s not gentrified (or maybe only a little), and you still haven’t succumbed to apathy and a hard heart, that’s really something, isn’t it?  Just because it’s easier to be selfish where there’s less resources doesn’t mean it’s natural to the locale.  In a world with a population that’s becoming increasingly urban because such is where the opportunities are, it seems to me it’s not all that much to only be able to find kindness where it’s less crowded, less noisy and where the streets are less cracked.


I smiled as I swept a lone cigarette into the dustbin.  It had been around the sidewalk beneath Elaine’s ledge, and was the best kind of cigarette–one that hadn’t been smoked before it was trash.

What were the chances a temp was the one who threw it away?

It was just about lunchtime, and I was finishing sweeping up when Curtis passed by again.  This time he was with some of my distant co-workers from public relations.  Curtis and I were both from the same side of town, and though he had lived elsewhere for a long time, it was through his old, poorer neighborhood that he was running for councilman.  His chances at winning weren’t great, but he seemed to be a popular source of community outreach photos.  Back in high school, I let him convince me to stop saving for a guitar and get a ukulele.

“Hey, Curtis!” I called out.  “You still playing the guitar?”

He didn’t look back.

My thoughts returned to the possibility of seeing Elaine.  I emptied the dustbin then headed upstairs, sweeping stray bits along the way.  On the third floor, there was a utility closet with a door inside that had been spackled to blend into a wall.  A chair propped that door open.  Sighing at the hint of smoke wafting in, I reached around the spackle and knocked on the building exterior.  “Any temps out there?”

“No,” Elaine said.  “Oh, wait . . .”

There were a few mini-roofs scattered around the five-story building.  When I stepped over the chair, it was onto one of these islands of a sort.  Her hands shooting down to her sides, there Elaine stood.

“The first one was me hoping,” she said.  “I’m sorry if you had to clean it up.  The second–well, I still don’t want you breathing in any of this stuff.”

“Still quitting, huh?”

Elaine showed me a nicotine patch on her arm.  “For lots of reasons.  Hypothetically–if I wanted to kiss someone, it shouldn’t be second-hand.  But that’s a process, Roger, like you getting a mobile phone.”

I smirked.  I really did hope to need one some day.

It had been a few weeks since we last saw each other.  After a little while, Elaine came over and sat down on the chair.  I leaned against the building and slid down until I was crouching.  This put us in close proximity to each other, and though that felt natural, distance between us and other people had a lot more mileage.  We’d both had our hearts broken once before, and that had been enough.  Elaine was brown-skinned and of Chinese descent.  Her family owned a restaurant that had been failing since one opened up a few stores down.  Their block was in the midst of rediscovery, and she said the new place offered some more traditional idea of Chinese decor.  This was why she was temping.

Elaine bumped her leg into mine.  “Hey, you should see your friend more often.”

“I see him.  I just don’t know why he’s still trying to play the blues.”

“Did he give you my last message?”

From my pocket I pulled out the nicotine patch that Arnold said was from her, then I held it up.  It was in this way that we saw a silver-haired man looking at us from a window of the building across the street–somewhere in the middle of its ten stories.

“What’s he looking at?” Elaine said.

“Maybe we should tell him it’s just a nicotine patch.”

“That’s none of his business!  But if he wants a show, let’s give him one.”

Elaine got up and shook my hand in a glorious textbook fashion.  We were still shaking hands, past the show of it, I thought, when a woman belted through the door.  She beamed as she announced her discovery of a new spot for smokers.


When I went to see Arnold in the subway, he was sitting on a milk carton and trying to play guitar.  An empty, upturned cap lay next to him.  With hands trembling, Arnold barely managed to fingerpick his way through an old blues standard.  The resulting tune wasn’t constant enough to sing to, but he was in his own little world.   I tapped the back of my ukulele to get his attention.

“I’ll play, you sing,” I told him.

“Okay,” Arnold said, putting his guitar down.  “I guess that’d work just this once . . . I’m glad to see you’re all right.  Elaine told me her family is re-opening their restaurant over on the west coast.  Just ’cause she’s going out there don’t mean you’ll never see her again.”

All of this was news to me, but I nodded and picked up playing where Arnold left off.  He sung the standard words: down and out again today, but maybe there’d be love tomorrow.  The ukulele made it all sound lighter than it was.

A small crowd soon gathered, and I recognized the sides of a face or two from my job.  When the crowd was thick with a mix of people coming and going, a pair of brown arms swung back and forth at the rear.  One arm had a patch on it.  Elaine waved through most of the song, and I smiled a little.  Then she pointed at her wrist where there might have been a watch.  After she left and the song was over, I put on her nicotine patch and played through another tune.